Speaking, Listening, and Racial Justice

Alright, so listen. Racism is clearly a bad thing. It’s bad. It’s really obvious that we have a history of racism, and it’s something that needs to be addressed. There is an ongoing activity of reconciliation that we all need to take part in. It’s super crucial, and it’s everybody’s responsibility. I just want to add in the little caveat that people shouldn’t be trying to eat white babies. I’m not disagreeing with any of the big picture stuff – obviously this whole project of rejecting racism is super important. I just think that as part of that project, we shouldn’t turn to eating white babies. It just – you know, it just shouldn’t be part of the solution. That’s all I’m saying. It’s just my little caveat. White babies. Don’t eat them. Don’t eat any babies, actually, but I just wanted to get my two cents in about the white ones specifically.

As you’re reading this first paragraph, there’s an obvious question that comes up. Who the fuck is saying we should be eating babies? There’s like this shadowy figure or group that’s kind of indirectly opposed, but never really explored or defined in any meaningful way. We don’t know who the disagreement is with, and as a consequence, it’s hard to judge the writing. Is there a serious debate going on here, or is the writer talking about crackpot nonsense? Are they wasting their time (and yours) arguing against made-up opponents, or are they offering a valuable course correction? It’s hard to tell. And then the wider context of the conversation just makes it weirder – like, if we’re talking about racism, people eating white babies sounds like a really fringe issue. It doesn’t sound like a huge widespread problem, and I’m not sure why anyone is taking up time and valuable brain space with all of this concern. Anyway, let’s chat about a Christianity Today editorial.

So the editorial came out around a week ago, and it’s titled ‘On Matters of Race and Justice, Listening Isn’t a One-Way Street‘, by Matt Reynolds. Just from that title, we can tell that it’s going to be one of two hot takes. In version A, it’ll go ‘White people are doing all the talking about what they think about race and justice, and they need to spend more time listening to black people.’ In version B, it’s ‘Black people think they get to do all the talking about racism just because they’re oppressed or whatever, but white voices matter too, and black people need to listen to us.’ The article is closer to version B than version A, but – I mean, we’ll walk through it in detail, but I’ll just say off the bat that there obviously is some thought that’s gone in, and it’s nearly not awful. There are some good core ideas – in a sense, he’s trying to articulate the problem of the Overton window, where something needs to be debated, but where we also need to judge which opinions are worth hearing. That’s a tricky issue. There are also some really clear attempts to oppose racism, and white Christians are encouraged to be open and receptive and listen to people who maybe know a little bit more about the issues – and then there’s also the weird fear about white people being turned into a sub-class who aren’t allowed any opinions. Let’s have a look.

The first three paragraphs start off strong, noting that obviously there’s a lot of racial tension in the States at the moment, and that white people should probably spend a bit of time listening to black perspectives: “Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a more reasonable, unobjectionable request.” And then things start to waver a little bit.

“Seen this way, cries of ‘It’s time to listen’ are firmly rooted in biblical soil. Yet they also lay a subtle snare for the church. Even when they aren’t advanced in a militant or domineering spirit (‘Shut up and listen!’), they can easily discourage any disagreement on matters of racism as unwelcome and counterproductive. At worst, they can introduce an informal hierarchy of the Enlightened and the Unenlightened—a hierarchy that sits uneasily with the Bible’s picture of brothers and sisters who worship and congregate on equal footing.”

