Tag Archives: Listening

Injustice of minorities at the hands of authorities: It begins with stories


In life we start with experience long before we can articulate reality. As we grow and mature we try to make sense of the world and our place in it. As we develop, we come to recognize that our experiences are always biased and in need of correction. Yet, no matter the need for correction, our experiences still shape us in powerful ways. Thus, if we are going to get a handle on the complex sociopolitical issues involved in the current distress of Black men being shot or mistreated by police officers, we need to start with their stories—not because these stories are all we have but because they are fundamentally shaping experiences for these men.

Full disclosure: I am lily white. While I am the father of two African American sons, I myself can never fully understand their experience. I have never felt that others are afraid of me solely based on the color of my skin. However, what follows may help majority readers prepare to listen to heart-breaking stories and to become a bit more aware of what it might be like to be a Black man in America.

Two personal stories first.

Since it is my blog, let me tell two of my own stories of interactions with authorities. First, many years ago I was driving my little VW late one Friday night through the rural pine barrens of New Jersey, on my way to a youth group retreat. I was by myself. At some point a car came up on my rear at a high rate of speed. I hoped he would pass me but he didn’t. After a few minutes, blue lights flashed. I was being pulled over. I checked my speed and was sure I had not done anything wrong. After stopping, I turned off my music, lowered my window and awaited the officer’s approach. With his bright flashlight in hand, he asked me if I knew why I was being stopped. I didn’t. He asked me to get out of the car. Now my heart started racing a bit. He told me I had been weaving (I’m sure I hadn’t) and whether I had been drinking (I know I hadn’t). He put me through my paces with touching my nose, walking in a straight line. Had I been doing drugs, he asked. Why were my eyes so bloodshot (hard contacts did that to me)? He asked me if I would allow him to search my car and to move to the back. He proceeded to take the next 15 minutes to rifle through my car: glove box, under seats, through my packed bag. The longer it took and the more silent he was, the more anxious I became. I found myself starting to panic. Why? I hadn’t done anything wrong. Intermittently, he would stop, shine the light on me and ask me quite gruffly, why I was anxious (which made me jump and become more anxious). At one point I put my hands on my head so as to get a bit more oxygen into my lungs–like you might do after running an 800 meter race. Finally, he stopped looking through my things and help up a small tube containing a tiny suction cup (used to removed a hard contact that had become stuck in the corner of my eye). What’s this? I tried to explain but stumbled over my words until I could show him out it worked. Abruptly, the officer told me he could give me a ticket for weaving and driving tired. He wouldn’t this time but he was going to follow me for the next two miles to a nearby convenience store where he expected me to stop and buy a caffeinated drink. Those two miles were the longest I’ve driven. I probably choked that steering wheel to death!

Thus ends my scariest interaction with American police. Not much of a scare really. It was, however, unnerving. I was not anywhere near home. I didn’t have any power. I hadn’t done anything wrong but was being suspected of many wrong things. You might argue that he was just doing his job but my experience was that I wasn’t believed when I gave my answers. Even though I passed the balance tests, I still wasn’t believed. I didn’t really have the right to refuse the search of my car even though the law said I did. He had all the power, I had none. I wasn’t really mistreated and went on my way no worse for wear. When I drove back by at the end of the retreat, I noticed being a bit on edge, looking around for police and being doubly sure I was driving in a straight line.

But stick with my story for just a minute more. Imagine further now that this happened on a semi-regular basis, maybe even only once a year. How would that shape my sense of self or my reaction to police anywhere? And what if the outcome were undeserved fines or handcuffs just to keep the officers safe? How would that influence my sense of place in the community, a place where evidently you are a cause of fear merely due to the color of your skin?

I did have another police interaction worth telling here. I attended a tiny bible college in Lenox, MA between 1984 and 1986. This school was situated on the edge of Tanglewood Music Center (summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra), a most beautiful and wealthy (and white) part of the state. Our study body, though small, was diverse with a number of students from the historic Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury, MA. One day, several of us decided to go play basketball at a local school. We piled into one of the Daye brother’s mammoth car. Likely there were 6 of us going to shoot hoops. What I know is that I was the only white person in the car, sitting in the back seat between two much larger African American men. On the way, (which couldn’t be more than 2 miles at the most) we were pulled over. No tickets were given but we were questioned as to where we were headed. What I most remember from this event is the questions I was asked. On several occasions I was ask, “Are you okay?” Taken off guard and, frankly, naïve to what he might be asking, I must have stammered out a yes. Either I was unconvincing or he couldn’t imagine why I would be with this group of friends. So, he asked at least 2 more times. As far as I recall, we went on to play basketball and never (sadly) spoke of that event. It wasn’t until later that I realized what the officer was asking and what message that spoke to my brothers–that they were a threat to me, that I must be there against my will.

