Just a few weeks ago, Freddie Gray—a young African American man in Baltimore—died after being injured while in police custody, precipitating a rash of protests expressing anger, frustration, and rage. Then just a few days ago, the six officers involved were charged by State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby with crimes ranging from assault to second-degree murder. This series of events is the latest in a string of unnecessary deaths of black men at the hands of police, and it’s one that teachers everywhere need to think carefully about.
You have probably been following this case and reading a range of responses and analyses, as I have. But the account I have been most touched by is a Facebook post from Julia Blount, reprinted on April 29 on Salon.
Blount is a middle school teacher, educated at Princeton, and as she says in “Dear white Facebook friends: I need you to respect what Black America is feeling right now,” a person of color who has led a privileged life (for which she is grateful). But her privilege has not shielded her from violence or from the feelings engendered by it. So she writes to white America: “To those rushing to judgment about what’s happening in Baltimore: Please stop and listen.”
Every comment or post I have read today voicing some version of disdain for the people of Baltimore—“I can’t understand” or “They’re destroying their own community” or “Destruction of Property!” or “Thugs”—tells me that many of you are not listening. I am not asking you to condone or agree with violence. I just need you to listen. You don’t have to say anything if you don’t want to, but instead of forming an opinion or drawing a conclusion, please let me tell you what I hear: I hear hopelessness. I hear oppression. I hear pain. I hear internalized oppression. I hear despair. I hear anger. I hear poverty.
Blount’s challenge is one all teachers, and especially teachers of writing, need to address. We need to teach rhetorical listening as part of what it means to communicate effectively and fairly, and we need to practice that kind of listening in our own classes. As Blount says,
If you are not listening, not exposing yourself to unfamiliar perspectives, not watching videos, not engaging in conversation, then you are perpetuating white privilege and white supremacy. It is exactly your ability to not hear, to ignore the situation, that is a mark of your privilege.
I spend time in all my classes talking with students about engaging “unfamiliar perspectives” and doing so in an open, invitational way. But actually doing this kind of listening and engaging is far easier said than done. I have often found myself hard-pressed to listen fully to a student who is expressing views with which I deeply disagree. In one of my classes, a young man (white and from a rural area) wrote an essay called “The Little Grey Squirrel,” about a moment in his life that had taught him an important lesson. In the essay, he tells the story of going out to check traps on his father’s property, where he finds a “little grey squirrel” caught in one of them. The squirrel has a broken leg and he describes kneeling down next to it and looking into its eyes. Then he takes out his gun—and shoots the squirrel. The lesson he learns, he says in his conclusion, is how to kill animals: this is his first. To say the very least, this writer had misjudged his audience (he had also built up sympathy for the “little grey squirrel”).
This story caused a near riot in my classroom, as students accused the writer of everything from insensitivity to murder. They turned on him so passionately that he quickly fell silent; in this event, everyone else was talking, even shouting: no one was listening. Our class never really recovered from that episode, in spite of my efforts to look for some common ground we could all move forward from. It occurs to me now that I wasn’t really listening either: I was more occupied with calming things down and getting that particular class over with. As a result, I didn’t truly hear either the writer or the protesting students.
I have thought about that incident for years now, as we often do when we wish we could replay—and change—past events. I’ve thought about how very differently people see and hear, and about how very difficult it is to see and hear from another person’s point of view. But that’s just what Julia Blount is asking me, as a white woman, to do. Her compelling message is going to stay with me, challenging me to live up to the best of my rhetorical training and always to listen—truly listen—before I draw a conclusion, and to engage my students in doing the same.