Kristin Prentiss Ott, M.D.

I’m Sorry. I’m Listening.

Things have changed for me since the tragedy inside Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church because of the words of two bloggers – one black and one white.

Osheta Moore’s post, “What I Need You to Say in Response to the Shooting in Charlestontaught me four words:  “I’m sorry; I’m listening.” She writes:

“’I’m sorry’ tames the anger. ‘I’m sorry’ respects the pain. ‘I’m sorry’ positions you as a friend and not adversary…’I’m listening’ says, ‘yes, I have an opinion and yes, I have strong feelings, and yes, this makes me feel more than a little helpless, but I’m going to press into this specific pain and listen.’

But what if you aren’t in close relationship with any people of color?

In the wake of the Charleston shootings, Glennon Doyle Melton (Momastery) posted this to her >350,000 Facebook followers:

“I am almost forty years old and I do not have a single black friend. Acquaintances, yes; friends, no. I do not have a single black friend whom I could call last night and say: ‘I’m listening. Please tell me how to support you…’ Perhaps I cannot be a friend to the black community because I am not even a friend to a black person.”

This is more common than most of us would like to admit. I realized that although I do have some black friends, the “voices” I had been listening to were mostly white.

Jon Stewart? White. Rachel Held Evans? White.

These people clearly qualify as allies to the black community. But how weird would it be if I only listened to what men have to say about egalitarianism/feminism? It is equally weird to be ‘not a racist’ and not seek out voices of people of color for leadership and insight.

Men can be great feminists (my husband is one of them), but the voices of women matter when it comes to talking about being shut out of the pulpit, pay inequality, and sexual assault/harassment. In the same way, the voices of people of color matter when it comes to talking about recent tragedies, segregation, and unity.

Social media is the easiest and most readily available way to seek out voices of color. In the wake of the shootings in Charleston, I started following, “The Root,” “The Grio,” and “Huffpost Black Voices” as well as a number of inspiring individuals.

And since then, I have had two opportunities to press-in and listen. In person.

The day President Obama sang “Amazing Grace” at the funeral of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Mickey was stuck at the hospital and I had both kids by myself. In an effort to tire them out, I took them to an indoor bounce house place. Kids were running around with their usual wild random motions (imagine the enactment of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee”), but in a twist of fate the air conditioning was broken everywhere except one birthday party room.

I bought a slushie and some Dippin’ Dots and set up “home base” in the air-conditioned refuge of that party room. (Fun fact: Dippin’ Dots are made at 320 degrees below zero and stored at 40 below!) Kharis and Kai buzzed in and out to cool off with sips of sweet ice and mouthfuls of cryogenically frozen creamy wonderfulness.

I was alone with my phone for a long time while other parents just suffered in the heat, but finally another mom joined me. She was engrossed in her iPad and I was engrossed in my phone, but slowly conversation cracked through the shell of unfamiliarity.

It was a sputtering exchange at first, but eventually our conversation flowed. And there came a moment when I had a choice. Press in or stay comfortable.

I got up from my chair and moved to sit across from her at the school-lunch-like table. When we were face-to-face – strangers – a black woman and a white woman, I told her, a slightly longer and more awkward version of “I’m sorry; I’m listening.” Then she told me about how her grandmother couldn’t believe she lived to see a black president. I listened while she explained why her mother gave her and her sisters names like Sarah, and Jessica.

When we parted, I had the sense that the air conditioning was meant to be broken everywhere except that one room and we were meant to be the only ones who sought its solace.

Recently I visited Charleston and had the opportunity to stand outside Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal church and read messages of love and hope. Afterwards, I went to hear Glennon (the blogger referenced above) tell funny and inspiring stories to an auditorium full of people who want to be listeners.

At the very end, Carrie Bullock Ben-Yisrael stood at the microphone and thanked Glennon for her willingness to talk about racism. Then she told us,

“One of the best things about being a black woman in America is that I never lived with the illusion that the world was about me or for me.”

She talked about not going to unity events in Charleston because her hurt was too raw. Tears fell freely around the room as we pressed in to her pain and listened. Those moments practically sparkled with tenderness and meaning.

Did her words change the world? No. But they made me want to listen more. They reminded me that sometimes ‘I don’t know what I don’t know.’ (See The Truth about what We Don’t Know.)

Before the tragedy in Charleston, my realm of awareness was pretty white-washed. It is less so now, but only because I am being intentional about it.

Is my increased awareness going to “fix” things?

No. It’s not. But like I wrote in, Sexism & Racism: The Truth about what We See:

Change doesn’t begin ‘out there.’ It begins in our individual hearts. With our individual bravery.

Pressing in is brave. Risking being uncomfortable is brave.

I am including links to facebook pages to follow if you’re interested in listening. It’s good to be sorry, but even better to be sorry enough to listen.

The Root (“an unflinching examination of political and cultural news through insightful debate and commentary”), Jack and Jill Politics (“a black bourgeoisie perspective on U.S. politics”), HuffPost Black Voices (news and culture), Franchesca “Chescaleigh” Ramsey (Millenial/writer for Upworthy), Osheta Moore (Christian), Carrie Bullock Ben-Yisreal.

Cover photo: Southern Glow Photography

 

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Kristin Prentiss Ott, M.D.

Author of the viral post: 10 Things to Know Before Your Next Visit to the Emergency Department. Board certified emergency medicine physician, wife, mother, aspiring novelist.
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4 Comments

  1. smitty

    Is it fair to ask, where are the women of color at this gathering?

    1. Kristin Prentiss Ott, M.D. (Post author)

      It took me a minute – but you mean – “where were the women of color at the Glennon event?” Carrie Bullock Ben-Yisreal made that comment in her address: “There aren’t many women here who look like me…” Although Glennon’s inspiring messages are applicable to anyone, the following she has grown is mostly white. It is diversifying, but still mostly white. The whole point of this article is that we need more white listeners. And I think most of Glennon’s followers are listeners.

  2. Give me Five

    I’m not a woman of color, but I am that woman of color’s friend. I remember the weekend after the shooting (It was Father’s Day,) I was walking down Wentworth and I saw a young woman of color working at a local parking lot. I don’t know why, but I felt compelled to just say, “You don’t know me, but I need to hug you to tell you I’m sorry.” We hugged for the longest time and she and I just cried in each other’s arms. I told her, “We’re not all bad people. I promise.” She said she needed to hear that.
    Just think if we walked up to strangers and hugged them instead of hurting them how much better our world would be.

    1. smitty

      Dear Give me Five, My Spirit just soared and you made me happy to be alive in the 21st century. I wish the whole world was filled with people like you…”What a wonderful world this would be….”!

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