Yes, but…

“Man’s mind, stretched to a new idea, can never go back to its original dimensions.”   Oliver Wendell Holmes

What if we all just stopped and listened to one another? I mean really shut up and listened without a “yes, but…” ready on our lips. That yes, but… that tells the other person we’re not really listening, we’re merely waiting to convince them that our perspective is the correct one.

I have a friend I’ve known for over twenty years. She’s one of the most intelligent, articulate, beautiful people I’ve ever had the privilege to know. We met after a police officer friend was killed in the line of duty. The city denied the officer’s surviving partner spousal benefits and I reached out to Nadine’s LGBTQ civil rights organization to assist. She became and still is one of my dearest friends.

I’m a retired police officer, she’s a civil rights activist.

She is black, I am white.

Over the years, we’ve had many spirited discussions. Mostly we agree. When it comes to women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and most social issues, she and I are in sync. But then, there’s been the thornier issue of race that has challenged our simpatico relationship over the years in subtle, unspoken ways.

One night, few years later, I got a call that she had been arrested. Sitting in my own squad car, patrolling the city of Tampa, I couldn’t believe my friend was arrested in another town for handing a flyer supporting a non-discrimination ordinance to a citizen. I was outraged to find out she had also been injured. I tried to call her a couple of times, but she didn’t answer. She wasn’t able to speak to me about the incident for a few weeks. I thought it was only because of my profession and her arrest. I will tell you honestly that we talked at length about the officer’s conduct and the probability of the officer resenting the LGBT ordinance.

We didn’t talk about race as a factor. It never occurred to me at the time that it was important. I was wrong.

For the past few years this country has been embroiled in an on-going debate about race and policing. Most of us have opinions one way or the other. Race colors the way we see the world, even though most of us try to deny it. We tell ourselves a million reasons why race is not a determining factor for any number of events. We tell ourselves we are enlightened. We want to be post-racial. I was guilty of all of it.

Then my friend wrote an essay about tensions between the black community and the police. To illustrate her point about the historic abuses, she bravely recounted her own family story. She told of her grandfather, a Georgia farmer, lynched by an angry white mob with the town sheriff riding shotgun in the car. She told of her own arrest and the unprovoked escalation that caused her permanent injury.

Her unflinching assessment of race and my profession made me cringe. She described racism experienced in her life. I wanted her to stop. I wanted to turn away. She said black lives matter. My mind screamed, “Yes, but…”

But, what? It wasn’t me? My family didn’t own slaves? I didn’t arrest you?

I realized that we had never fully discussed race in all our years of friendship. If I’m honest, I know it’s because I arrogantly assumed that having her and other African-American friends meant that I wasn’t racist. I was progressive.

But… To be truly a friend I have to be all in. If my friends are willing to talk to me about their experiences being black in America, in all its ugliness and bias and injustice, then I owe them my undivided attention. I have to shut up and listen. My black friend’s story is hers to tell. Her truth does not require my approval. It’s not about me.

I’m listening.

There is no yes, but…

 

Advertisements

14 thoughts on “Yes, but…

  1. This is exactly the discussion we need to be having and the writing we need to be reading. It’s up to us, as white women (who are likely the largest sub-group of readers of W&W,) to identify this for ourselves and remind our white sisters that we must have these conversations. It is our work to do; we cannot leave it to Women of Color to educate us. Thank you for a well-written story that exemplifies it so well. What a powerful way to start the week and month!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, onamarae. It’s been quite a journey to this place in my soul that requires me to speak. You are correct. It is our responsibility to call these questions and start essential conversations built on foundations of humility and truth. Take care.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. While reading your post I am reminded of the words of journalist Jeremy Scahill, who said: “The best white people can do is to recognize that we are recovering racists.” It seems to me that to follow your lead and listen without defensiveness to the stories of our black friends and neighbors is fundamental to the process of recognizing that we, white people, are recovering racists. Thank you for sharing your story and your wisdom.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Cat, I have come to believe that until we really face hard truths, and own the history of racism, without trying to couch it or sugar coat it or ignore it, we will never get past racism. There is an entrenched system in our country that we like to say is over, without truly understanding the legacy that still harms people of color. Take my friend’s one example: The murder of her grandfather and the taking of his farm. It’s not an isolated tragedy. That removed land and wealth from her family, generational wealth that too often was stolen from black families. White people get uncomfortable or defensive because right away we think “you’re saying we’re bad”. Stop. Think about the fact that even when you take that position, you are making it about you, somehow. It’s not. Stop saying yes, but…

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Thank you, Lynette Mae, for placing a high value on the necessity of listening to each other without the “yes, but” reflexive response. You are courageous for confronting the topic of racism and admitting there have been times when you’ve responded defensively to your friend instead of remaining quiet long enough to really hear her testimony, to empathize with her various situations, and to let the truth of her racially-based difficulties flow past your ears and settle in your mind. It’s difficult to listen to a friend’s rage and sorrow about the hand she’s been dealt during her perilous card game called “moving safely through life while being black.” I imagine you want to say, “Don’t lump me in with those white people who are racist.”

    Two years ago I wrote a post on FB that described the fear I’d felt as I drove past a police car that pulled away quickly from its parking spot and began following me. Never before had I feared the police. But I was aware of the violent police-on-black- people attacks that were surfacing on the news. The unarmed motorist shot in the back, Tamir Rice shot dead as he held a toy gun in his hand. I couldn’t shake the images of Sandra Bland, pulled over and physically abused because her car’s tail light/signal flasher wasn’t working. She was dead a few days later, the victim of a suicide her family attested could not and would not have happened. As I wrote about my new born fear and clicked, “Post,” I thought of you and your spouse. I hoped you’d know my heart hadn’t hardened against all white police officers. I hoped you’d know that during our brief conversations about our books, I’d come to value you as an understanding ally. Being black has its challenges. Being a cop has challenges as well. But we’ve conquered one hurdle because we know the rewards of talking and listening to each other without any “yes, buts.”
    P.S. Sorry this is sooo long. I didn’t have time to make it shorter.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you, Renee, for your honesty. I’m sad to say that I didn’t see your post. Two years ago, I was likely wrapped up in family illnesses and not online much. I would love to have read your post, because it is part of the process I’m talking about. I can assure you, that if I had seen it, I would have never thought that your heart would harden against anyone. You are a wonderfully loving soul. I’m sorry that too many ugly events make you and other Americans of color fear those whose job it is to protect. I can assure you most officers are good, decent public servants. A large part of the problem, I think, is that none of us talk enough about all of this. We line up on one side or the other–or pretend it isn’t happening if it isn’t happening to us. I realize now that it is affecting all of us.
      For me, I am trying to be a better ally, better friend, and just a better human by exploring these topics. I’m not trying to judge anyone else. Not everyone is ready or desires to delve into topics such as race. I only hope sharing my thoughts generates dialogue that we can all learn from. Here we are discussing, so mission accomplished. You are right, the rewards are many.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s