Last week, after several people asked how I, as a white parent, talk to my white children about white privilege, I reposted something I wrote two years ago. It's something I still feel is accurate and potentially helpful, especially when talking to small children. (And by small, I mean grade-school aged. Preschool is too young. Bo and Revi don't understand what privilege means because they are 4. They do know that people judge others based on their appearances and we talk a lot about what makes different bodies different, what makes different minds different and what makes different hearts different.)
Fable is 7 and I still look to the "Frozen" example for her. I also use it when describing any/all power structures and why it's so important to realize what power we have and to use it to ELEVATE others, not hold them down. With my little ones, this is a conversation that will evolve in time. For my older kids, it already has.
Which brings me to today's post and some additional thoughts I wanted to share about "teaching" white kids about white privilege as a white person, which, SPOILER ALERT, is impossible, because guess what?
We don't know.
We don't know what it's like to be anyone but ourselves.
And that's a problem. That's THE problem. That's OUR problem.
In short, we need to stop talking and we need to listen, not just right now but always. We need to make it a habit to sit down in audiences across this nation, beneath stages, on wooden chairs in open mic nights. We need to seek out those willing to share their stories and we need to HEAR THEM. And we need to bring our children, too.
All you need to do is listen.
I grew up in a predominantly white town—or, at least that's what I thought.
Looking back, I realize that I grew up in a predominantly Latino town but because we were so segregated, we never got to know one another. The Latino kids, most of whom were Mexican, took different classes on different parts of campus than we did. They were non-native English speakers and their teachers taught them mainly in Spanish.
Or at least that's what we were told.
The only time we were every together was during PE class and even then, you could have drawn a line between us.
We didn't speak to one another. We didn't acknowledge one another. We didn't even know each other's names.
I had NEVER EVEN THOUGHT about that until recently, until now, really. I accepted it as status quo, that from seventh to twelfth grade, I never had a conversation with a single non-native English speaking student. Not one. We didn't mix. We were separated on the campus and nobody asked why.
I never asked why.
I grew up without knowing the stories of these student—my peers, teenage girls just like me. Teenage girls nothing like me. And I wonder what life would have looked like FOR ALL OF US had we been put together in the same English classes, standing in front of classrooms reading our poetry to one another.
What would have changed? Would we have become friends?
I grew up in a liberal hippie beach town in the '90s and had no idea I was also experiencing a very real form of segregation.
It wasn't until I came to LA and became active in a community of artists, most notably slam poets, that I started to listen to other people from other cultures.
Because one can read a book—one can read many books—on what it's like to be black, brown, gay, trans. But LISTENING to a person speak? That's the game changer.
It was there in that room that I first learned what it meant to be a feminist.
Da Poetry Lounge on Fairfax was my first slam experience. My neighbors took me with them. They were poets and rappers and honed their rhymes at open mic nights. I assumed, with my own poetry in hand that I would want to share as well.
But I didn't.
And for several years of attending slams, I never did.
There was too must to hear, too much to listen to, too much to learn.
It wasn't about me as a writer ... not there, anyway.
It was about me as a LISTENER.
It was there in that room that I first learned what it meant to be a feminist. It was there in that room where I first heard a woman speak openly about a rape, hear a black man cry—and a brown man cry—and the crowd fall silent. It was there that I learned for the first time what it was like—what it was REALLY like—to be black in this country. To be brown in this country. To be ANYTHING but white in this country. That is where I saw the light. That is where I recognized the power of truth and how effective it was. I woke up in that audience.
I woke up again and again and again in more audiences like it. (I still do.)
Because contrary to conversations I had had with friends who “didn't go there,” THESE men and women, girls and boys, were willing to.
I hadn't been to a slam in many years when I was re-introduced to its power through Get Lit, an organization I have written about here many times that is changing the world through poetry, and I firmly believe that they are. I firmly believe that if we were all willing to sit in the audience of poets—of all colors and creeds and sexual orientations—if we were all willing to LISTEN, things WOULD change. How could they not change?
... Because reposting words on Facebook does not wield the same power as teenagers and young adults and old adults standing on a stage with their hearts in their hands PLEADING, SINGING, SOARING.
Because SHOWING UP somewhere with your body and your heart and your open eyes and ears is EVERYTHING. Sitting in the audience of the vulnerable, wise and willing is WHAT WE ALL SHOULD be doing right now.
Hell, we should have been in the audience already.
Where have we been?
People have strong opinions of slam poetry. There have been plenty of times when I'm like, "YOU GUYS! POETRY!" and people are like, "Ugh. Poetry." And I get it. (OK, I actually don't get it but I respect your opinion, poetry haters. Sort of. Ish.) Anyway, I'm here to ask you today, to think again?
Poetry slams are where the unheard go to SPEAK. Poetry is where writing has no rules. Poetry is where confession happens, not to a priest behind a wall, but TO THE PEOPLE.
But perhaps, even more importantly, poetry slams are where listeners go to listen. Adults. Children. Adults and children...
I believe if our children are well-versed in the art of LISTENING (not to directions, but to EMOTIONAL STORIES) we would change. And I think for those with older children who don't live in urban areas, who don't have a lot of experience with students who look different than they do, it is essential to seek out the storytellers.
I recently took Archer and his friend to the Get Lit Classic Slam Finals. I thought it was important that he be there, to hear from his fellow Angeleno teenagers and future classmates. (Archer's new 6-12 school is one of the schools involved with Get Lit.) I thought it was crucial for him to see that vulnerability is power. That words and stories and our willingness to share them is power.
But most importantly, I wanted to model to him that LISTENING is also power. LISTENING is how we say THANK YOU, I AM WITH YOU, I AM HERE, to those on stage.
Thank you, I am with you. I am here.
The power of listening is something we must teach our children.
Fellow white parents, you don't have to talk to your children about white privilege if you don't want to, don't know how to or don't feel like you know what to say. You just have to take them somewhere where people of color are willing to share their stories. Drive to the nearest city or town that isn't primarily white. Pull up a chair at an open mic night, at a coffee shop or a theatre or the street, where black hands put black microphones in black hands, where brown voices are singing their truths. (You can also encourage your children to subscribe to Youth Speaks, Get Lit and/or Button Poetry on YouTube. Talk to your school about showcasing local poets at assemblies. Elevate voices in the community who, for whatever reason, you might not typically hear from. There are so many ways to put your body in the audience and listen.)
You don't even have to say anything. Not with words.
Your presence says it all.
Thank you for sharing your story. I am with you. I am here. I am HEAR.
The power of listening is something we must teach our children. The power of sitting down in an audience and hearing the stories of those who come from different worlds ... that is something we can do as parents. That is something we MUST do as parents, schools, communities, white people who have been doing most of the talking for centuries and centuries and centuries. Let us sit in the audiences of our cities and towns. Let us put our bodies in the chairs that surround the various stages.
And let us listen.
And ultimately change.
For those in LA looking to take their tweens + teens to a poetry slam, da poetry lounge on Fairfax is a fantastic place. (They have weekly poetry slams/open mic nights. Check out their calendar, here.) If your child is fortunate enough to attend a school in LA that offers the Get Lit curriculum, you can look into how you can get involved/attend a school poetry slam, here. Please feel free to add any poetry slams you would recommend in your city/state. Thank you in advance!