Listening while "Woke" and White

Guest Blogger: Bryan McCann, Associate Professor, Louisiana State University 


When we think about listening across lines of difference with regard to racial justice and community activism, it is tempting to think in deeply polarized terms. We ask how we can best listen and deliberate with individuals whose opinions and experiences vary significantly from our own. Such an approach to listening is, of course, absolutely vital and well worth pursuing. When we think in such polarized terms however, we often neglect important considerations about listening between individuals with shared commitments regarding the kind of world in which we wish to live. Being on the same side of a controversial issue can create invaluable bonds of solidarity and friendship, but also lead us to ignore important differences that can threaten relationships and undermine progress.

I write this as a white man who has spent the majority of my adult life interested in the experiences of black people in the United States. I am a professor of communication studies specializing in rhetoric and culture. I recently published a book chronicling the emergence of gangsta rap during the war-on-crime era of the 1980s and 1990s. I have also written several academic and public articles addressing matters of racial inequality in the criminal justice system, I teach classes on similar topics and have engaged in community organizing work around issues such as the death penalty, mass incarceration, and labor rights. I do not offer this brief resume in the service of establishing my credibility as a “woke” white guy who does work related to race. Rather, my goal is to complicate my own credibility and invite similarly positioned white people to do the same.

While I believe a principled commitment to creating a fairer society motivates my work, I have not always excelled at listening. The nature of racism in the U.S. is incredibly complex. I understand racism not only as the expression of personal prejudices between individuals, but also as a historically durable and flexible system that rationalizes disadvantages for some on the basis of socially-produced markers of difference. My engagements with racism have led me to consume volumes of academic and political literature with an eye toward better grasping what it means to live in a racist nation. I have learned a lot over the years, but I have also frequently moved forward with an inflated sense of my ability to understand the nature of race and racism in the U.S. I have participated in coalitions with people of color in which I come to the table with a pre-figured and often inflexible understanding of what the problem is and how we should move forward. I have written on issues that are matters of life and death for black and brown people in the U.S. with what, in hindsight, strike me incredibly arrogant assumptions about my grasp of the subject matter. In short, I have spent a good deal of time speaking and writing, but not nearly enough time listening.

For white people who want to work toward racial justice in the U.S., we are only as helpful as our capacity to listen. No amount of theoretical depth or historical knowledge regarding the history of racial struggle can replace the practice of listening to individuals for whom racism is a fact of daily life. Such listening includes entering into activist spaces with a desire to learn from stakeholders for whom police brutality, mass incarceration, and other matters of racial justice are not abstractions, but everyday realities. When I have allowed myself to listen in such settings, I have gained invaluable insights from individuals who, regardless of educational background or profession, possess knowledge I can never hope to acquire. These insights have always made me a better participant in such work, for there is no book on a topic such as the death penalty that can provide me with the kind of knowledge possessed by, for instance, a woman whose son languishes on death row for a crime he most likely did not commit.

Another avenue for listening is to engage with the world of letters, music, and other forms of artistry from people of color. While history and theory can draw a comprehensive map of how inequality works in our world, it is no substitute for the kinds of artistry that can, to paraphrase the iconic black novelist Richard Wright, plant flesh on the bones of the skeleton of society. In fact, reading Wright’s highly influential 1940 novel Native Son was a turning point for me in terms of being a better listener with regard to racial justice. Native Son tells the tragic story of Bigger Thomas, a young black man living on poverty on the Chicago South Side. After a series of violent events, all of which were a function of poverty and racial inequality, Bigger finds himself standing trial for the murder of an affluent white family’s daughter and is sentenced to death. While Native Son is a multi-layered testament to the consequences of racial inequality in the U.S., I was most struck by the white characters in the novel who claimed that they were on Bigger’s side. Written in the years leading up to the Second World War, Native Son features several white Communist characters who seize upon Bigger’s ordeal as an opportunity to advance the party line on racial and economic justice. Wright calls our attention to how much time these characters spend speaking in lofty platitudes about class struggle and racial harmony while Bigger sits silently. At one point in the novel, Wright narrates, “Bigger listened to the tone of their voices, to their strange accents, to the exuberant phrases that flowed so freely from their lips.” These white people were speaking, but not in a language that Bigger understood. While he was the one facing the electric chair, the exuberant Communist characters in Native Son left little room for Bigger to speak. They spied in his experiences an example they could generalize and use in the service of a larger cause.

Upon finishing Native Son, I felt as if Wright was speaking directly to me. I saw myself in these well-intentioned Communist characters. I wondered how many times I had filled a room with my voice and ideas without taking time to listen to people whose experiences with racism and poverty granted them a level of expertise I would never achieve. How many times had I, whether as an author, teacher, or activist viewed the flesh and blood experiences of others as raw material for an argument that would advance a cause about which I cared or my own academic career? The answer, I fear, is frequently. Another deeply influential black American author, James Baldwin, once warned readers that reducing black life to the practice of politics often stripped it of its individuality and substance. He wrote, “Causes, as we know, are notoriously bloodthirsty.” Too often, our desire to master that which we wish to end, such as racism, leads us to ignore the complexity and voices of those for whom the stakes are life and death.

In the title of this article, I use the term “woke.” The term, derived from African American Vernacular English, refers to being deeply aware of matters of social justice. I am increasingly ambivalent about this term, especially when applied to white people such as myself. To say that one is “woke” implies finality, as if there is nothing left to learn. The moment we believe we have nothing left to learn is the moment we stop listening. To other white folks reading this piece, I want to suggest that we are always in a state of waking. For those of us who care deeply about racial justice and wish to use our abilities to that end, we should by all means continue doing so. But part of doing that work is to proceed with humility and to listen first as a matter of principle. Even the most credentialed white scholar or experienced white activist has an immeasurable amount to learn from people of color who experience the indignities of racism on a daily basis. This is not to suggest that we cannot or should not bring our own ideas and arguments to the table—quite the contrary. Rather, I am arguing that we will generate better ideas and make better arguments when we have sufficiently listened to those with whom we seek to work. Agreeing that we need to create a better world is only a first step toward bringing that world to fruition. The process moving forward is one that requires listening on all sides, and especially from those of us whose experiences have shielded us from the worst versions of that which we wish to change.