Man #1 – let’s call him Bob
During a class conversation Bob tells us how much he is an ally for women in ministry. He lists the lengths and depths he has gone to in order to support women’s leadership in his context. This has angered and frustrated some who do not believe as he does, but he continues to sacrifice and support women. And now Bob makes his point to the room: when he hears things like “white men in power are the problem”* he just shuts down and stops listening. Because he is an ally, he is not part of the problem. Listen, he tells us, we’ve got to find another way of talking about the problem if we want men like him to listen.
The thing is, when white men like Bob hear a critique of a system from which they inherently and especially benefit, as a personal attack, their defenses go up and their empathy shuts down. I have seen it in men I am close to, I have seen it in my own home.
But the reality is this: the system in this country is uniquely set up to benefit white men. This is painfully true for the women and people of color who live in it every day.
*Note: no one actually said this to Bob. This was Bob’s interpretation of an event we’d been to the night before that included two speakers on the topic of race.
Man #2 – this guy we’ll call Larry
Sits across the table from me at dinner and asks me one simple and earnest question: “What advice do you have for me?”
So I gave him my two best pieces:
First, follow and read and learn from more women of color. We take out his phone and start adding to his twitter feed right away. I suggest a blog post with books by indigenous authors. I tell him to listen a lot, and when he is tempted to chime in to sit on his hands and close his mouth.
Second, don’t be like Bob. When you feel personally attacked, see that as a red flag, a warning sign, yes, a trigger. Ask yourself if the critique is about you as a guy, or if the critique is for a system from which you benefit. If it is indeed the latter, be humble and listen. Don’t “not all men.”
My interaction with Bob triggered and deeply upset me and it took me a bit longer than I wanted to before I realized why. Because class was dismissed I never got to tell him that he needs thicker skin, that it is a position of privilege to dictate how a critique comes before he’s wiling to hear it, that when he shuts down because he feels personally attacked he is only perpetuating a very real problem.
But my interaction with Larry blessed me and encouraged me so deeply. I cannot recall another instance where a person (man or woman) has just trusted my experience and wisdom enough to just simply ask for life advice. What if we did more of this kind of listening?
Moral of the story for all of us: be like Larry.