In My Privilege, I Must Practice Listening

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Jenny Rose Foster -Practice Listening3

When I first began attending my church, over three years ago, I met a woman I instantly connected with. Our conversations rolled, one into the other. We both went to the same university; we both had a passion for cultural studies and social justice and Jesus!

Then one Sunday at church, I bee-lined in her direction. This particular day she wore her hair in a natural afro. She looked absolutely stunning! Her radiance was breathtaking. I couldn’t wait to compliment her, but the words that came out of my mouth were, “Your hair is so cool! I love it!”

She gave me a hard look, and then without missing a beat she fired back, “Cool?!”

I could feel the tension. Then she asked, “Is your hair cool?!!”

I awkwardly replied, “Ya, I guess it is …” I suddenly felt my heart quicken; confrontations are not easy for me.

“I use the word cool for a lot of things,” I explained.

Then she said to me with more passion, “Call my hair beautiful, call my hair pretty, call my hair lovely … but don’t call my hair cool.”

She’d called me out.

I was so stunned by my encounter with my new friend. I felt like running outside to my car and releasing a flood of tears. I was completely shocked and confused.

I sat back down feeling sick to my stomach as I mulled over the encounter. The sermon began and all I could hear was a murmur of words from the pulpit as my heart felt the sting and my understanding felt lacking. My pride had been hit pretty hard.

I went home that day feeling very low as I began to mentally sort out the whole scenario. I care a lot about what other people think to tell you the truth, and I played the words over and over in my mind. I found myself sitting with the conversation for days, digesting the experience.

I shared the story with a few close friends and they automatically had my back and affirmed that my friend from church was overreacting and that I had done nothing wrong. It felt good to hear that, but it wasn’t the truth. Not that I had done anything intentionally hurtful, it is just that I had done something ignorant and I realized I had much to learn. Ignorance can hurt others.

After painfully accepting that I had some learning to do, I became determined to get to know my friend from church even more. So I took her out to dinner at a Thai restaurant. We were having a great time laughing and sharing stories. Within the moments of seamless communication between the two of us, I brought up my unresolved feelings about my hair comment to her.

She opened up and explained to me that as a black woman she has too often been described in her life as cool or brave or strong; she has more often experienced compliments that are masculinizing. She shared with me that her hair is like an object to people: different, trendy, or interesting. What she wants though as a woman, is to be embraced with adjectives such as beautiful, stunning, and pretty.

White people, she told me, always get those kinds of compliments. Black people … get strong.

In that moment held between the two of us, I leaned into her story and I empathized deeply with her words. It was something that in my privilege I had been completely naïve about. It took asking questions and listening, despite my pride.

And at that table, I looked at my friend and I apologized:

I am sorry. I am sorry that my words put you back in that same place that you have been rising up out of. I am sorry that my words belittled your beauty. I am sorry for my ignorance within my privilege. I am sorry for your pain.

Teach me, I asked her. I wanted to learn and to listen. I realize that we need to understand how the words we use continue to keep people down, with or without intention. I told her that I needed her voice to understand this. To stand in solidarity means to listen … to listen first and then to stand with.

Perhaps the word cool wouldn’t have bothered someone else in the same way. But it was a trigger word for her, it was part of her story as a black woman and that was important and worth embracing. The pain she felt, and the reaction she had, came from a place of being minimized. As her sister, as her friend, I wanted to recognize this.

I wanted to learn how to be an ally in her struggle.  So she taught me during that time in our lives …

She invited me to a “Justice for Black Lives” rally at our college. I bundled up my two kids on a rainy Pacific Northwest day and we joined them in solidarity and I listened. My children listened too. I heard the cries of the speakers’ hearts, the words that rose up that day permeated my soul. These were real people with real stories and real fears. I listened as my friend from church held the microphone and read her spoken word with eloquence and pain about her cousin getting shot and killed by police. I felt her heart bleed.

Because of her I visited some of the diversity meetings at our college. I may have been the only white person in the room. I felt like I wanted to contribute to the conversation, but instead I decided that I just needed to listen. So I did.

My faith beckons me to SOLIDARITY. I believe in equal value! I have much to learn. I am by birth of location and shade of skin a person of privilege. Thus I have the responsibility to really understand what it is to listen. In my privilege, I must practice listening.

