Thursday, June 27, 2013

For Those Who Still Can Listen

I immigrated to the United States, which means my parents would get up to go to a federal building in New York in the dark hours of the morning to stand with me and thousands of other people in a line that would take the day to clear.

‘Excuse me?’

‘I don’t understand!’

‘What are you saying?’

‘Ma’am, listen, listen!’

As a kid, I got to watch a slew of immigrants get dismissed, their language skills diminished, somehow suddenly incomprehensible to a clerk whose job it is to communicate with people.

As an adult, I worked in public assistance. We had thousands of people come through the program every week. And our only real goal was placing people, most of whom lived in shelters, and some of whom had criminal backgrounds, into sustainable employment.

And I got to watch as people suddenly became incomprehensible to those who are supposed to be assisting them. First, they were just difficult for that person to understand, then a little aggressive and then, finally, their behavior was confrontational. Because for some people, anger is all of you that they will hear. 

Growing up in New York, I saw it in my schools, at the centers, at the post office, at the bus stop and the subway information booth. I saw the eager dismissal of other human beings, the willingness to get frustrated, the sudden lapse of good faith.

‘You can’t help me! Get me somebody who speaks English!’

This crowded, petty hate that people get away with for fact that they direct it at the vulnerable. This acidic resent filtered into altercations over retail transactions and social services. This casual disregard of others and how that somehow became their failure and not your own.

I grew up around a sea of voices and they were all different.  And their silencing, their ridicule, it is about power. It is about having just enough power to diminish someone else. To diminish strangers. To diminish my parents. To diminish my friends. Suddenly, Dee speaks too rough for you. Suddenly, my dad just needs to blurt it out. Suddenly, my best friends are incomprehensible to you.

And it’s their fault.  It’s their fault because they have to navigate a world where you have just enough to diminish others. It’s their fault because it wasn’t enough that this is their second or third language, they should speak it with the fluency with which you disparage them. It’s their fault because you never bother to listen to people like them. It’s their fault because you couldn’t be bothered to take the time to navigate their world. It’s their fault because they’re so dismissible, so easy to disregard. It’s their fault because they stepped out of one neighborhood into another, because they’ve had to climb between places and communities and you live comfortably in one. It’s their fault for not appealing to your insularity.

It’s Trayvon’s fault because he left one community and forgot to pass in another. Because he thought he could just be a teenager and he didn’t see the sign that says ‘upon entry into this gated community, all black boys become a 1950’s caricature.’ It’s his fault because he couldn’t convey to George Zimmerman that he was just a boy, just a kid, walking home to his father. It’s not George Zimmerman’s fault for living a small life, one where he knows so little of people that a teenage boy wearing a hooded sweatshirt becomes a threat to his life that must be extinguished.

My parents navigated two countries, two economic systems, six languages between them.  My father went to work in the Bronx as a machinist in the dark hours of the morning and did not return until the dark hours of the evening. My mother, a professor of English herself in the Ukraine, was a waitress, a tutor and a case-worker here, at the same time. My friends have moved in and out of poverty, in and out of neighborhoods on both sides of development and decline. All these human beings have wandered into so many different worlds within blocks and paychecks of each other, and they’re incomprehensible to you now. And it’s their fault, because you had the fortune of growing up in one world and never being all that curious of what was beyond its various walls. Because you’ve decided you own that world and they’re merely visitors in it, visitors for which you have little tolerance or patience. Because the idea of other towns or other people upsets you. Because although you all live with the same borders, they are the trespassers. And they made the mistake of crossing without reading the sign about proceeding with caution, keeping any eye for the intellectually impenetrable. And they had the audacity to not just listen, like they’ve been doing their whole lives, but to speak. They got Don West even if Don West didn’t get them.  And I get you.

Consider this. Rachel had a friend. And he cared about her. And she was the last person he called before he died. They spoke on the night he perished from this earth because he got her and she got him. If you can’t consider her, if you can’t see her value or even imagine that she has value, if she makes you feel some sort of shame or resent, the problem isn’t with her, at all. If you a problem understanding Rachel Jeantel, made to testify at a trial over the murder of her friend, a murder that she had to hear, to listen to, as she rebuts a defense attorney representing the man who killed that friend, the problem isn’t with her at all.

If you think there’s something wrong with how she speaks or looks, there’s something wrong with you.

No one has ever asked me to answer, to listen to my best friend die and to make the case of why. No defense attorney has ever tried to rattle me questioning if I heard what I heard, if I could be trusted or understood. A big world filled with people living in small ones has never editorialized on my inscrutability. I served on a jury and that was stress enough. To go through what this young woman has gone through is remarkable.  To go after her is the petty, hateful purview of bullshit artists. It is the cruelty of someone who has just enough power to diminish someone else. It is the arrogance of people proud to flaunt the fact that other human beings seem alien to them. But Rachel Jeantel, by fact of her birth and her life, speaks more languages than you will ever know and hears more than you’ve ever bothered with. And the fact that you can’t hear her, that you can’t be bothered to understand, says far more about you than her. It says more about you than it does Don West who is cynically clowning for the jury and his client. It says that you are the smallest, cruelist thing of all and that you are proud of it.


  1. Replies
    1. Right on! This has made me rethink my attitudes when dealing with the tech help at AT&T. I will tamp down my frustration. Thank you.

  2. You were right, Bastard. View @ 7:53 PM. Missed the point entirely...

    Chris Hayes had a thoughtful segment on tonight's InWithChris on MSNBC, with a linguist as guest. Not to translate! But to explain that young black teens understand EACH OTHER, and that it's not up to them to ensure their elders do. He essentially made the same point you did.

    I'm 68 years old and if I listened closely and carefully, I could understand Rachel Jeantel. I guess it just depends on the degree of hatefulness or empathy you have in your heart.

  3. This was one of the saddest, most beautiful essays I've ever read.

  4. This is so beautiful Sergei and so painful and so true. I hope many, many people read it.

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  5. :( I can relate, living in Colorado Springs and being a puertorican, a political enigma. Will we ever have full empathy for others?

  6. I see your point and agree with many of your observations but I also see in this country so often before the truth is known people jump on one side or the other. Many people no mater what color their skin are afraid to comment because they fear being called a racist. We have closed down the conversation and that breads anger that will build and most often come out in a very bad way. I was not there that night and only know what I have seen reported so I can not say what happened. I do know our country as a whole is letting the youth in many aspects. One major aspect is our school system itself has become a way to make money by passing students to make quotas with little or no concern for the student. Higher education is unattainable for many because of the cost. I do know many that have come from areas deemed intercity that have done wonders with very little help. I do think you appreciate things more when you have to work for them but it should not be so one sided. I think another area we fail the youth is the new thinking everyone is a winner on the team. This gives them a very unreal outlook when entering the world of work. I guess what I am trying to say is we all own some blame in what is going on be it having blinders on and acting like nothing is going on. Or the ones that are so angry they can not sit and have a one on one with someone who believes or feels different than they do. It seems everyone wants to be heard but they do not or can not hear others. The art of conversation needs to be brought back and no one person is totally correct in his or her thinking we all can learn something new everyday.

  7. We are all people. Some want to be better than others, but in the end we are still all people. Well written.