Lean In … and Listen

Last night, on the train home from the Philadelphia airport, I sat behind a black youth and wondered if, along with his backpack, he was also carrying a load of apprehension that something could go terribly wrong as he made his way home, simply because of the color of his skin.

Was there a mother or father at home, watching the clock, waiting nervously for his return, feeling like another mother who wrote,

“My son is black. He wears a hoodie to school on cold mornings and he likes Skittles. It could be him walking home some day. I feel that chock of pain vibrate through my body again. He is at greater risk because he is black. What do I, as a mother, do with that?”

As a white woman and a mother, the issue I wake up with every morning and carry around with me isn’t race. It’s gender.

I live in a world where many women have risen to the top of the food-chain (as evidenced yearly by Forbes’ Most Powerful 100 Women list). But I know full well that is not the full story. Despite the successes and opportunities some women enjoy, many more women all over the world face constant suffering, oppression, and injustice. Even here in this country—even in the church—we have abuses to address and more ground to gain.

In her bestselling book, Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg urges women to “sit at the table,” to “lean in,” and to “seek and speak our truth.”

That’s easier said than done.

As women we know that speaking up does little good and may even do damage if the men around that table don’t lean in and listen. Or if they think the issues and injustices women raise are overblown, imagined, or hormonal. Or if they think women should be grateful to have a seat at the table and stop our “whining.”

In the wake of the Zimmerman acquittal, I have been asking myself a hard question: If I want to be taken seriously when I say something is amiss that bothers me, how can I turn a deaf ear to the cries of others when they raise concerns of racial profiling and injustice?

Are those of us, who haven’t a clue what it’s like to be eyed with suspicion based solely on the color of our skin, in a position to decide all this commotion is invalid? And more to the point, are we really loving our neighbors as ourselves if our neighbors say they are hurting, and we say they are not?

A blogger comment stopped me in my tracks:

“It is never our place to tell someone that racism doesn’t exist when we’re standing in the position of the more privileged group and not experiencing it from the other side. (And this applies to sexism as well).”

The Bible contains the familiar but all too often misunderstood story of an encounter between a woman and a man that brought together the kinds of explosive combinations we hear about every day in the news—the kind we’re looking at now.

Boaz was born to privilege—wealthy, powerful, native born, Jewish, and male. Ruth was living in the margins—poor, powerless, immigrant, Arab, and female.

It was the perfect nitro-meets-glycerin encounter.

The potential for an explosion escalated when she realized that the accepted “letter of the law” way of doing things meant the mother-in-law she was determined to feed would still suffer hunger pangs with what she, a gleaner, could bring home from her most diligent scavenging efforts.

The wildly disparate lives of Boaz and Ruth converged in his barley field when Ruth had the audacity to “lean in” and “speak her truth.”

The whole story turns on the fact that a well-fed man of wealth, power, and privilege chose to lean in and listen. When the conversation ended, he used his power and privilege to empower the woman who lived on the hungry side of the law.

Whether we realize it or not, one of the biggest crises and greatest wastes of brains and talent we face as a nation and as a church is what is happening to America’s black men and boys. We can put our heads in the sand or rationalize what’s happening, but the facts will have the last word every time. The simple fact  (reported to Congress in January 2013 by the U.S. Sentencing Commission) that on average black men serve 20% longer sentences than white men for the same crimes is barely the tip of the iceberg, but a blatant indicator that something is horribly amiss.

After reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book, one message that comes through loud and clear is that more men need to begin listening to women. In the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death, it seems to me that we have a significant window of opportunity, prompted by this tragedy, to begin listening to our black brothers and sisters—really listening.

We can be satisfied with window dressing and the status quo when it comes to the concerns of our black brothers and sisters. Or we can make real strides towards progress if we’ll only lean in and listen to understand what they are telling us. Maybe it’s time for white pastors to meet with black pastors to understand better their concerns. Maybe it’s time for white congregations to hear from their black brothers and sisters and figure out ways to join hands against these injustices.

Maybe it’s time for us all to open the ears God gave us and listen. Maybe then, God will open our eyes too, and we’ll learn truly what it means to love our neighbors as ourselves.

I am not a black mother who worries every day if her son will make it home alive. I am a white woman with a great many privileges. But I’d like to think the next time I ride the train from the airport, the black youth sitting in front of me will be as confident and carefree as any white mother’s son because we as Christians and as Americans leaned in, listened, and acted to change things for him when we had the chance.

Published on the Huffington Post Blog:  http://huff.to/12dlcXm

About carolyncustisjames

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2 Responses to Lean In … and Listen

  1. Bella_03 says:

    Carolyn this is so helpful. While I am thankful for my non-black friends coming to me to talk about this I cannot help but feel disheartened by how difficult it is for them to “hear” and “understand” our story and our current reality with profiling. Thank you for wrestling with this from your experience. This will help other non-black brothers and sisters have a place to begin processing this as well. Thank you for taking a step towards mourning with your black brothers and sisters who are mourning the outcome of this trial.


  2. GDudley says:

    Carolyn, you are right on! I am currently wrestling with bringing some things to light as it pertains to racial injustice especially in Christian communities, and realize someone must start the conversation with the hopes that people will truly lean-in and listen. Quoting you here you say, “…we have a significant window of opportunity, prompted by this tragedy, to begin listening to our black brothers and sisters—really listening.” That's it ~ really listening. Thank you for being bold enough to bring this to the forefront for honest conversation.


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