Language of the Unheard

Language of the Unheard

A Call for White Americans to Listen to the Calls for Justice

“In the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear?”

~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

Reading time: 5 minutes

The streets are burning, the windows are smashed. But if we listen closely, the real threat to America has been causing silent devastation for years, simmering just below the surface. Martin Luther King, Jr said it decades ago and it remains true today: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Those of us with white skin have tried to ignore this fact, but it simply won’t go away. 

Can we not at this point in our history accept that racism is real, and is a cancer on the heart of our nation? 

Even for those who somehow doubt this fact of racism in America, can you accept a challenge?

Especially for those of us with white skin, can we open our ears and our minds to the voice of the African American community, which for decades has tried in every way imaginable to express their pain, their fear, their confusion – their exasperation – at being treated as “less than”?

Have you ever…?

If we listen carefully and honestly to the experiences of African Americans, we would no doubt be outraged if we were to walk even a few steps in those shoes.

Here’s a quick test. Have you ever:

  • …had the police called on you for standing in a store waiting for a friend?
  • …heard that your parents were pulled over and accused of stealing their own car (because naturally they wouldn’t be able to afford a nice car like that)?
  • …followed by security guards while shopping… as a grown adult?
  • …overheard your new coworkers discussing how you got the job because of a quota, rather than for your hard-earned skills and credentials?
  • …had the cops called on you in your own apartment building, simply because, well, you “looked suspicious”? 
  • …gotten a call to find out the cops were called on your eight-year old son because he was running around his own front yard with a cap gun?

I’ve never in all my life as a white person experienced or known any other white friends, family members, or acquaintances to have experienced anything resembling any of this. But these are all real-world experiences of countless African Americans.

Yes, it’s true that life has its challenges for all of us. 

Paying the bills, going to difficult jobs every day, dealing with the inevitable setbacks of life, we all have to deal with crap sometimes. Life is hard, there’s no doubt. But take all of your current challenges, and then add in the frustration of any one, if not all of the above. Or add in yet another story about an unarmed black man being killed.

Or add in having to explain to your kids that if they get pulled over why they need to keep their hands on the wheel and follow “the script”; then adding in the added fear that their life might be lost if they diverge from this script and mouth off to the cops.

As a young white kid in America, I can attest that I was no angel. (Mom, you can skip reading this part and jump to the next paragraph). I got in no end of trouble in high school, did some really stupid shit, almost didn’t graduate high school, nearly went to jail multiple times, did spend the night in jail once. Carried (and consumed) illegal substances. I mouthed off, spoke like a drunken sailor, spewing privileged sarcasm at police and other authority figures. Not once did I ever fear for my life from the cops. The thought never even entered my mind this was a thing. Nearly every young person in my vicinity resembled me in these behaviors. Not a single one of my friends was ever subjected to violence by the police, and often got off with barely a warning for the same behaviors that puts a young black man in jail, or the morgue.

Why would we accept this as normal and acceptable that one teenager should be treated as a “good kid who made a mistake” (or many of them), and another doing the same thing as a hopeless case destined for a life of crime and violence, and thus “he got what was coming to him”?

Seek first to understand, then to be understood

“Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
~ Stephen Covey

This current national outrage is only the umpteenth in a seemingly endless series of injustices. Whenever the next instance of a killing of an unarmed African American occurs, for every instance of racist behavior brought to expression, none of this ever seems to truly sink in. We get bogged down in the same back-and-forth, the same justifications – the same script.

Can we not break free of the script and think for ourselves?

We have a problem and it’s not getting better with our current “us” and “them” tactics. That is exactly the dangerous and simplistic thinking that contributed to the mess we’re in as a country.

This country is falling apart at the seams, and it is our patriotic duty to protect it. How do we do this? It is not through more force, violence, shouting each other down on social media.

For anyone who truly cares about this country, that should mean caring about the safety, security, and welfare of all its citizens. It should mean not tolerating intolerance. It should mean cultivating dialogue, rather than division. 

For those who still don’t believe that racism isn’t at the root of many of these instances of police brutality and other injustices, and really even for any other white person – can you stop for a while and just listen?

As Stephen Covey conveyed, if we are truly dedicated to solving a problem or achieving something greater, we should “seek first to understand” others, and only then to be understood. 

If we truly value our freedoms and the justice we want for ourselves, we should seek to understand how freedom and justice isn’t always guaranteed for our neighbors of color. 

For a white person in America, this means opening our ears and really hearing what it’s like to be a person of color in this country. This means not trying to immediately offering explanations or justifications, not saying “what about…”, not saying “but I’ve got black friends,” not saying that you voted for Obama, just generally not saying anything – just listening

And seeking to understand.

Following the simple guidance of the Golden Rule, there’s no doubt that we would want to be treated in this way, to be truly listened to, to be truly heard – to be understood.

We might understand how hard it is not to just freaking flip out every single day of your life when faced with the myriad expressions of injustice that African Americans experience every day. 

If we truly listen with a heart of empathy, we might find a path forward. Your country, your people need you to step up – not to be a voice, but to be an ear. Will you accept the challenge?

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