Why and How to Listen?

In previous blogs I have covered the why and the how of listening to those who seem different from ourselves. Consider reading “Loving Your Cultural Enemies” and “On having Substantive Conversations about Race Relations.” Each of these short essays suggest the way forward is through listening and validating personal experiences because being heard, seen and understood tend to move us more quickly beyond simplistic diagnoses and blame-shifting. Think about the most recent argument you had with a family member. Did you make more progress debating or by acknowledging key points?

Try These Steps

  1.  Remember your own minority experience. Before you start listening to the stories of others, recall your own experiences of being different or objectified. Maybe it was the time you were the only one of your kind (e.g., a Baptist among paedobaptists, a man among women, an English speaker among non-English speakers, a democrat among republicans, etc.). While these minority experiences may have been a passing, superficial experience, they teach us about what it is like to feel like an “other.” Recall the experience and then try to imagine it happening every day.
  2. Read widely of minority experiences. Start here with Brian Crooks’ experience of growing up Black in Naperville, IL. Remember, our goal is not to verify a person’s facts so much as it is to understand that perspective. Look for the common threads of systemic cultural/racial blindness and/or oppression.
  3. Imagine how you would want others to respond if you had a story of mis-treatment by authorities. Likely, you would want to be believed and you might want them to ask how they could help. Work to name injustices without excuses, blame-shifting or “sin-leveling.” For example, just as you don’t ask a rape victim if she was wearing a suggestive outfit, you don’t ask a minority male if he was wearing a hoodie.

These are starter ideas to get ourselves immersed in the stories of others. Next we will consider what responsibilities we have when we learn of individual and systemic injustices.

Leave a comment

Filed under Abuse, Justice, Race, Racial Reconciliation, Uncategorized

Love your cultural enemies? Start with listening and validating their story


Cultural enemies are those who oppose our views about important aspects of life (faith, religion, identity, family, values, community, government, politics, etc.). Worse, many cultural enemies do more than oppose our way of life, they accuse us of the worst sort of behavior, that of hating and hurting others with our culture via systematic bigotry.

When we hear Jesus call to “love your enemy” (Matthew 5) what images of love come to mind with this kind of enemy? Not returning evil for evil? Not seeking revenge? While turning the other cheek is surely part of what it means to love the enemy, we know that love requires action as well–not just the absence of bad responses. 

What if our first action was to really listen to and validate the story of our cultural enemy? Might sound easy but it is not!

Consider Mark Galli’s recent short essay in the April 2016 issue of Christianity Today [link here: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/april/what-reconciliation-sounds-like.html%5D as he addresses the challenge when two opposing groups feel their story/narrative is not being heard by the other side. 

We experience daily clashing narratives from Muslims, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, whites, main liners, evangelicals, pro-choices, pro-lifers, gays, straights, men, women, elites, the poor–to name a few. 

Mark points out why listening is so hard. First he notes, 

…narratives define the conflict, name the antagonists, and spell out the resolution. Narratives are, of course, biased. They rarely lie about the facts, but they are selective in their use of them. 

Then, he says one of the more difficult things for us to embrace.

The truth does not lie somewhere in the middle, as we are wont to say, but on both ends. [For example,] The American experiment is a remarkable achievement of democratic governance, human rights, and free speech–and is riddled with hypocrisy and racism. 

Yet it is difficult to take seriously the narrative of the other. We fear that if we do, we’ll sabotage the value of our own narrative. 

And that is the reason why listening is difficult. To listen to the other means to give credibility to the other’s story. And if their story (which paints me or those like me as the enemy) has any merit, then maybe my story will not get any airtime. In fact, we probably already have evidence that our story has been marginalized or charicatured and so we rarely enter a conversation without a chip on our shoulder. 

 To listen to you, my cultural enemy, I have to relinquish my anxiety that I will not get the same opportunity. (This, by the way, is the most frequent challenge in conflictual marriages. If I listen to your hurts, it will diminish my right to be heard.)

Half-listening is not real listening. 

