When Silence Isn’t Golden

While interviewing Pastor Sims and me about our monthly cross-race discussions at Word of Life Christian Church in St. Louis, YouTuber Kim St. Clair asked me, “What were you told about Black folks when you were growing up?”

Not much, I told her. Kim looked curious. We didn’t talk about race. We didn’t need to; besides, as a child, when I pointed out someone’s difference, I was shushed. I distinctly remember when I was about six years old, the doorbell rang and I ran to answer it. The gentleman at the door asked for my dad. I had seen the man before; he’d done carpentry work around the house. From the doorway, I called, “Dad, Mr. Black is here.” Before I knew it, I was shuffled to the kitchen and sat on a chair. My dad whispered to me that his name is not Mr. Black but Mr. White. I told him that wasn’t possible since he’s Black. My dad shook his head in disgust and told me to sit on the chair and think about what I’d done. I’m not sure how long I sat there but I do remember being confused about what I’d done wrong.

When I’ve related that story to fellow whites, they’re not surprised. They had similar experiences as children; being punished, shamed or shushed for pointing out differences. It was considered rude. It might upset someone. And because a characteristic of American majority culture is to maintain peace, it’s shameful to point out that which causes hurt feelings.

When Silence is Not Golden

Kim was surprised to learn I was silenced as a child in order to avoid hurt feelings. She didn’t know that cultural framework existed in some homes. She said, “I thought the silence meant that whites didn’t want to be around me, be around us Black folks. I understood the silence meant we aren’t worth talking to.” I had no idea the impact of my silence could be so painful to her. I might not have known if Kim hadn’t told me. I pointed out that this is a good example of why Pastor Sims and I co-facilitate our Courageous Conversations each month. In a safe environment, information about the impact of our behavior is brought to light. It’s this learning that allows us to become more self-aware, grow in our empathy, and change our behavior. Having helped me consider the impact of my actions, I asked her, “So how can I do better?

When to Break the Silence

Kim said, “You know, it actually only takes a simple act of validation, someone just taking the time to see me. It’s like a person doesn’t even see me when he or she doesn’t speak up. When terrible episodes of killing or abuse are in the news, and whites around me remain silent, it stresses me out. It’s hard to show up for work in a predominantly white environment with all that silence.” She gave the example of her husband. Kim and her family live in a predominantly white middle class town west of St. Louis. Her husband works out at a nearby gym. One morning, shortly after the reports of three consecutive shootings of Black men by white police officers just days apart, her husband was at the gym, working out. He was on the treadmill, when a white man came up to him and said, “Man, I am so sorry.” She said her husband just about fell off the treadmill; he was so touched by the man’s words.

Take Action

So that she doesn’t feel stressed out by my silence, Kim helped me understand that I can:

  1. Imagine how a news story might be heard from a different perspective.
  2. Ask how a recent news event has impacted her; and
  3. Affirm her feelings, even if they are different from my own.

To affirm another’s feelings about an experience, even if different from our own is the first of our Communication Guidelines in our cross-race discussions. We do this through active listening. Along with awareness of cultural characteristics, this is what enables Pastor Sims and me to have folks of varied races, genders, and ages learn and grow together in our Courageous Conversations. -AN

Thank you Kim for your thoughtful interview questions. Along with being a YouTuber, Kim also has her own business We Do Laundry in Ballwin, MO 

Listening Too

“What makes listening hard is that sometimes we do not really care how the other person feels,” explains Burley-Allen, (1995) in Listening, the Forgotten Skill. “This usually happens when we ourselves don’t feel heard, or when we have too much to say. The key to effective listening is being able to temporarily suspend our own need to be heard.”

Suspending my own need to be heard got harder when I began advising business leaders on how to develop robust inclusive corporate environments. The more I learned about the need for racial and cultural reconciliation to create collaborative space, the stronger my opinions became. For months, I went through the motions of the active listening steps (I Thought I Was Listening). I knew I could dig deeper and listen more actively but something was in the way. I struggled inside.

Feeling Urgency

Change wasn’t happening fast enough. I was frustrated and angry people didn’t seem to understand that lives are at stake. When I shared my frustration with a colleague, she reminded me that reconciliation work isn’t about me. I was brought up short.

I realized that if change was to come about, it begins within. One morning I sat quietly, pondering where to start. After a time, I felt my anger and then eventually the underlying fear. I noticed how the anxiety felt in my body. For the first time, I was really aware of how the urgency was impacting me. I took it at face value and didn’t blame myself for the feelings. And strangely enough, I felt quieter. In my meditation, peace had the opportunity to settle around me. And while I certainly still felt the urgency, I noticed an accompanying sense of calm and resolve enveloped me.

Later on, I realized that I had applied the active listening practice to myself!

5 Steps for Listening Within

  1. Sit or lie quietly
  2. Close eyes and notice the sounds around
  3. Become aware of feelings, both physical and emotional
  4. Work to stay with and accept those feelings, especially when they aren’t pleasant
  5. Say, as if to a daughter or son, “That must be hard, I get it” or similar words of acceptance

I had become aware of the urgency I felt. It was in the quiet meditative state that I stayed with and accepted my feelings. When the calm became apparent, I understood how I wanted to take action. I would persevere with calm resolve for the sake of reconciliation. And just as I’d done for myself, I would hold the space for others by actively listening, to facilitate their own awareness, acceptance, and action. As a result, I’ve since become better at authentically listening within my family, corporate environments, and community conversations.

Thanks to my friend Kit McGrath, a Sponsor with Al-Anon who taught me about the 3 A’s: Awareness, Acceptance, and Action. -AN