On Listening

“I believe equality will be won with thousands of small, quiet gestures…Every time someone, male or female, steps up and declares that they’re taking action, the more likely it is that these gestures will happen when they need to.”

This is an excerpt from nickd’s blog on the choices he’s made to promote diversity and gender balance in his life and career. It’s an excellent list; if you need any ideas, please start there. Aside from that, I want to supplement his post with a couple of additional requests of my own. And while there are plenty of big ticket feminist issues that deserve every ounce of discussion and support they can get, today I want to focus on making little changes in our daily lives too.

Here’s a scenario that happens frequently at social events. I’m there happily shooting the breeze with an acquaintance of some kind – let’s call him guy #1. Suddenly, guy #2 comes up to say hello to guy #1, perhaps cutting me off in the middle of a sentence. And then the two of them start talking together, as if I weren’t a part of the original conversation. Guy #1 doesn’t introduce me, and I’m left awkwardly half in the conversation, half removed from it. This is irritating, but what’s even worse is what often happens after this.

Depending on how much I like either one of these guys, I will make attempts to insert myself back into the discussion. However, this sometimes doesn’t work: my comments or questions are simply ignored or diverted. This behavior is reductive and has the affect of making a person feel invisible. No good outcome comes from this, typically I decide neither guy has manners and I walk away, and our relationship remains tenuous.

The most memorable example of this happened last year while Chad & I went on a weekend jaunt up to Milwaukee to see art and take a break from Chicago. We went to an apartment gallery, American Fantasy Classics, which was more apartment than gallery; maybe 10 people were there. Chad knew a guy who had artwork up, and they eagerly began talking about running art spaces. This guy knew of the Post Family, and started peppering Chad with questions. At this point I’m wandering around solo, trying to make sense of the most arresting piece of artwork in the show. It was a cartoonish and grotesque sculpture of a horse made of collected bits of trash and fabric, complete with a creepy and glittering oversized penis. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the sculpture’s overt statement was a preview of the macho behavior I was about to encounter.

I made my way back to Chad, curious to hear more about the space and its baffling artwork. Introductions are made, and the conversation carries on – only I’m not part of it. I try multiple times to insert myself, offering insightful and relevant things to the conversation. I’m met with blank stare and diversion, followed by, “So, Chad, what about…?” Chad, thankfully, sees me getting frustrated and makes a point to explain why I know what I’m talking about. I kid you not, this guy did a double take. In this moment I transformed into a real person with valid thoughts and feelings.

It’s not right that it takes Chad – or anyone – to speak up on my behalf in order to be taken seriously. I am not a unicorn. I am a person, and I’m good enough on my own. You just have to talk with me, not at me, hear my words and respond in kind.

Even though this is a small request, my hope is that it catalyzes more listening, without complaint. So often when I see anyone making a stand for better treatment of women and minorities, there’s at least one guy bemoaning the request or making attempts to justify or defend the boorish behavior. I am so done with that response. It only makes things worse – it’s so much better to accept it with a smile, and offer an earnest apology so we can both move on. We can even still be friends; in fact, I will respect you that much more for handling the foible with grace.

This isn’t just my own perspective either. In Mychal Denzel Smith’s recent piece White People Have to Give Up Racism, on The Nation, he makes a similar argument with regard to African American culture. Among many great points, he implores white people to improve their listening skills. How? One way is to seek out more diverse media, but another is to simply hear what’s already being said around you. Chances are excellent that we’ve been talking this whole time, but you just had us on another channel.

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