Faux forms of listening need to be named as they give the appearance of listening but actually leave all parties further apart. Galli points out mitigation as one tactic needing. Mitigation is in play when we say, “Yes, true, but you…” In this method we barely acknowledge some sin on our side but excuse it on the basis of a larger sin on their side. We point out their biases, straw-men, mis-characterizations, and sins that cause us to possibly do something wrong. In short, we listen so as to defend, excuse, blameshift, or explain. 

But true love for other requires a different response, one that moves beyond hearing to validating the story. 

True love requires that we listen and validate the narrative, even with its biases. We even go one step further to acknowledge where our own cultural narratives have been wrong, even if we think the wrong is small compared to the wrong on the other side. Can I listen and acknowledge (validate) their wounds, their experiences of injustice. 

Validation does not mean agreement on all aspects of the narrative. 

I once watched an academic presentation/debate between a biblical counselor and a psychologist from a different persuasion. They psychologist went first and detailed a long list of sins and failures of biblical counselors (in practice and in foundational beliefs). The biblical counselor then stood up and took the time to agree with the  psychologist. Without caveat, he agreed with the sins and mis-application of the bible. There was no defense. Instead, he even asked the psychologist if he had any personal negative history with biblical counseling. The psychologist told a rather personal history of harm to his own family many decades before. It provided an opportunity for the biblical counselor to apologize for that experience. Later, the counselor was able to talk about what he hoped biblical counseling would be known for and painted a picture that I think most in the room could value. But, none of that would have happened if the counselor didn’t set aside the temptation to defend or deflect criticisms that might have been little more then charicatures. 

Try it with your next conversation with a cultural enemy. Hear their story. Validate whatever portion holds some portion of the truth. Do it without a “but”. Be willing to consider the flaws in your own side even if the other will not do the same. Trust that God will make all things right (including our flawed culture) in due time. And trust that He will give you the time and space to speak truth (in love) to your cultural enemy. 

Leave a comment

Filed under conflicts, Cultural Anthropology, group dynamics, Justice

Personal stories and intellectual inquiry, part 2


Based on my previous post, I want to list some basic ways we might guide intellectual discussions that tweak personal stories and touch on controversial subjects:

 

  1. Start with personal stories. Get them on the table. They do not nullify our beliefs but give them context. If we neglect stories, the conversation will likely miss the very factors that drive our interest in the first place. This is the most intellectually honest way to act when we have strong beliefs.
  2. Listen first, if possible, before you share your story. Listen and ask about the impact, the experience, the consequences of the narrative and even of the sharing of the narrative with others.
  3. When you share your story and subsequent beliefs acknowledge (a) what you use to support your beliefs (I believe x based on…), and (b) the problems with your position. Too often we only defend our positions with, “yes, but…” Instead, listen to what others “hear” when you present your point.
  4. Compile a list of the most important issues the discussants consider to be core or most important.
  5. Try to develop agreement on the hierarchy of issues(which will be dealt with first) but don’t demand your way. To get agreement you may wish to use an external guide (e.g., logic, systematic theology, philosophy of science, experience, praxis, etc.) to help decide which issues get tackled first. Be sure that you are committed to getting to all the issues (not necessarily in one sitting). If you lose steam after one issue, you will communicate that another issue is of little value to you.
  6. Work to separate issues from consequences—at first. Later, it will be important to consider the practical consequences of our positions.
  7. When you reply to someone else’s statements of belief, try to reiterate the main point and its foundational dogma and avoid immediately taking those beliefs to their logical and extreme conclusion. The person should be able to recognize their own viewpoints when you speak.
  8. At this point, avoid personal stories and avoid derogatory responses, especially when tempted to use them to undermine a person’s point. Do not blame a particular view with a behavior that isn’t required.
  9. Concede points where you can. Acknowledge different starting points and their impact on the dialog. Try to use each others vocabulary as they do.  
  10. Find points of contact or common ground. Celebrate these and do not ignore them. Write them down as conclusions.
  11. Narrow and solidify divergences. Agree on these divergences where possible. Write them down as key conclusions to avoid unnecessary rehashing.
  12. Explore consequences of these diverging beliefs. Explore where those divergences matter and where they might not.
  13. Finally, let love and respect for others be evident to all.

Does this seem to extend conversations and make them long and tedious? Yes. I think the benefit is that it would avoid the constant recycling over the same issues and the problem of talking past each other. Does this method work well in all mediums? Probably not. In the sound-byte media world, eyes will glaze with this method. However, I’d prefer to sit with a cup of coffee and talk face to face than trade emails or comments while doing 6 other things.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized