It takes courage to share your story – to stand in front of a group of strangers and, holding your own guts in your hands, hope that they will listen.
The men I walked with on Arc of Justice’s Tour of Racism in Detroit are undeniably courageous.
Early in October, on a morning that was as crisp as any autumn morning in Michigan can be, I witnessed how a neighborhood sidewalk, street corner, and unassuming parking lot can become a sacred place. Striking a balance between gentle compassion, brutal honesty, and fiery passion, Arc of Justice dove into the history of Detroit’s racist past and how the foundations of racial segregation and discrimination continue to impact the lives of Detroiters – and Black Americans – every day.
Although I have learned about Detroit’s legacy of racism both in and out of the classroom, it was an entirely different experience to spend a morning listening to the pain of three Black men who shared their traumas and lifelong struggles as we toured significant historical sites in Detroit.
Though I would be doing them a great injustice to try and summarize their stories in a short blog post, I can speak to the love that accompanied the heartbreak as well as the profound trust they put in us to listen.
During the 4 hours we spent with Arc of Justice, I thought often about the burden of education. These men did not have to share their stories and traumatic experiences with us – they chose to. I was left feeling incredibly honored that the speakers were willing to endure the vulnerability and the emotional weight of discussing the deep racial injustices they’ve experienced in order to educate a group of white people.
It was a heavy experience. It was emotional just as it was thought-provoking. I learned about realities that I’d be much more comfortable ignoring, and, in a way I did not expect, I learned about myself.
As a 23-year-old who engages in the discourse of social justice on the Internet, I find the act of listening – actual listening – to be quite rare. There is a lot to be said, yes. But, on the Tour of Racism, I was reminded that there is a lot to be heard. So, we practiced listening.
I practiced listening.
If you know me, I am a person with a lot of opinions that I am not afraid to talk critically about. I am passionate about Environmental Justice and how it disproportionately affects People of Color in America. I think that social media has simultaneously helped and hurt how we talk about complex issues such as social justice. I become deeply upset about the injustices big and small, and often think I know better than other people. I look at those I believe to be ignorant and think, “I would never do that.” And it’s uncomfortable for me to admit that, but it’s true.
But what I witnessed from the men of Arc of Justice really challenged that.
Although they had the more-than-justified right to disengage from the messy conversation surrounding race in America, Arc of Justice chose to be there with us. They showed love. They showed patience. And when they themselves couldn’t answer a question or tell a story, they leaned on each other with respect and trust.
Yes, they also showed anger. They raised their voices with tears in their eyes and admitted how hard it is to hope. They shared their overwhelming grief and profound rage.
But they listened, too. When someone didn’t understand and said something that made me cringe, they took a breath and continued talking. And I was stunned.
I began asking myself tough questions – and continue to do so weeks after the initial event. It’s uncomfortable, yes, but I know it is good. If I’m asking others to grow, I should too.
It was a humbling moment to realize that I, a young white woman from the suburbs, was angrier at someone’s perceived ignorance than the man I believed myself to be defending – how condescending is that?
I became painfully aware that my righteous anger wasn’t helping anyone in that particular moment. I was ready to stop the conversation. But here, right in front of me, the conversation continued. And setting my righteous, myopic anger to the side, I took a step back and listened.
If my words are messy, then they’re honest. I haven’t found the clean answers to the questions and experiences that stuck with me after the Tour of Racism in Detroit with Arc of Justice. I don’t know if I ever will.
But that’s why I have to listen. That’s why I have to come to the table and be willing to sit in discomfort.
Yes, there will be anger. There will be grief. But there may also be compassion. I have to tune my ears into both.
Even when someone is “wrong” or “invalid” in my eyes, I have to recognize that they’re sitting at this table in the same manner I am. I will choose to trust that something bigger than me, who I call God, will help me hear the stories of others as a humble listener – even when I struggle to understand.
You can read more about the Tour of Racism hosted by Arc of Justice in “Reflecting on the past to move forward” written by the Deroit-based digital magazine, Model D.