Monday, May 16, 2011

In Which I Shut Up and Listen

Here’s a funny thing. I thought one of the core principles of liberalism was not only to reject racism and bigotry in all its forms, but to care about what the victims of racism and bigotry have to say on the subject. That’s what I always thought, but a deepening racial divide on the left leaves me scratching my head.

Specifically, yesterday on Twitter a controversy erupted over a piece posted by asiangrrlMN, a regular contributor at the Angry Black Lady Chronicles, called “An Open Letter to White Liberals: My Frank Opinions on Race,” the main gist of which is this (and I’m not censoring the content here):

Before we get started, I have to clarify something. In talking about race, I find that roughly ninety percent of the white liberals engaged in the discussion can understand some of what I’m saying or are at least willing to discuss it with an open mind. A sizably-smaller portion of that ninety percent really get it. However, that leaves about ten percent of white liberal people who are clueless at best when it comes to race–hateful and/or malicious at worst. Yes, liberals. The big-tent party. The party of tolerance and openness and whatnot. I say that with tongue firmly in cheek because while I believe the ideals of the Democratic Party are in line with that kind of thinking, sadly, I often find the reality to be much less savory.

How do you know if you fit into that ten percent? I’ll give you some pointers. If you think we’re past racism in this country or that we are post-racial because hey, we elected a black man, that’s a flag of at least cluelessness. Other indicators are the thought that people of color are too vocal about racism, that we see racism everywhere, that we should be past it, that it wasn’t meant, that, that, that….In other words, too much explaining and excusing going on. Voting for Obama does not make one not racist or racially-insensitive or whatnot. In fact, starting a sentence with I’m not racist, but, or some of my best friends are black, Asian, Latino, pretty much guarantees that the next words coming out of your mouth are going to be viewed with suspicion by the person whom you are addressing.

I know I am repeating this one point over and over again, but I cannot stress it enough–when a person of color or ten tries to tell you something about race/racism, shut the fuck up and listen. Note all the objections bubbling up in your mind, but don’t voice them. Ask questions to clarify things and be willing to be uncomfortable for a few minutes. I promise you it will not kill you to have to sit on your hands before voicing your opinion or to acknowledge that maybe you don’t know what the fuck you are talking about or that you are not the fucking aggrieved one if a person of color points out a a racial incident. In fact, you may actually learn something. Or, you can continue being a dick and insisting that yours is the most important voice in the conversation, thus ensuring that you will be the only voice in said conversation. The choice is entirely yours.

If you’re white like me, think for a moment about that last paragraph, and specifically, about this: when a person of color or ten tries to tell you something about race/racism, shut … up and listen.” Is that really such a shocking concept? That as much we have strong opinions about issues of race – and believe me, I do – when people who have actual experience on the wrong end of our still-racially-intolerant society have something to say about it, we should shut up and listen.

But yesterday, something about that post hit Zaid Jilani of Think Progress the wrong way. On Twitter, Jilani referred to asiangrrlMN’s post as “ridiculous,” and addressed certain of her defenders, including Angry Black Lady herself and vcthree, this way:

@AngryBlackLady protip: anyone who addresses "white liberals" as a whole as one uninamous group is sort of silly, racial politics are dumb

@AngryBlackLady you make liberals look ridiculous, youre the kind fox features to make fun of us

@vcthree all due respect do you do anything useful for anyone ever

@allanbrauer @vcthree making dumb racial generalizations doesn't advance the status of any race

@vcthree protip: way to focus issues is to not condescend to huge group of people on your side -- "white liberals"

And on and on it went.

Now, I should point out a couple of things here. First, I very much like Think Progress – I’ve followed it for years – and I equally like Zaid Jilani. Despite the genuinely regrettable tone of the discussion quoted above, Mr. Jilani has done stellar work at Think Progress and I have no doubt he’ll continue to do so. And equally, if not more, importantly, Mr. Jilani is himself a person of color – so the exchange quoted above hardly qualifies as an instance of a white liberal lecturing to Asians and African Americans about race.

