Sit Still and Listen: What White Men Can Do in Times Like These

Even the most decent and principled white men have to exercise muscles of consciousness they might not have used before.
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Photo by Jonathan Knowles/Getty Images

It’s been a tough year for white American males. From law enforcement officers to sports team owners to politicians, we’ve heard story after story of these men behaving badly. It has gotten to the point that many of us are thinking, “Where can I find a decent white man?”

At the moment, there’s a common narrative that white men need to be watched, recorded, and judged. Even the most decent and principled ones have to exercise muscles of consciousness they haven’t needed to use before. A former client asked my advice on what, as a white male, he could do in these times. I shared the following stories of decent white men in action as examples:

1. Be aware of your environment and your place in it

In most settings, a white male can expect to be treated with respect and deference, even if he has no formal authority. To him, this is normal and he may not think twice about where or how he fits into a given situation.

Counter that with my partner, Greg John, who as white male principal of an inner city school, deals with complex dynamics every day. Mindful of this, Greg notes his choice of words, his posture, and his actions by calling out positive behaviors, by kneeling down to meet kids at their level, and by developing close relationships with their caregivers. His awareness and practices have paid off. Parents of color know that they and their children will be treated fairly and with respect—as are all the parents and children.

These small acts of awareness carry over into his personal life as well. Greg knows that opening the door for people, allowing a car to merge in front of him, saying please and thank you may register in others that all white men aren’t so bad.

2. Sit still and listen

In the midst of the demonstrations in Ferguson, Mo., my friend Steve Wright posted this on his Facebook page:

“This is another moment in time for white people (white men in particular) to sit still and listen. There is no factual inaccuracy that you (I) need to correct. Listen. Hear the frustration. The anger. Accept the reality of the lived experiences of people of color. Please, please try not to take it personally even when it is. It’s not about you (me). Listen.”

The movement toward racial healing requires commitment on the part of all of us.

Steve was challenged by a number of (white) friends, but he kept listening and responding with thoughtfulness and respect. Through the years that I have known Steve, he has always taken the time and care to sit still and listen, especially when it’s been uncomfortable to do so.

3. When you witness a white male exhibiting bad behavior, speak up

At a recent dinner party (where I was the only person of color) the topic of reparations for African Americans came up. After I gave my opinion, a white male named James said that slavery occurred because the African people were no match for the superior technology of the Europeans.

I was ready to challenge his statement when my friend Joe Weston spoke up and provided a beautifully worded rebuttal. James gave Joe a quizzical look (as if to say, “I thought you were on my side,”) then he said, “I see your point.”

If I had delivered the same rebuttal, James would not have seen my point. By presenting himself as James’ mirror, Joe was far more effective in providing a teachable moment, not only for James but for all of the white men at the table.

4. Accept being a target

It’s not about you. It’s about who you represent. After a lifetime contending with white males who behave badly and get away with it, it gets frustrating. When I just need to get it out of my system, I tend to find the nearest decent white male who can take it. That person usually ends up being Greg.

“This is another moment in time for white people (white men in particular) to sit still and listen.”

It’s not easy for him to be on the receiving end of my rants about his white brethren, e.g., the law enforcement officer or politician that I read about or the guy at the grocery store who cut in front of me and said, “I didn’t even see you. But do ya mind? I’m kind of in a rush.”

When I go in these spaces, I ask Greg to remind himself not to take it personally. It’s not all about him. It’s about who he represents.

Every day we are reminded of the injustices of racism. Some stories garner headlines and others are often simple, unintentional and seemingly harmless acts. The movement toward racial healing requires commitment on the part of all of us—people of color and people of European descent—to be mindful of our daily thoughts, words, and actions. I am grateful to my decent white male friends and allies who are willing to put in the time, effort, and humility to walk this path with me. Won’t you join us?