Dispatches from Home: Building bridges begins with empathetic listening

If you’re unsure where to start to improve race relations, be an advocate by lending an ear.

Protesters travel down Main Street holding signs and yelling chants in support of victims of police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. The demonstration’s leaders, Jessica Garcia and Jasmine Cartwright-Atkins, say they were surprised so many people participated. (KAITLYN LEVINSON/Special to The Sun)

On Monday, I finished my work for the day, had an early dinner, and headed out to the backyard with my dog to soak up the sun. 

I poured a cold glass, cued Led Zeppelin’s “In the Light” on my bluetooth speaker and launched some tennis balls to Linus with a Wiffle ball bat. The song, along with our game of fetch, lasted eight minutes and 47 seconds. 

A week earlier, a man’s life was snuffed out by a policeman in Minneapolis in nearly the same amount of time: eight minutes and 46 seconds.

Maybe you aren’t familiar with “In the Light.” Perhaps you’re a fan of “Free Bird” (nine minutes and nine seconds) or “November Rain” (eight minutes and 57 seconds).

Or maybe you need a non-rock reference for some perspective. How long is eight minutes and 46 seconds? 

If you’re watching “Jeopardy,” it’s the time it takes for the show’s first segment and first commercial break, roughly around the time Alex Trebek is going through his fun-fact talk-back with that night’s contestants.

Imagine struggling to breathe during all of that time.

For the last three months, this space has been reserved for a column created in part to combat COVID-19 isolation. Some tips for making the most of your quarantine time, appreciating what you still have, suggestions for family activities — that kind of thing.

But while lives are still being lost and the pandemic remains a real threat, it would be irresponsible not to use this space in a better, more important fashion this week. Lives are being lost as the result of police brutality, specifically the lives of African American men, and it has to stop.

And, if you’re reading this column, it’s your civic duty, at the very least, to acknowledge the problem, and, perhaps, become an advocate for your fellow Americans.

The fact that racism is still prevalent in the United States 73 years after Jackie Robinson broke through baseball’s color barrier, 65 years after Martin Luther King marched in Alabama and nearly 30 years since Rodney King was beaten by police officers in Los Angeles, is more than troubling. Regardless of your race, ask yourself this question: What kind of world do you want your children or grandchildren to live in 20 to 30 years from now?

Surely a fairer, safer world than the one we’re in now.

I certainly don’t have all the answers and, as a middle-age white male who grew up in a somewhat mixed, blue-collar South Jersey town but went to a nearly-all white private high school, I’m well aware of my privilege. I understand if my words ring hollow.

So instead of listening to me, listen to them. 

“The looting and the rioting is just ignorance,” former Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard said last week. “It takes away from the real issue at hand … On any given day, if you run into the wrong cop who is feeling some kind of way, that’s you. But the way I see it, we keep asking the question, ‘How do we get change?’

“We can talk all we want. But change doesn’t come until those other (white) folks want change to come. And the only way that comes is when you’ve been affected by it. They have not been affected by it … (They’ll say), ‘That’s bad, man, that’s terrible.’ But until it really hits home. … Until it affects you, there’s no real need for a change.”

Howard said those words during a 90-minute long conversation with former baseball players held by The Athletic earlier this week. Howard and longtime teammate Jimmy Rollins were among the six African American men on the panel.

“Racism isn’t just black versus others, Mexicans versus others, whites versus everybody,” Rollins said. “It’s systematic. If we don’t break the chain ourselves, how can we expect others to do so first? Although they may be the ones who, in our eyes, perpetuate it in movies, and the way we’re perceived on TV, all the bad stories. If we change one person and start that line, that will help. But if we’re not willing, after this is over, to go back and culturally make a change, it’s just going to repeat itself. If you look at the track record, it’s going to continue to happen.”

By listening, we can move forward. By opening our minds, considering new points of view and escaping the comfort zone of our own communities, we can join the conversation. 

But, it begins with empathetic listening.

Jessica Pollock, left, and Jean Pollock, of Moorestown, dawn masks and signs in support of the June 2 demonstration for George Floyd. Many guest speakers praised white and non-black citizens for showing their solidarity for George Floyd and protests against police brutality. (KAITLYN LEVINSON/Special to The Sun)

Throughout last week, longtime talk show host Conan O’Brien did just that by inviting CNN commentator and REFORM Alliance CEO Van Jones and standup comic W. Kamau Bell, both African Americans, onto his show.

Jones, among other issues, recommended that we open up our social lives to people of all races. Personally invest yourself in new relationships.

Bell spoke bluntly about Black Lives Matter.

“It was a declaration: We need people to know black lives matter,” he said. “Because at that time, and still, it doesn’t feel like black lives matter. The criminal justice system doesn’t put a value on black lives, the education system does not put a value on black lives … police don’t put a value on black lives. It’s an intentionally provocative phrase … because Martin Luther King’s ‘Let’s hug it out’ didn’t work … Rodney King’s ‘Let’s all just get along’ didn’t work. So black people keep raising the stakes of getting the attention of white people … 

“Black people are basically doing all we can to get white people’s attention,  to understand how clear this is,” Bell added. “So if you’re bothered by the phrase Black Lives Matter, good. Now investigate the phrase.”

Listen. Learn. And then show your work (and not just by posting an all-black square onto your Instagram feed).

Start by inviting your African American co-workers or neighbors over for conversation; one of mine highly recommended this useful site as a resource. Start by calling out an old friend or relative when they make an off-color joke at a party or in a text thread. Start.

Perhaps you can begin by doing something as simple as reading the aforementioned conversation between Rollins, Howard and other former African American baseball players, or by doing a little research on former Black Panther Fred Hampton.

Before you begin reading, take out your phone and set a timer for eight  minutes and 46 seconds. It’s a start … and it’s a lot longer than you think.