i attended a race panel last night called Real Talk where we got to hear stories from a black, coloured and white person [tbV]. It was a really great time and hopefully more churches and organisations will start hosting these moments of just getting to hear each other and catch glimpses into journeys that have been quite different from ours.
One of the stories that Mbulelo shared was about the time he was on a plane in the business class section and busy putting his bag in the overhead carrier when he had an encounter with an eight year old boy. “Are you sure you are meant to be in business class?” the little boy asked and Mbulelo’s thoughts immediately went to racism, but he decided to show restraint and just started laughing at the boy and asked him what he meant. The boy replied, “Well, you’re not dressed like a businessman.”
Mbulelo’s conclusion was that this was not a racist question. [i think i know a lot of other people who would not have been able to entertain that possibility.] But he shared that another aspect he noted was the probability of context and lack of role modelling. That in all likelihood the only black man that this young boy has seen with any regular occurrence is the man who works in his garden. And so “Why would a gardener be travelling first class?” felt like a natural question to him.
The second story involved a black professor he knew at a hotel who was sitting reading the newspaper when one of the staff came and told him that those chairs were for guests only. Long story short and having said he was a guest on numerous occasions he went with the person who turned out to be the manager of the hotel restaurant and went to reception to find out that the professor was staying in the most expensive room in the hotel [it was for a sponsored event that he was speaking at].
Mbulelo pointed out the obvious, that the whole situation could have been avoided if the hotel staff person had simply asked, “Are you a guest here?” before assuming he wasn’t and trying to evict him.
STOP JUMPING IN
At one point in the evening we broke into small groups and had to go around the group sharing one thing that had stood out for us from the speakers. One middle aged white male [yup] kept jumping in and taking what was being said and turning it back to him and his thoughts and what the bible said and so on. Which was fine, but it wasn’t what we were supposed to be doing. A second man shared a bunch of thoughts on what his take on things were and when he was done i leaned in towards him and pleasantly asked, “So was there anything that stood out for you from what any of the speakers said?” and he finally answered the question.
When i tried to challenge the one Afrikaans girl on her “Just because I don’t have black friends doesn’t mean I’m racist” statement [which, to be fair, is a fresh take on “I’m not racist because I have a black friend”] she completely interrupted me absolutely defensively and wouldn’t even hear why i suspected she might be missing out on a greater life experience by having some more diversity in her friendship group.
What i picked up in our brief small group experience was a couple of things which sadly seem to be the norm in many places:
# Interrupting – not letting someone finish what they are saying suggests you may not actually be listening to what they are saying – you have heard something which causes a reactuon or a thought or an argument and you must immediately have your say, especially when it’s proving yourself right [or not wrong].
# Making it about yourself – by completely missing the task that was given to the group and sharing your own thoughts on the matter at hand, it suddenly becomes about you and your plans and ideas and thoughts, when the purpose of the evening was actually to listen to someone who looks and maybe sounds a bit different from you.
# Defending – perhaps the strong desire to defend yourself in a conversation can be a bit of a flag to stop for a moment and consider what the person is saying to you that is causing such a knee-jerk reaction. It won’t necessarily be true, but perhaps by giving it a little time to be thought through there might be something to learn.
My wife Val reminded me on the drive home, that this evening done in what i assume is a fairly conservative Afrikaans church might very well have been the first time that a lot of these people attended something like that in their lives. So maybe the out-of-comfort-zone jump for them was a lot huger than i imagined and i need to give pause to that. It was incredible that an evening like that happened and especially that it took place in that church in that suburb.
i think the fear of people calling me a racist or believing me to be racist is so strong within so many of us [because people have to know i’m not racist] that we miss out on opportunities of learning. Are we able to sit in the uncomfortable spaces and really strain to hear what people are saying, without making it about us, while being able to ask at the end of it all, ‘What does this mean for me?’ – What have i learnt? How can i change? What perception has been altered? Where do i need to be doing the work?
LISTEN, THEN LISTEN SOME MORE
So really, the main point i want to make in this post is the invitation to listen harder BEFORE jumping to conclusions. One way to do this is by asking better questions and then waiting for the whole response.
And then to also just listen better overall.
Hopefully when we start to all do that a little more, we will become better at loving others as ourselves, because i don’t know anyone who doesn’t like to be heard.