You are listening - but can you hear me?
In true listening, we reach behind the words,
to find the person who is being revealed...
There is the semantic problem of course.
The words bear a different connotation for you
than they do for me.
Consequently I can never tell what you said
but only what I heard.
I will have to rephrase what you said
and check it out with you to make sure that
what left your mind and heart
arrived in my mind and heart
intact and without contortions. (John Powell)
Recently I found myself in the middle of this "dialogue thing" - a group of people sharing and listening, more accurately, women sharing and listening - and most importantly women of different cultures and skin colors sharing and listening to each other.
And while I am writing this, I am wondering how the most important part of this evening for me, the fact that I am able to connect with a woman from a different culture/race to mine, becomes difficult for me to put into words that don't seem awkward and stilted but natural and fluid.
And once again, I realise, that natural and fluid are not words connected to race/culture issues - I feel awkward, as lots of us "white" women do when referring to skin tones different from our own. Part of me still resents the idea that this should be in any way important in my connection with another person, while the much bigger part is hugely excited about being able to have this connection with a woman of a different race/culture. Our evening would not have been half as inspiring -in fact, I would probably have found it a little pointless - had we all been the same.
So our differences do matter. They start with the most obvious - how we look but they don't end there. As we stumble around vocabulary, trying to find a common language that we can all accept and relate to, we have to be prepared to expose and at times even embarass ourselves. And have a good laugh with everyone else, when we get caught with our tongues in a knot as we are trying to talk about race/culture without using the "b-word". Why is it so difficult for "white" women to say black?
I tell you why - because we have grown up believing that white is good and black is bad ( a famous german children's game is called: who is afraid of the "schwarze mann" - the black man, angels are white, evil is associated with black, white is virginal and equals good, whilst black is dark, threatening and equals bad ) - subsequently we shy away from giving anybody the label "black" but don't mind referring to somebody as "white". And while nobody would readily admit that these largely subconsicous agendas apply to them, a scientific test about .hidden racial bias , done in 2007 (check it out!!), has revealed that they most probably would too!
At the same time the test also shows that "black" people with a preference for "their" color show pride in this fact, while "white" people with a preference for white are embarrassed and often ashamed by their test results. This of course makes perfect sense as historically most "white" people have nothing much to be proud of when it comes to race relations, while many "black" people have fought injustice and prejudice to come to a place of pride in their "black" identity.
(I personally never felt the need to be proud of my "race" or culture as - and I only understand this now - I have never been part of an oppressed minority and enjoyed the privilege of defining myself first and foremost as a woman, for whom skin color has been largely unimportant)
So where does this leave us today as we are trying to transcend stereotypes and overcome our own ingrained and often subconscious assumptions about "the other"? The only way we can do this is by talking honestly and openly to each other, by sharing emotions rather than intellectualised political viewpoints, by telling each other how we feel rather than how we think - as one is about finding connection and the other mostly about establishing differences.
And this is, what this "dialogue thing" is to me: a forum where we can - in time - find a safe space to explore our feelings around our different identities as women, women of different colors and cultures and mothers (some of us) to non-white children in a largely racist society ,where we can come to understand what has divided us in the past and celebrate what connects us as women, mothers, sisters, daughters, friends and partners.
Watch this space - and our soon to be established face book group - for more on our eclectic (yes, we do know what the word means ;-)) group of dialoguers.