In a sense, I am unsure about writing this column. I’m just another white boy putting my voice in a space dominated by white boys. And as we will see later, my premise is that white boys should be listening more and speaking less.
I am writing this piece because I want to accept the challenge that has been laid down by our community: To think about the ways masculinity, straightness, whiteness and histories of privilege allow our voices to be heard at the expense of silencing others. To be clear, I am not offering definitive answers nor a full solution. But I do want us white boys to think about the ways we can actively combat those histories in our everyday lives. To the white boys who are unwilling or unable to accept this challenge, let’s have a chat about empathy and listening:
Where do we start? A first step is to think about empathy and active listening in every part of our lives. To me, empathy is opening your heart to someone and welcoming them with a hug. Opening your heart does not mean speaking about your sadness and pain. There is a time and a place for that, but this is not it.
Also, that hug doesn’t always mean literally hugging someone else. Be careful with your body because it can be imposing and a lot of people don’t want to be near it. Now that I’m on the subject of bodies, make yourself small when you enter a room. Like really small. Cross your legs, or at least put them together a little more.
But back to opening your heart. Empathy means feeling with them. Listen. Listen. And listen some more. And after you have listened and listened and then listened even more, allow yourself to speak (maybe).
Before I say what you say when you speak, let’s look at what listening looks like. Listening is silent. It is not interrupting. It never says “but.” It is active. You are engaged with the person because you are opening your heart to them. You are nodding. You are matching their posture. And you are thinking about what they are saying, not what homework you have or how uncomfortable you are (after all, you can think about that on your own).
Listening empathetically means you make eye contact. You are not putting yourself first or even trying to come up with a story to relate to the things they are telling you. If you speak — and you definitely don’t have to speak — you ask more questions. You let the person you are with direct the conversation. You don’t make it about yourself: You don’t say “oh I know how you feel” or “that reminds me of this time I did this,” unless they signal to you to relate to them in that way.
You validate them. You validate their reality and what they are saying. And remember: You listen.
What does this look like outside of one-on-one interactions? It looks like not speaking over people. It looks like never shouting. It means understanding that your experience is a privileged one. It looks like being willing to admit you are not the authority on things. Even if you think you are the authority on an issue, it means reflecting critically about how that authority came to be. It looks like waiting in class for other people to speak and not dominating discussion. Not that you can’t speak — just think before you do. And when you do speak, check if it seems like you are saying something dumb.
You must be thinking — this columnist really rambled here. So I shall follow my own advice and stop. We white boys must accept the challenge laid before us, listen to the suggestions others have for us and think each day about how we might be more empathetic. Empathy cannot solve structural racism or sexism, but it can go a long way to easing the burdens of others’ lived experiences. Listen first, listen actively and then listen more.
Patrick Sullivan is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .