The last week and change have given us an isolated glimpse at what lies ahead in Donald Trump’s America, and it is not pleasant. We’ve seen an uptick in hate crimes, sustained protest across the country, and threats to dismantle many of the things that make the United States truly great, including robust civil rights protections and foreign policy frameworks. It’s scary, and worrying, and it can feel hard to know what to do, but one challenge that lies ahead for many privileged people in America is a deceptively simple one: Listening.
Listening is hard, especially when it comes to conversations that are unpleasant, or frank talk about truths that make people uncomfortable. Prior to the election, people from many walks of life warned that Donald Trump was dangerous. They talked about why. They provided concrete examples of problem behaviours and offered their advice on dealing with them. America at large both didn’t listen and didn’t care — people who voted for Donald Trump knew exactly what they were getting and they got what they wanted.
When people have spent their entire lives being silenced, their voices sound shocking and upsetting. We know that when men and women talk for roughly equal amounts of time, for example, women are perceived as loud and dominating, of having talked much more. Mainstream, privileged society isn’t accustomed to hearing the voices of women, people of colour, disabled people, queer people, trans people, Native and Indigenous people, Muslims and Jews, those who belong to several of those groups at the same time. That must change in the coming years or the country will be trapped in the same terrible spiral.
Listening is hard. Sometimes it really does just involve sitting there, paying attention, and not talking. Let people finish their sentences and thoughts and asking careful questions in return to clarify. Before you formulate those questions, do some research — if you can answer them on your own, or gather more information to make your question more meaningful, the experience will be better for everyone. Here are some things to think about when you’re listening, though the best way to conceptualise this may be as an employee review: Would you talk back to your boss? Would you argue when presented with concrete, clearly-documented evidence of problems with your department? Would you reject the assessment of an expert in the field?
Are you about to argue with someone who is articulating their experience? Don’t do that. Trust people to know what they are talking about when they are discussing their own lives, when they are talking about coded language, when they discuss situations and people they encounter. If someone says ‘I experienced this thing, and it was discriminatory,’ consider the fact that it actually was. That the other party wasn’t acting in good faith. That the person didn’t misread the situation. That it is in fact not normal or okay to treat people that way. If it makes you uncomfortable to hear a situation described as discriminatory or oppressive, explore that on your own time. Did it trouble you because you’d never heard of something like this happening? Because you remember making a similar comment in the past and just now found out that you hurt someone?
Does this feel overly personal? Is someone talking about ‘white people’ or ‘straight people’ or ‘nondisabled people’ or ‘Christians’ when you belong to one of those groups and this makes you feel attacked? For starters, it’s not actually about you. Except that it also kind of is. When a disabled person talks, for example, about something nondisabled people do, it might not be something you specifically personally have ever done, but you’re part of the culture that enables it. If it bothers you to hear someone broadly talk about a dominant group you belong to, explore that — on your own time — and ask yourself why it’s so upsetting that someone didn’t take time out of a conversation to single you out as one of the good ones, or to toss you a ‘well I didn’t mean YOU obviously’ bone.
Is something confusing you? If you’re being allowed into spaces where people are being frank about the issues they face, it’s possible that people may employ the language and shorthand of their community and shared experience, and that you as an outsider might feel out of step. Don’t distract from the conversation by demanding an explanation — pop into the hall for a minute to Google, or take notes and resolve to research this in more detail later. You can learn a lot from people who feel comfortable enough around you to not communicate in familiar, basic terms, so don’t break the spell.
Are you a guest in this space? Conversations and their shifting norms are challenging. If you’re invited to an event or you attend a lecture or you in some way or another enter a space being hosted and maintained by other people, be alert to the conventions and expectations of that space. Is it an educational workshop specifically aimed at providing people with information, with a Q&A format? That’s a good time to ask questions! Is it a talk about solidarity and resistance focused on the needs of the community? Take notes. Ask questions later.
Now is not the time for hypotheticals, devil’s advocacy, or anything in between. If you find ‘what ifs’ and ‘well, but actually’ bubbling up inside, suppress them. When people share their spaces and conversations with you it’s not for the pleasure of having a discussion ‘for the sake of argument’ that dehumanises and questions their fundamental rights as a community. Be aware that this ‘sake of argument’ is their lived experience — they don’t need you to present elaborate hypotheticals about oppression they are already living.
Get over the notion of ‘allyship.’ If there’s one word I hope we can throw in the garbage after 2016, it’s this one: ‘Ally.’ The word is bound up in all sorts of nasty politics and a deep sense of entitlement — you cannot simply declare yourself an ‘ally,’ call the work done, and expect to be praised for it. Listen to learn how you can work in solidarity with groups you do not belong to, and do that work. The prize, reward, or recognition is seeing the needle move on social progress, not getting a gold star and an A for effort.
Listening can be challenging, but it is through listening that we build coalitions and a better world, so give it a go.