At the same time, however, Mr. Jilani’s basic point appears to be that asiangrrlMN, Angry Black Lady and vcthree – an Asian woman and two African Americans – shouldn’t be asking white liberals to listen to their concerns about race and racism on the left.


Of course white liberals like me should listen to Asians, African Americans and other people of color when they address issues of race and bigotry – especially when they’re addressing issues of race and bigotry on our side. Why wouldn’t we?

So, anyway, yesterday’s Twitter exchange led to another impassioned blog post, this time by vcthree at The Cultured State entitled “You Know What’s Really Unhelpful?” In it, vcthree replied to Mr. Jilani thusly:

Are you kidding me? So if I and others point out a clear fissure that we can see in the Progressives’ approach to race issues; one which has existed for years—decades, even—then we’re being unhelpful for doing so? Why, because reflection on the issue somehow takes you out of your comfort zone, where you’re safe and happy?

I’m tired; we’re tired—tired of having to explain all of this to you after the fact. Just because you attended a lecture on racism, doesn’t mean that you understand what it is to experience it. You don’t. Just because you voted for President Obama, that doesn’t give you a “Black Pass,” nor does it offer you any cover to deflect race issues to him, and go forth on your own issues, expecting POC’s to follow you. It doesn’t. We’re not a monolith, but issues that affect us aren’t supposed to be ignored so generically and monolithically, as some Progressives tend to do, and often. And I don’t want to hear about allies and allegiances; you aren’t my ally if you’re actively dismissing and ignoring my issues, because you can and it’s convenient for you. However, if you’re asking me what you can do to help, and getting involved in that help; then, in that moment, are we allies. Then.

If we really want to have a serious conversation about race in this country, I posit that there’s one side that’s been ready to have that debate; it’s another side that continues to create excuses, or try to draw up preconditions for the discussion, or flat-out refuse to sit at the table. It’s a conversation, not a negotiation, and we shouldn’t have to agree to a precondition contract to have the discussion. That’s holding the conversation on your terms; where you feel comfortable with the format, the questions, and essentially, the solution. No, that’s dishonest. If we’re going to have this conversation? Do it honestly.

Now I should point out that I consider vcthree to be a friend and we’ve had him on The Tim Corrimal Show in the past; but that doesn’t change anything here. Because the point is, whether you agree or disagree with asiangrrlMN or vcthree – or any other person of color who wants to weigh in on the subject – if, like me, you haven’t walked in their shoes, you’re simply not in a position to lecture them or tell them they can’t talk about race and bigotry when they want to. It’s not for you or me to say.

Our history in America is a history of bigotry, discrimination and repression; and guess what? We white folks have largely been the beneficiaries of that history. We don’t know what my friend vcthree has gone through, or what asiangirlMN has gone through, or what anyone else of color has gone through – so we don’t get to lecture them. And if we really care about moving beyond that history of bigotry, discrimination and repression, how can we possibly do so if we aren’t willing to listen to what the victims of it have to say?

It’s really simple. On the subject of racism, we white folks have an obligation to listen first. That’s all: Listen first.

For Christ’s sake, people, how difficult is that?

© 2011 David P. von Ebers. All rights reserved.


  1. Shutting up and listening sounds so easy, it's amazing how few people actually manage to do it!

  2. Thank you. Well said. I appreciate you so much, Dave.

  3. Wow, Dave! Just wow. Thank you so much for this.

  4. And for anyone reading this who thinks you have little to no racial bias, may I recommend the race test here:

    Go to Demonstration, then agree, then pick Race bias test. Me, I come out with a slight bias towards white (my own skin tone). Not unexpected since we tend toward in-kind grouping. I was just glad that my bias is 'slight.' Working towards 'neutral'

  5. well said.


  6. Beautiful and thoughtful post, Dave. Even better with a second reading. Thank you.

  7. Just because we are on the left does not mean we are culturally competent. Those of us who identify as liberal have a greater responsibility to become competent regarding other cultures--and Dave's totally right about how we do that. We need to listen.