Thinking About Trayvon Martin: Let’s Listen

The verdict in the Trayvon Martin murder trial was released Saturday night: George Zimmerman was found not guilty.

And the conversations exploded.

There are people on all sides of this issue and it can be difficult to talk about. Which is exactly why we need to talk about it. A lot of smarter people have said smarter things about this, so go read them.

Then I’ll throw in my two cents:

1. Listen
But one thing has become clear to me: A lot of black people, among others, are very angry about this verdict (and the case in general, regardless of the verdict). If you don’t understand why, then I think it might help to do some listening. The specifics of the case almost don’t matter—just listen to people. Even if their anger is misplaced (which I don’t think it is), I think it helps to understand their perspective.

At the very least it would promote some compassion. It would minimize the tone deaf comments.

After all, a kid is dead. A community is shaken. A man who took a life is walking away not guilty and free, though hardly free.

I posted last week about what LeVar Burton does to avoid getting shot. This is the reality for black families in America. Most of us are clueless about what they go through. And now there’s the Trayvon Martin case on top of it. You can only begin to understand that by listening. As one of those smarter people said:

“Black people, on the whole, experience a very different America than white people.”

If you bristle at that statement, don’t challenge it. Listen.

2. Expand Your Circle
Of course listening doesn’t do any good if you’re in an echo chamber. That’s what happens when you surround yourself with people who think like you, people who believe what you believe, people who look like you, people who vote like you.

It’s an easy place to find yourself. You might think that you’re a well-versed person, that you consider all sides and perspectives, that you’re well connected and plugged in. But maybe not.

As a part of our adoption training we went through an exercise where we were given a number of colored beads and a cup. The facilitator would name different people in various roles and positions, and we had to drop a bead in the cup every time one of those people was someone of a different race. So we’d talk through different people—doctor, dentist, barber, friends, family, boss, coworkers, neighbors, pastor, favorite author, favorite musician, favorite actor, etc.

You get the idea. As you can imagine, I didn’t have many beads in my cup.

Well, sure, I live in Minnesota where the non-white population is only 17 percent (up from 1% in 1960). Whatever. Don’t make excuses.

It was eye-opening. And I bring it up because if you’re not listening to a diverse group of people then you’re missing out. You can’t really understand the perspective of a group of people unless you know them. I had never heard of Karen refugees until they started filling up my church. Suddenly their story and the general persecution in Burma (highlighted by Aung San Suu Kyi, inspiration for the U2 song “Walk On”) became a lot more personal. It’s what makes InvisiblePeople.tv so effective: Allowing you to hear the stories of homeless people. In the Trayvon case, the raw wound within the black community becomes a lot more obvious—and you become more sensitive to it—when you actually listen to black people. As Jim Wallis said:

“If white Christians stay in our mostly-white churches and talk mostly to each other we will never understand how our black brothers and sisters are feeling after a terrible weekend like this one. It was the conversation of every black church in America on this Sunday, but very few white Christians heard that discussion or felt that pain.”

Some article I read somewhere (and of course now can’t find) compared it to Democrats or Republicans who only talk to like-minded people and have a hard time seeing anyone on the other side as being a normal, sane person. It’s part of why politics is so poisonous today.

And of course expanding your circle isn’t just about having sympathy for people’s pain or better understanding where they’re coming from even if you disagree. You can discover a lot of cool stuff too.

So Start Listening to an Expanded CircleThe good news is that it’s something you can easily fix in our digital age. Start listening to people who are different from you, whether it’s race, gender, creed, age, socioeconomic status, location, politics, etc. Friend them on Facebook or follow them on Twitter. Here’s the key: When they say something that bugs you, don’t unfollow or defriend. Stick it out. It’s especially hard when it comes to politics or faith, but stick with it. And don’t pick fights. That’s definitely not why you’re listening.

I’ve been trying to expand my circle. I went to a small, Christian, mostly white, liberal arts college, so I get the bubble. I’m also an introvert who works at home, so my circle is pretty small.

It’s a small start, but that’s how we get anywhere.

On Saturday night, when the Trayvon verdict came out, I saw a lot of pain and anger. If I hadn’t been listening, I would have been clueless and tone deaf.

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