Episode 21: Hearing the unheard. "The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them." ~Ida B. Wells

Episode 21: Hearing the unheard

Ryan D Thompson Collaboration, Modern, Racial Justice, Skills

Key ideas

When one group within our society suffers, so does the society as a whole. Alleviating that suffering requires atoning for the past. As Ida B. Wells said, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”

  • When talking of ways to deal with other people and collaborate better, it also helps to think about how NOT to treat other people. The history of racism and the civil rights movement that rose up to promote equal interpretations of justice offer some powerful insights in this regard.
  • When considering racial injustice, one point that comes to mind is the distinction between overt, KKK-level racism and other subtler forms of injustice. While few sane people deny the horrific nature of practices like slavery, racism comes in many other shapes and sizes.
  • Covert racism can be even more insidious because it hides so well. People of color navigate landmines of microaggression every day, which many White people have never experienced. Many of these acts seem minor from the outside, but over time can be very harmful.
  • What does it mean for a life to “matter”? What can we do to reduce the injustices of racism? One act of respect is to practice deep listening: to truly listen and restrain the need to immediately respond. Listening with open ears and open minds to the stories and experiences of Black people is a critical way to move towards healing the wounds of the past.


Sometimes we can get uncomfortably reminded that we know less than we think. Or that our stories are not as accurate as we once believed. For me, the story was that I was a quiet but dedicated supporter of equality and racial justice. A bit of discomfort can be a helpful reminder of where we need to grow. 

A few years back, I was at a Toastmaster’s meeting, where like many others, I had gone to improve my public speaking skills. One of the activities involves extemporaneous speaking. You are given a topic and have to improvise a short speech on the spot. The woman running the activity that night selected a general topic of civil rights. At first, I thought, “great, I’d be happy to speak about civil rights.” When the first volunteer stood up to speak, she gave him the question for his short speech: “who is your favorite civil rights leader?”

Now in many ways, this is a softball question. It should be reasonably easy to name a handful of civil rights leaders and rattle off a two-minute speech. My confidence in this topic wavered as I realized that I would be hard-pressed to come up with anyone other than the obvious answer to probably most White people: Martin Luther King, Jr. Sure, I had heard of plenty of important figures, but my stomach turned as I struggled to come up with any details about any other civil rights leader in the nearly century-long history of civil rights. 

Since that night, this experience and other instances have helped me realize that as a White guy, I’ve had the luxury to only support civil rights from the sidelines — waving my proverbial MLK banner when needed, but otherwise free to live as I please. It’s easy to tune out when your own rights and liberties are not at stake. You can hide your beliefs, ideologies, and many other characteristics that we use to judge other people. But you can’t hide the color of your skin. And when your skin color can immediately trigger all kinds of unjust behavior, you don’t have the liberty of pretending that skin color doesn’t matter.

This episode is part of a series on dealing with people. I’m going to examine the civil rights movement and its roots to identify some clear pointers on how NOT to treat other people. I also hope to learn some of the ways that Black people in America have navigated aggression and injustice on many levels. And I’ll explore some ways that I, as an individual, can do better to promote justice for all people, regardless of skin color, creed, or culture.

When considering racial injustice, one point that comes to mind is the distinction between overt, KKK-level racism and other subtler forms of injustice. Few sane people deny the horrific nature of slavery. However, the abolition of slavery most certainly didn’t translate to justice. Most reasonable people would probably agree that Black people were treated as second-class citizens even a century later. It’s easy to find examples of appalling treatment in this time frame, from verbal to physical abuse and legal to economic injustice. Most reasonable people don’t deny this overt racism.

In the decades following the Civil Rights Movement’s heights in the 60s, things appeared to be getting better for Black Americans. On the surface, anyway. But an honest assessment of reality reveals that just because laws were passed doesn’t mean the mindset driving the injustice went away. Unjust practices were just transformed and slipped behind the scenes a bit more. While segregated schools and “no colored people” signs went away, the beliefs that created those things were still in place. 

Here’s the point where otherwise reasonable people can start to butt heads on the topic. As a White person, I’ve heard many other White people express some form of the following: “racism existed, sure, but now it doesn’t.” None of us think we’re racist because we don’t do things that most White people associate with racism: wearing hoods, shouting the N-word while marching down the street with torches and pitchforks, looking for someone to lynch. Most reasonable people agree that this Klan-like behavior is ignorant and evil. 

But even people who are generally quite reasonable often deny the existence of covert racism. Or at least try to minimize it. In many ways, this behavior is even more insidious because it hides so well and rears its ugly head just about everywhere. I’ve seen and heard examples of subtle injustice many times, things that I can safely say have never happened to me as a middle-aged White guy. I haven’t been followed around in a store by staff or security guards since I was a grungy teenager. I’ve never been accused of stealing my own car. No one has ever called the cops on me for taking a nap in my car (and I did that a lot in the early days of having kids – you nap when you can!). I’ve never had the police called on me for sitting in a Starbucks waiting for a friend. I’ve never had anyone surprised that I speak eloquently or question why I was hired for a job. I’ve never received a call from my spouse telling me the police came to my house with guns drawn because my 8-year old son was running in the front yard with a water gun.

These are all real-world situations that happen regularly to people of color. And surely the list goes on. Those of us who don’t deal with this behavior can quickly write it off as no big deal. But when it’s your lived reality, no doubt it’s exhausting. And when police get involved, we all know how badly that can go. 

I imagine anyone who doesn’t already believe the truth of these examples probably turned this podcast off by now. So many potential conversations are immediately shut down by slapping on the “woke” label and tuning out. “Oh, here goes another woke White guy hating on his fellow White people.” It’s a shame how quickly the walls go up, and the ears are closed. To me, this all comes down to the Golden Rule: I wouldn’t want people to treat me in those ways. So I shouldn’t treat others that way either. No one deserves that behavior, whether it’s a microaggression or a blatant act of hatred. All people are worthy of respect, yet Black people and other people of color have frequently been denied this basic decency.

How can we increase goodwill in society? One act of respect is to practice deep listening: to listen and restrain the need to immediately respond, to truly hear another human. Listening with open ears and open minds to the stories and experiences of Black people serves us well in supporting racial justice. This colossally challenging but vital skill also serves us well in every aspect of our lives, helping us build better relationships with anyone we interact with. In a society obsessed with loud voices and fast talkers, deep listening is an underappreciated and underutilized tool. 

It feels ironic to be talking so much about listening, so this seems like a nice place to stop. I’m going to go out and find someone else to listen to and learn from. But join me again next week as I continue this series on dealing with people, looking at some ideas from neuroscience. Be sure to subscribe for more episodes. If you enjoy the podcast, please leave me a review; it really helps! And please share this with a friend if you think it will be helpful to someone. Until the next time, be well!

Podcast soundtrack credit:

Our Story Begins Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License