So the article is against racism, but it’s also really concerned with this subtle danger associated with listening to black people. This is kinda where I’m going with the ‘eating white babies’ thing, right – is this really what we’re talking about? The subtle dangers of listening to black people talk about racism? Is that really a serious, legitimate concern? Reynolds seems to be responding to some perceived threat or danger, but it’s never really clear what that is. He talks about calls to listen to the black experience that are “advanced in a militant or domineering spirit” – but who’s doing that? Where is the threat? Who is issuing these supposedly militant, domineering calls? The lack of clear, specific examples makes it really hard to evaluate what he’s saying. Is the problem of militant, domineering calls a serious issue that needs to be taken seriously, or is it over in ‘eating white babies’ territory? The example Reynolds does offer isn’t exactly compelling: “Shut up and listen!” Ugh. Let me tell you a story. Last year, at work, I was in a meeting, and trying to make a point, and someone kept interrupting me. Eventually, I interrupted their interruption, and was like sorry, can you let me finish what I’m saying? They shut the fuck up, and I got to finish what I was saying. To me, that’s an example of ‘shut up and listen’. I told the guy to shut up and listen, and he did. Is that militant? Is that domineering? Or is it okay to tell someone to shut up if they keep talking over you? The argument in itself is already kinda ridiculous: ‘some black people are militant and domineering when they tell me to shut up and listen to their experiences of how a systematically racist society allows cops to experience no consequences for murdering them in their homes while they sleep’. Reynolds claims that listening needs to be a two-way street, and then freaks out because black people are supposedly being too militant when they’re asking for listeners. We do need to listen, he concedes, but they also need to be nicer when they talk to us about how they’re being murdered in their beds. He doesn’t give us enough context to read this point as anything other than white fragility.

Also – can I just say – when you’re using the image of the Enlightened and the Unenlightened in an article about racism, it’s probably worth thinking about the way that image has been used in the past. Historically, black people were cast as savages, as the unenlightened foil to enlightened Western Europe. That framework was used to legitimise hundreds of years of slavery. Reynolds reverses that framework, and suggests that black people are trying to create a new construct where they’re the Enlightened ones, and white people are Unenlightened. The implication is that when black people try to get you to listen to them talk about racism, if they do it in a bad way, it’s just as evil as slavery. It’s a clumsy, callous reference – don’t fucking preach to black people about the evils of an Enlightenment hierarchy, especially when you’re criticising their attempts to educate you about racism.

Throughout the rest of the article, we find a fascinating tension between the desire for racial reconciliation and a fear of white people losing their voice. Often the two clash in a comical way:

“If those in Christ are truly brothers and sisters, then believers of all colors and political persuasions should enjoy the freedom to share sincere, good-faith opinions without standing accused of silencing black voices or negating black suffering.”

Everyone should be allowed to speak, and nobody should be accused of silencing black voices or negating black suffering. Here’s a question though: what if my sincere, good-faith opinion actually does negate black suffering? Should I be allowed to voice it without opposition? Is it wrong for someone to speak up and point out the flaws in what I’m saying? What’s funny about this section is that the desire for free speech overrides the desire for racial reconciliation – everyone should enjoy the freedom to share their opinion, and if their opinion is racist, nobody should tell them. They shouldn’t have to stand accused of the thing they’re guilty of doing. There’s no mechanism here for challenge or growth. Reynolds’ actual concern, obviously, is that sometimes black people might jump the gun and wrongfully accuse someone of having a racist opinion, and thereby shut down free speech or something. But he’s so concerned with setting up a framework to stop black people throwing around accusations that he forgot to allow for the possibility that a white person might actually be racist. Everyone should enjoy the freedom to share their opinion without standing accused of doing racist things. The right to share an opinion is more important than the content and quality of that opinion. All perspectives are valid, and nobody should be trying to contradict any other perspective. Truth is relative, and the only thing that’s important is that everybody gets to speak – especially white people, who are out here getting silenced by militant blacks. This is where his argument ends up. He’s more concerned with the right to speech than with speaking what’s right.

Anyway, then Reynolds flip-flops back to trying to be progressive, which he manages for about thirty seconds.

“Our familial bond, of course, doesn’t erase the painful particularities of history or social location. Hopefully, any Christian who hasn’t experienced racism would acknowledge a weightier burden of listening relative to those who’ve endured its lash or witnessed its sinister workings firsthand. Just as the New Testament recognizes the presence of spiritual ‘infants’ among the fellowship of believers (Eph. 4:14; Heb. 5:13; 1 Cor. 13:11), some members of today’s church face a steep racial learning curve.”

That’s pretty good, right? Sounds reasonable? Next paragraph:

“But this is a far cry from dividing the church into a teaching class that ‘gets it’ and a listening class condemned to remedial education, with membership determined by little more than skin color and fluency in the lingo of anti-racist activists. To the extent that ‘listening’ precludes thinking and speaking against the grain on complex matters of race and justice, it represents a moral and intellectual power play unworthy of the body of Christ.”

