Listening to Understand: A step toward systemic change

Erin Belanger, LMHC

How are you? How have you been over these last few weeks as the pains and tensions in our country have reached a boiling point? How are you after witnessing the death of George Floyd and the many other deaths of Black men and women?

I find myself feeling an intense and conflictual set of emotions as I sit with everything from grief, to anger, to moments of hope for real change. It’s particularly difficult to watch my children, who are still quite young, feel confused and worried. I worry about what they pick up and internalize and how it will harm them and others in the future. It’s too easy to set our children’s minds on the wrong path and see them grow into adults with biases and hatred toward others.

I spent some time swinging with my kids after work this week and watched as both of them started spitting on the ground. A bit perplexed, I asked what they were doing. Both of them told me they were trying to get the red ants because the red ants were bad. (An important side note… they’ve both been pinched by black ants, my daughter within the last week, and neither of them has been pinched by a red ant.) Someone told them about fire ants at one point, though, and about red ants generally being more aggressive and mean. They dutifully logged that information and were now using it to launch an assault on innocent red ants going about their day.

There have been moments like this previously where each of my children have acted out a belief that was handed to them… after all, they learn from us how to be in this world. This time, though, the rapid and all encompassing transmission of beliefs as truth was scary. I wanted to use the moment to help them question… not whether red ants were inherently good or bad… but why they were thinking and acting the way they were, and if it actually made sense. We talked about the hate they were feeling and the aggression they were acting out. We talked about questioning why we believe something and changing beliefs that are not right… and we talked about the scary reality that this scenario plays out amongst humans all the time. I am not sure how much they, at their age level, were able to digest the construct of passing beliefs on as reality and the importance of questioning themselves and their motives... but I do know they understood that they were acting mean and blaming ants who’d done nothing wrong, and that’s a start. The more important part, ultimately, was my ability to bear witness to the transmission of hate and the ease with which we can prime others to absorb it. My hope is that my children will learn to question their beliefs across the board, even if some might come from me, so that they might be contributors to the better world ahead, and not to the hate and fear that bind us.

At Samaritan, we believe that Black Lives Matter. We also believe in the healing potential of our relationships to help create change as we engage in dialogue about injustice and systemic racism. These discussions are more difficult to have with those over the age of 9… and so, we offer some thoughts on how to engage in healthy and healing dialogue that can begin to move us toward change:

First, it’s helpful to start better understanding the issues by educating ourselves so we can see the wrong and harmful beliefs that have become ingrained into our realities and change them. There are a number of books that are helpful in better understanding the systemic racism experienced by Black Americans. Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ibram X. Kendi offer books that invite us into the vulnerable internal experience of being Black in America. By walking us through their stories, both heartbreaking and healing, they give us the opportunity to see what we have been holding as truth for the lie it really is.

Second, Along with reading, we can also pursue clearer self awareness. Introspection and honest self evaluation with questions of why we believe and behave in certain ways can help us identify our own biases and how they contribute to the problem. We all have biases because none of us grows up in isolation. We are all products of the systems we are a part of, and those systems are imperfect and pass on those imperfect beliefs that become our biased realities. We can work to better understand these imperfections and our biases, and when we can see them more clearly, we can contribute to systemic change (take an implicit bias test here: I love that Kendi continually brings us back to what we can do differently as we start to see our biases, and I particularly love that he does so without shaming. Instead, he offers the idea that we are all soaking wet, drenched with the beliefs of our systemic upbringings, and from time to time, we should offer one another an umbrella and say thank you for the umbrellas we, ourselves, are offered.

Robin DiAngelo, in her book White Fragility: Why it’s so hard for White people to talk about racism, likewise states about introspection and change, “If I believe that only bad people are racist, I will feel hurt, offended, and shamed when an unaware racist assumption of mine is pointed out. If I instead believe that having racist assumptions is inevitable (but possible to change), I will feel gratitude when an unaware racist assumption is pointed out; now I am aware of and can change that assumption.”

Finally, when we are better educated on issues of race, and better understand ourselves, we can become interested in simply listening to those who are different, and attempt to empathically understand, rather than react. Educating our children about the issues, but also about how to challenge their own beliefs, is part of systemic change as well. Finding ways to increase our interactions with those who are different can be a healthy part of both our growth and our children’s.

All healthy relationships are based on understanding, empathy, and self awareness. With the world in pain, our ability to develop these skills is more important than ever. There is more to learn and more to do. In the words of Frederick Douglass, “I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” May we all begin praying with our legs...