I want my teachers, my mentors, my leaders to be both men and women and diverse in culture. For in the space of diversity there is held a sphere of complexity of life-lived-stories that I will never know or understand, unless I listen. Empathy follows hearing.

I learned a lot from my friend I met at church. She is a lovely woman, with gorgeous beautiful hair. She taught me to listen, even when it hurts.

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Jenny Rose Foster
Jenny Rose Foster was born and raised in the rainy green state of Washington. Here she lives a life of adventure with her best friend and husband, Joshua, and their two children, Jade and Jethro. Together, Joshua and Jenny journey through this life as a team; partnering in their own remodeling company and home-schooling the kids. Jenny loves to spend her winter weekends on the mountain slopes skiing and her summers in the great outdoors paddle-boarding, hiking and camping. She treasures opportunities that bring people together and writes with a desire to create beauty that preaches beyond the limits. Find her on Instagram or her blog.
Jenny Rose Foster

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  • Wow, there’s a knot in my stomach over this one, because I’m sure that I would have said something equally offensive in that situation. Your loving response and willingness to be open to your friend’s position is instructive to me. From my viewpoint of privileged ignorance, I don’t see the depth of hurt and anger that makes innocent-sounding words into bludgeons. We need so much grace to do this right.

    • I hear you. Admittedly I have often chosen to react defensively within offense … this was one of those life moments when something clicked, and I knew I needed to push through my pride. It doesnt always look like this for me, and I think we all have viewpoints of ignorance that can cause offense or hurt even when completely unintentional…we won’t always say the “right” words, probably more often than not… but perhaps if we begin to err on the side of love and practice listening, we may find ourselves enlightened and doing the gritty work of peace making. I’m thankful this story spoke to you, thank you so much for sharing your heart response. And you are spot on, we need much grace!! Much love to you.

  • Rebecca Shefchek

    I totally identify with how Jenny felt when she experienced the sting of her compliment backfiring and actually offending the one she had complimented. I respect Jenny’s sensitivity in that even though others comforted her with words of how the black woman had over-reacted, and even though she could have just brushed it off as feeling that the lady should have been more gracious about a compliment, instead, it was more important to Jenny to reach out in friendship and to understand better why the word “cool,” had caused offense. That is just like Jenny, wanting to understand, wanting to right a wrong, wanting to listen and discover. You will find this same spirit in her writings, always. It was a very wise and kind gesture on her part to invite her friend from church out to dinner, not wanting a wall to exist between them. It was also educational for Jenny and her children to sit and listen at the “Justice for Black Lives” rally, and surely it spoke volumes to her new friend, having them in the audience, knowing they cared enough to learn and understand. It causes one to think of how the outcome of one awkward moment of good intentions gone wrong, could have resulted in walls rather than bridges. Jenny bridged the gap and I suspect a special bond of friendship has been established.

    • Thanks Mom, you are sweet. Glad you are joining us here at SheLoves

  • sandyhay

    Bravo to both you and your friend. Your friend for telling you and you for seeking out the resolution. If only all disagreements could be resolved this way.

    • For real, if only right?! It took two people and listening and communicating, sometimes that just doesn’t happen, I have had those moments for sure! The gritty work of peace making comes in so many shapes and sizes of love. Thanks for your words Sandy! Much Love!

  • It never would have occurred to me that calling someones hair cool could be offensive or hurtful, and I’m so grateful for you sharing this, so I/we can benefit from your experience. Some days I feel as though I’m making strides in checking my privilege, and other days, like when I read something like this, I realize I have so, so far to go!

    • I have so far to go as well sister!! I think the beauty of that is that we will always keep growing…at least, I HOPE that is the case!! — In this situation I am not sure if the actual word “cool” would be offensive to other people of color pertaining to their hair. I am not sure, and I would like to hear more from people of color, so that I can continue to learn. I think, possibly, it may not be as much about picking the right words, unless we are wisdom to otherwise, but rather, listening to the stories of others in order to understand the “why’s” behind all of the reactions. Reactions are important and I pray that I am sensitive to those cues. — Thank you so much for reading this article, I appreciate your reflections!

  • Tracy Nelson

    yes – to the listening. so good. thank you.