In My Privilege, I Must Practice Listening


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.