When to Talk and When to Listen

One of the most difficult things for me to balance as someone who wants to work in solidarity with communities I don’t belong to is when to speak, and when to listen. It’s a challenging tightrope act, and it’s one that I, along with everyone else, have not perfected. There’s no neat and easy prescription, and a dozen people will provide a dozen different answers on assessing individual situations and environments to determine when to take a seat, so to speak, and when to rise up.

The fact that a growing number of people are thinking about this is an illustration that people are genuinely reconsidering what solidarity looks like — starting with turning away from the outdated and irritating term ‘ally,’ which suggests that people can define themselves as friends of communities, rather than being defined by the communities they claim to be working for or with. ‘Ally’ implies that you tolerate people and think that their cause is nice. ‘Solidarity’ implies that you are ready to sit down, to listen, to ask people what they want, to support them — to centre the needs of communities rather than your own desire to be viewed as a good person. ‘Allies’ think that the ‘A’ in LGBQTIA stands for ‘Ally,’ people working in solidarity with the LGBQTIA community ask what they can do for that community.

Yet, it can be really frustrating to have to constantly articulate which step you want people to take, in my experience. While these things are not always intuitive, there are some things people can consider when they’re deciding what move to make — because part of working in solidarity also perforce means making communities feel supported, and ensuring that they’re not left doing all the work. Last year when Black football players started taking the field in ‘hands up, don’t shoot’ pose, critics pointed out that white athletes could have done the same in solidarity — sending a powerful message that they were speaking with their colleagues, and with the nation. In 1968, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos took the Olympic podium with Black power salutes, their white colleague wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge in solidarity, showing his support without overshadowing his fellow athletes.

Some conversations aren’t meant for outsiders at all. This isn’t about an us/them division or being exclusionary, but about the fact that members of many communities need to have designated spaces where they can work through things, where they don’t have deal with the stress of interactions with people who don’t belong to their communities, where they can feel much safer than they would in other environments. As a disabled person, for example, I value crip spaces where I have the ability to talk about disability issues without defending my right to exist, constantly explaining, or dealing with interjections from nondisabled people. I enjoy the ability to crack jokes, to develop in-group solidarity and connections — I like that I can do things that aren’t ‘acceptable’ in mixed company and in public environments. Those spaces are important to me, just as spaces for people of colour are important to me, but in different ways. One is open to me. The other is not, and behaving with entitlement to all spaces is not solidarity. When groups break off for private conversations, that’s not the time to speak — or to listen, because those conversations are not for you.

When people are testifying about personal experience and talking about what it’s like for them to navigate the world, that’s a good time to take a seat and listen. Members of oppressed groups are not hanging around to educate people, but they do need a public space to discuss what’s happening to them, to highlight specific social issues, to talk about how to build a better world. When people belonging to groups I don’t share an identity category with start talking, I listen. I take information away from that, whether it’s details about how to improve my own behaviour, a better understanding of a given social issue, advice on working in solidarity, or something else — listening in these cases is important. Speaking in these cases is not, as it adds no value to a conversation and overrides the voices of people who are speaking and may be struggling for oxygen in an environment where privileged voices hold immense power.

I speak when members of my own social groups, my own privileged social groups, act out in ways I know to be harmful, for I have an obligation to work in solidarity with people, especially when they aren’t present. When I’m in a group of white people (a common occurrence) and someone makes a racialised comment, I have an obligation to say something, to use my understanding and power in a way that is effective and useful. In more public venues, when I see oppression happening, I have an obligation to say something. That doesn’t mean that it’s necessary for me to override the voices of victims of such oppression talking about it — rather, it involves speaking up in solidarity with them, and not forcing them to be the first, or only, voices to say something.

When people speak up to change the world, it can be a lonely act. When their voices are marginalised, it can make it extremely hard for them to be heard. People in positions of power need to amplify their voices and support their communities, using the tactics they have available; sometimes that’s listening and telling others to listen. Other times, it’s taking up the bullhorn and demanding that an issue be resolved. It can be difficult to discern the line between solidarity and silencing, between solidarity and appropriation, but listening well can often help you resolve those issues.

Look, for example, to #BlackLivesMatter, which started as a hashtag for people to listen to, and evolved into a larger conversation in which people of all races joined in to talk about the epidemic of violence against Black men in the US. The hashtag wasn’t about erasing other kinds of violence, but about addressing a specific issue and a particular situation — yet, people still felt the need to develop #AsianLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter and other spinoffs, diluting the conversation. That’s not solidarity: That’s appropriation, and silencing.

Photo: Cobra Chair, Thom Gill, Flickr