I want to tell a story.
It’s a story I’ve never told because it risks sounding like I’m venturing into performative allyship, which I’ve made a conscious effort to avoid in the last few years. But in this moment, when so many white people are asking, “What should I do?” it feels like it’s time to share.
As a practitioner, my caseload is actually majority-minority. This means that the majority of the gorgeous people who trust me with their bodies, their souls and their hearts are people of color (Black, Latino, South Asian.) My clients who identify as Black also cannot be defined, at least in my mind, as simply “Black”. They are African-Americans, Nigerian immigrants, Ghanian immigrants, Haitians, Trinis, Dominicans, Bahamians. Each comes with their own unique energy of culture, life experience and family history. It would erase that diversity to just classify them by their melanin levels and say, “A lot of my clients are black.”
I cannot tell you what a blessing it is and how grateful I am to be trusted by my clients of color. But I also want to share a story with you about one interaction that broke my heart.
About 3 years ago, I was meeting a client for the first time. She was an African-American woman in her mid-50’s. I asked usual questions about her medical history, work, upbringing and such. She was cheerful, forthcoming and answered the questions fully. Then in the middle of a sentence she stopped dead, looked at me, and said, “I’m sorry, are you white?”
How do you answer that? I just giggled uncomfortably and said, “Um, yes! I am white.”
And what she said next was revelatory.
Her voice took on a far-away quality and she said, “Oh. I just needed to ask because I’ve never had a white person listen to me like this before. I mean, actually listen. I thought maybe you were, I don’t know — not white.”
People. How low have we set the bar?
How low does the bar have to be set that a woman in her fifth decade on this planet is shocked at the active listening skills of a white person? So shocked that she began to suspect that I was Asian, or Hispanic, or just really light-skinned?
How low is the bar when the idea that I would be a light-skinned POC was more believeable than the act of being listened to by a white person? That simply being able to speak without being interrupted, and to have the words spoken actually be witnessed and validated, was a revelation?
How many other people of color have never experienced the basic act of being listened to by a white person? Listened to without being gaslit, told to “look on the bright side!”, have their words glossed over with toxic positivity, interrupted, spun, manipulated, molded into a ‘magical negro’ trope, or be forced to acquiesce to praise the white speaker for being an ally?
How maddeningly simple is just listening? To listen actively is to give respect.
Are there active things that white people can do? Yes, there is a long list, which is in the comments below.
Is listening on that list? No, because listening is so G-D simple that it doesn’t get included on a list of action items.
Is listening still important? Yes.
Should white people be asking black people what white people should do? No, they should read the list instead.
Instead of asking your black friends and colleagues, “What should I do?” try just listening. Ask, “How are you?” and then be quiet. Instead of trying to spin their tough answers into a positive silver lining, blithely point out what a great ally you are for asking the question, or offer your opinions on who-should-feel-what-when, just be quiet and then validate what they say. That’s called “holding space.”
For so long black voices have been discounted, to the point that some people don’t know what it feels like to be genuinely listened to by a white person, and it’s time for all of us to change that. Don’t stop there, but don’t ignore the importance of active listening.