To Hear or Not to Hear: Lessons on Listening

As an activist, I have realized that I don’t always listen as well as I could. I often get caught up in choosing sides, passing judgments on others for what they are doing or how they are doing it, and in making decisions on which new splinter group within the organization I support and follow. In this paradigm, there are always people who are doing it ‘right’ and others who are doing it ‘wrong’.  This seems to be a way of life in many social movements and organizations. Ultimately, this mentality ends in anger and hurt feelings which can divide and destroy even the most socially conscious causes.

On Saturday, June 6, 2020, a group of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) organizers and participants came together in Guelph to protest the racism and police brutality which are a reality on a daily basis for black and POC folx all over the world. For the approximately 5000 people (black and non-black), it was a day to voice anger, rage, despair, and frustration. It was a day to speak out against the actions of a privileged white society that harms and controls people through structures of systemic racism built on nothing more than the colour of their skin. It was a day, for many, to celebrate their ‘blackness’ and to take space in a place that consistently tells them they don’t belong.

I am a writer- and a very vocal one for the most part. I use my words and thoughts to educate, to judge, and to proclaim my space in the world. Yesterday, I chose to stay silent. I recognized that it was not my voice that needed to be amplified and heard. Instead, I chose silence. I chose to listen to the voices which needed to be heard, and not vocalized through my own needs and opinions. Yesterday was not about me. I made a conscious and deliberate decision to not get directly involved and to not choose sides, draw lines, and police which group was right and which group was wrong. Instead, I participated through listening by witnessing the events unfolding through live stream video. My decision to listen allowed me to hear so much that I would have missed otherwise.

I heard the voices of people making judgments over the validity of this particular protest amongst BIPOC and non-black individuals alike. I heard the pain and discomfort of people who were working so hard to organize the event as they were told by others across the spectrum that what they were doing just wasn’t good enough. I heard the anger beating out across the crowd as many called out for a systemic dismantling of the police state. I heard Black Lives Matter activists condemning other BIPOC activists for being too inclusive – for demanding too little and for not demanding enough.

I heard the resentment in voices questioning the presence of so many non-black participants. Why were they there? Did they truly support and understand, or were they there for the experience and the selfie? I heard the criticisms of how the march was organized – how symbolic gestures were more performative than meaningful. I heard the questioning of why a protest of this magnitude was even ‘allowed’ during a global pandemic. I heard voices raised in solidarity. I heard the passion, and I heard the celebration in people’s voices as they stood together and proclaimed their truths. I heard the exhaustion in the hearts of everyone throughout the day. Above all, I heard the voice of hope that real change was finally coming.

Had I not chosen to listen – had been more vocal in my own judgments and feelings over my own complicities or allied actions – I would have missed hearing all that and more. Yesterday, I stopped to listen instead of speaking. Instead of seeing organizations and movements to be structuralized, policed, and controlled, I saw thousands of individuals. I heard every person having their own internal dialogues, their own experiences, their own hurts and pains, their own needs, and their own desire to simply be heard and recognized as valuable. Above all, through my own silence, I was able to hear people finally stopping to listen. I heard people listening to each other and responding with compassion and understanding. I heard people making space for people who have been oppressed and silenced for so long… and this gives me real hope for our future.