Like an “Eat, Pray, Love,” plaque above a Karen’s kitchen cabinets, white social media has become adorned with the meaningless phrase “I’m listening, and I’m learning.” The phrase sounds high-minded, noble, and even resonant with calls to allow black voices to come to the fore, but I firmly believe that it is a retreat masked as accountability. Traditional, liberal learning is undergirded by a system of passive knowledge-banking with no promise of action. How many people have listened and learned through a degree they no longer use? How many bigots and dictators have listened and learned their way through the highest halls of academia unchanged or even more militant in their beliefs?
One thing I’ve been thinking about recently is how woefully inadequate my rage is when confronted with these issues. No matter how viscerally I may feel anger and revulsion at this system in America, it does not afflict me as a deep generational, mental, emotional, and physical trauma. I do not romanticize this pain, but want to draw attention to its enormity and the utter farcicalness that white people insist they still have not listened or learned enough to do something about it.
Conservationist Arlo Leopold once wrote:
“One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his [sic] shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”
In the ingrained, white supremacist ecology of America, Black people and other minorities have no choice but to minister to our collective sick. In this country, they are drafted solely on the penalty of their skin color. Anyone without white privilege finds a system that readily educates hard shells with boots, bullets, and chokeholds. And, to believe skin color does not have consequence in America is the most efficient way to end up trending as a hashtag.
For centuries, BIPOC have reasoned, wailed, and rioted for white laypeople to not only listen and learn, but to do something, anything, but still we don’t seem to hear.
Even without the most recent police murders, white people are free to plug a date and “police shooting” into Google, and view page after page of unnecessary death. Wikipedia has a curated list of major police shootings for almost every year up until the 1970s and lists examples back into the 19th century. What do white people need to listen and learn that hasn’t been plain and blaring in these streets since the first slave ships began crisscrossing the Atlantic in the 1400s?
I’m not discounting developing a more nuanced conscience regarding these issues. Growing understanding and having a basis in theory is an imperative for our praxis. But we as white people, can no longer sit on the sidelines with our books just listening and learning.
“White Fragility” and “How to Be an Anti-Racist” are not spellbooks with magical incantations to end systemic inequality in the margins. These books are field guides, aids for us to open our eyes and work toward the collective healing and preservation of the shared human spirit. They are to teach us–white people–how to look at the self-inflicted wounds of white supremacy, and to develop a treatment plan that no longer allows ourselves to lie about the extent of our systemic illness. And, hopefully, to redress our shameful and violent role forcing BIPOC to wander alone for centuries bearing the burden of care and alarm.