How to Learn by Listening (by Amy Tibbetts Dutton)
When I was finished with my first semester of college, I flew home to the Netherlands for the Christmas holiday. My mom took me in to work with her and someone there (at the US Army MTMC terminal near Rotterdam) asked me to write an article about what I had learned so far in college. What I wrote about was laundry. How it had been miraculously done for me when I was younger and was the most difficult task on the planet in college.
Don’t get me wrong – my mother had not spoiled me and let me get away with doing no chores. On the contrary, I had many responsibilities, including laundry. But it seemed like such a simple task until faced with the machines at UVA. Suffice it to say that I usually left the laundry dorm (conveniently all the way across the quad from mine) hauling a bulging and heavily water-logged sack of insufficiently “dried” laundry back to my room to spread across every available surface in my room and my neighbor’s.
What did I actually learn from that? Not much, except that I had been lucky enough in my youth to have working laundry facilities in my house. And that it had never crossed my mind that experiences like mine at school might be the norm for a good many people. That this experience may well be much better than most. Looking back, that seems like the silliest and most trivial thing I could have chosen to highlight. But I was young. And thought I was certain I knew everything about everything; of course, I knew almost nothing.
More than 35 years later what I now know is that I don’t know much. But what I do know is that to learn anything, we must listen to others – really listen and hear them. And then believe them. And understand that their experiences are theirs and therefore not subject to our approval or belief in said experiences. We must try to fully understand what it feels like to live life in their skin.
I’m lucky enough to have lived overseas and travelled all over. And lucky to have been an Army brat when the Armed Forces were among the first to diversify. So I’ve grown up understanding that my perspective was just that – mine. And that there are millions of other equally valid perspectives out there. And that there is beauty and richness in this diversity. I still get it wrong plenty, though. Because I have the luxury of not having to worry about those things on a daily basis. Or ever, really.
And so, I’m constantly having to remind myself to change my position on something because my knee jerk reaction came from a place of power that I did nothing to earn. Of course, being female, I do know a little something of having to accommodate one’s life and actions to the whims of those more powerful. Avoiding stairwells and trying to walk the delicate line between telling cat callers where they can really go and making sure we don’t get raped or beaten up for that response.
Watching men, white men, get away with reactions that no woman or black man could ever get away with, is frustrating in the extreme. But for the most part, I will not lose my life for my reactions. It’s a different story for people of color. A story that changed the way I think forever is a friend throwing her son an evening laser tag birthday party in the woods. His best friend, a black boy, RSVP’d no. When my friend reached out to the boy’s mom, she said she could never let him go shoot a pretend gun at night in the woods.
It wasn’t something my friend had even thought about. It was her privilege not to think about it. But it is a part of her friend’s daily life. Part of the lessons she imparts to her kids, along with not accepting rides from strangers and looking both ways before crossing.
What I think people who get offended by this don’t get is that they don’t get it. They can afford to not fully understand it because they don’t live it. So, they must believe and care when they hear these stories from others. Because until we hear and believe and care nothing will change. And I have learned that for me, that is intolerable.