When I began this blog, I never intended to weigh in on political or social issues. But for my final blog of September, I do not feel like I have a choice. I live in Charlotte, North Carolina—between uptown and the NODA arts district. I’ve lived in Charlotte for the last half-decade, and she—the Queen City—has been a conduit for my growth and learning throughout my twenties. Though I’m a Hoosier at heart, Charlotte is home to me. I am committed to her. She is committed to me—well, she is committed to challenging me, at least. I am hardly the person I was when I moved here five years ago. And I have her to thank. And my friends have her to thank because I think I used to be a real ignorant jerk back when I thought I had my worldview figured out.
As you probably know, my city has been the talk of the country (and the site of CNN’s live coverage each evening) since law enforcement’s shooting of Keith Lamont Scott last Tuesday, one week ago. When the shooting occurred, I happened to be up in Winona Lake, Indiana, at my alma mater, Grace College, watching my sister play collegiate tennis. Needless to say, it was strange to be in that quiet, utopic community on the lake and lay in my hotel room, wide-eyed, watching the television on Wednesday night as rioters busted down windows at the Omni and looted the team store of the Charlotte Hornets, a mile from my home.
And yet, it was also eerily symbolic. In his song “White Privilege II,” the great theologian Macklemore writes to white listeners: “Your silence is a luxury.” And I have indeed been able to remain silent on these issues because they hardly affect me. I can live comfortably in my quiet utopia while the people of this country, especially my black brothers and sisters, cry out for justice.
But now these issues have come to Charlotte. The protests and riots have unfolded a mile from my townhouse. And each night, I go to bed listening to the helicopters hovering over my city, and it is as if they are singing to me a gospel lullaby: “A change is gonna come.” It is impossible to ignore the noise, the song. And it is a reflection of perhaps the main lesson I've learned—whether it be spiritually or socially or politically—since moving to Charlotte five years ago: I must listen more and learn more.
When all of this unfolded last week, I sent a text to my Charlotte friend named Spencer.
“I’m sure you’re tired of white people asking you this,” I said, “but what are your thoughts on everything going on right now in Charlotte?”
“Well,” he said, “you are the first white person to ask me that.”
I share this exchange with you, not to pat myself on the back as “the only white person to text one of my black friends,” but rather to illustrate something that is quite the contrary. It reflects the predominant problem in my own life regarding racial issues (and, well, anything that disrupts me or makes me uncomfortable, I suppose) and the predominant problem in White America: We do not approach the issues with a posture of listening or a posture of introspection. This is its own form of silence because we are unwilling to listen and therefore remain in our own heads and our own worlds. (The last thing this country needs is another opinion from White America condemning Colin Kaepernick.)
I must listen more and learn more. After the initial riots in Charlotte, I expressed some of my frustrations and my aches for the city to my friend Josh via text. He wisely responded: “Remember one of the podcasts we listened to? It said: ‘When Princess Diana died the whole world mourned...but why? They didn't know her. They mourned because they too knew loss and this opened an avenue to express the hurt of that loss.’…We all have these bottled up emotions we don't know how to deal with, and a shooting opens up an avenue of the hate we haven't dealt with. Trump opens up a secret racist thought we kept bottled up...These are just avenues for our internal struggles we haven't dealt with. Most of the individuals participating are men. We don't know how to deal with our aggression. We don't understand feelings because that is what we are taught: ignore it. It bottles up and is expressed like this.”
I live in a world full of people, some of them angry, who need to be heard—where I might have the antidote (not to fix the problem but to perhaps alleviate the pain) by providing a listening ear—and yet, far too often, I’m more concerned with sharing my opinion.
I must listen more and learn more.
While driving the other day, I stumbled upon conservative journalist Sean Hannity’s radio show on a Fox News affiliate. In critiquing the Black Lives Matter movement, Hannity sited how twice as many Caucasians died at the hands of law enforcement in 2015 compared to African Americans. I will not link to the statistics he was referencing because, in my opinion, they are irrelevant. I can either hear the cries of the oppressed and choose to listen, or I can continue suppressing their cries by formulating opinions and engaging in debate. In fact, regardless of what we find out about the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, it does not change the fact that I have heard the cries of injustice in this country, in my city. When my counselor sat down and listened to me express the anguish of my own soul, thank goodness he did not say, “I need to see what percentage of my clientele is dealing with divorce before I listen to your dating woes.” As the great philosopher Dan Patrick said the other day in talking about Colin Kaepernick’s national-anthem protests on his radio show: “It’s my job to understand or try to understand where he is coming from.”
I must listen more and learn more.
I recognize that what is happening in Charlotte and around the country is a complicated issue with many socioeconomic layers, and, to be honest, I do not feel qualified to write about those. But I do feel as if I can write about listening because there was a time that I didn’t. I still am not great at it. But I am trying. Lord knows that I am guilty. Guilty of being unaware of my privilege, the systems in this country that put me a step ahead simply because of the color of my skin. Guilty of color-blindness, thinking that this posture demonstrates equality. Guilty of off-color racial jokes, thinking that my generation’s ability to spin our country’s racial woes into laughter shows how we have moved beyond racism. Guilty of ignoring the fact that my dad was born when Jim Crow laws were enforced. Guilty of ignoring the fact that my late grandfather was in his twenties during the Civil Rights Movement. Guilty of ignoring the fact that slavery was merely five generations ago. Guilty of distancing myself from this country's heinous history. Guilty of downplaying our country’s issues as a “sin problem, not a skin problem.” More than anything, guilty of ignorance. Flat-out ignorance.
But being in an interracial relationship in my mid-twenties has helped me open my eyes to my privilege. Talking to feminists about the plight of women in America has helped me open my eyes to my privilege. Helping two black NFL quarterbacks with their books, and therefore learning about their childhoods and cultures, has helped me open my eyes to my privilege. I must become more and more aware. I must listen more. I must learn more.
Sometimes I wonder if the worst form of silence is how we have silenced others by choosing not to listen—either by shouting above the noise or covering our ears. Here I am, speaking up, not to offer a solution or opinion, but to offer myself as someone who wants to listen, especially to my black brothers and sisters. I would love to grab a coffee or a beer with you. I would love to exchange emails with you. I would love to listen. And, more than anything, I’m sorry. None of this is okay. It’s not fair, and it’s not okay.
As I write this, another evening has fallen upon Charlotte.
I can hear the helicopters hovering above my townhouse, humming to me their song.
A change is gonna come.
I can hear you. And I am listening.
By Stephen Copeland
This essay was first published on copelandwrites.com.