We’re straight back into baby-eating territory. In a vacuum, that final sentence is correct – to the extent that listening precludes thinking and speaking against the grain, it’s bad, obviously. But is that happening? Is that a legitimate issue in the arena of racial injustice? Is that a serious problem, or is Reynolds just projecting his white fragility? Again – a couple actual examples might have been nice. It might help readers judge whether these are actual, serious problems, or whether Reynolds is just throwing his toys out the cot. I also – I don’t know if you noticed this, but it’s very interesting that he talks about being “condemned” to education. I mean, I don’t know that much about the history of racism, and I know that I need to learn more about it. But am I really ‘condemned’ to learn? Similarly, I know that I’ll never understand the realities of living life as a black person, just like how I’ll never understand the realities of living life as a woman. But is it a prison sentence to have to learn about those things from the people who actually experience them? Or from those who know more than me? Again, there’s a lot of revealing subtext in this term. It implies that listening is a punishment imposed by some higher power. There’s just so much inconsistency in this article – it’s like watching a man at war with himself. White believers who haven’t experienced racism should spend more time listening to people who have, but that’s not the same as dividing the church into people who have experienced racism and people who haven’t experienced racism, because that’s bad, and having to listen is bad, it’s like a prison sentence, because everyone should be on equal footing in the church, but also there are like spiritual infants or like infants in learning about racism, so we’re not actually all on an equal footing in terms of what we know or don’t know, and so anyway racist babies should learn from people who more know about the issues, and they probably shouldn’t argue with the people who know more, because they’re only infants and they need to learn from their elders, but also racism is really complicated and people should be allowed to speak against the grain, or else it’s oppression if white people aren’t allowed to voice their opinion about how black people have been oppressed, so black people had better listen up, because listening is a two-way street.

I guess the key problem here is that it’s just not clear what Reynolds is talking about, and that gives the racists a lot of rope. I mean, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, right. Let’s assume that he, like, was in a conversation with some black people, and made a totally legitimate and helpful point, but then one of the black people called him a racist even though he was actually right. And then Reynolds went off and wrote this article about it. Let’s assume that that’s what happened – let’s assume he’s entirely correct in saying that sometimes black people jump the gun and shut down white people even when those white people have valuable things to say. The problem is that the way he’s written this article still feeds the misinformed fuckwit brigade. There are a bunch of white people out there who are super fucking fragile, who know nothing about racism, but who think they know it all. Reynolds wouldn’t object to that claim – he calls those people out in his article. He criticises white people who have done too much talking and not enough listening, and he criticises white churches that have resisted the gospel by acting in unrepentantly racist ways. But his article also feeds their grievances. Most people, including the racists, will agree with the vague, hand-wavy criticisms of white people that Reynolds makes. There are some white people who have talked too much and not listened enough – everybody agrees with that. Everybody can think of someone who, in their opinion, is worse than them at listening. Everyone can think of a church that they consider to be racist. But Reynolds isn’t naming any specific boundaries. He isn’t saying to readers, hey, here’s the line, and if you’re over this line, maybe think further about whether you’re part of the problem. Instead, he’s pointing the finger at black people who are, quote, too militant when they ask to be heard.

At the end of the day, if you’re a racist, this editorial is really easy to read. It will encourage you in your sense of outrage at black activism, and it will allow you to ignore your own racism by being very hand-wavy and non-specific about what racist behaviour actually is. It’ll talk about how it’s important that white people be allowed to speak against the grain, and it’ll validate your belief that you shouldn’t be called racist just because of the racist things that you say. And it’ll put the onus on black people to listen to your nonsense. It’ll give you a fun little soundbite. Christianity Today says that listening is a two-way street, so please listen while I tell you about how that lady deserved to be shot in her bed. And I don’t think Reynolds intended to create comfortable reading for racists. I think he’s made his best attempt to be against racism. But, honestly, he’s got a bunch of conceptual problems, and as long as they remain present in his work, he’s going to be making stuff that’s better at encouraging racists than at tearing racism down. And if he ever comes across this criticism, I hope he recognises that criticism is not the same as denying someone’s right to speak. He’s obviously welcome to say whatever he wants. But if he wants to grow and develop, and become better at fighting racism, he probably needs to listen to the people who can see what he’s doing wrong.

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