Listening Work

Last weekend, Elizabeth Lauten, the communications director for a Republican representative, apologized for criticizing Sasha and Malia Obama’s appearances at the annual White House turkey pardon. “Please know that these judgmental feelings truly have no place in my heart,” she wrote. “Furthermore, I’d like to apologize to all of those who I have hurt and offended with my words, and pledge to learn and grow (and I assure you I have) from this experience.” Lauten formally resigned.

At the National Book Awards ceremony this year, author Daniel Handler—otherwise known as Lemony Snicket—introduced author Jacqueline Woodson, the winner of the Young Adult category—with a joke about her race. “I clearly failed, and I’m sorry,” he wrote later, in a tweet. “My remarks on Wednesday night were monstrously inappropriate and yes, racist.” He donated $10,000 to the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and agreed to match up to 100,000 for other contributors.

A Huffington Post journalist apologized for being a member of the media. The NYPD officer who killed Eric Garner said, “I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner.” He did not use the words “I am sorry.”

As I began to write this piece, Rolling Stone Managing Editor Will Dana published a “Note to [Their] Readers.” He explained that the magazine now has reason not to believe the rape claims of a UVA student the magazine reported on in a high-profile news feature several weeks ago. “We are taking this seriously,” Dana writes, “and apologize to anyone who was affected by the story.”

In her notes for “All Apologies,” the last essay in the collection Notes from No Man’s Land, Eula Biss explains that for source material she tracked instances of the word “sorry” in national newspapers from the past 30 years (No Man’s Land was published in 2009). The essay catalogues and arranges apologies in a way similar to what I’ve done above. In between recounting official apologies issued on behalf of the U.S. federal government—for the victims of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, for Japanese internment—Biss weaves her own:

“Stop,” my brother told me. We were standing in the yard with rakes in our hands. My little brother was not a skinny kid anymore. He was fully grown, and we stood facing each other suddenly as adults. “You always do that,” he told me, “and then you think you can just apologize. If you were really sorry, you wouldn’t do it again.” (Biss, 193)*.

The Lauten incident came up in a conversation with my parents the other day. When does an apology feel genuine?, my mother wondered. This question feels new to me now, as much as I’ve been taught—implicitly and explicitly, and since preschool—to think about it, and to Do the Right Thing in turn. When I was younger, the course to apology felt much more clear: If you do something wrong, say you’re sorry, and mean it. And so: when I was five, I shoplifted a small model Dalmatian from Blockbuster; 101 Dalmatians had just been released. I felt so bad about it that I confessed an hour later to my parents, who brought me back to the store so I could apologize to the manager. He accepted, sheepishly. I think, this week, of “Criming While White,” but I did not offer this story, or any other story, in a tweet.

That question my mother raised feels new to me now, I think, because it’s not easy to answer. It’s not easy to answer because its response depends—upends—on the person, or persons, for whom an apology is intended. And that circles back to another question, which feels to me like the question, and often goes unsaid: Who, or what, compels us to act?

Right now, and this week in particular, I feel small. This feeling remains as I pull at my small strands of short hair, thinking that when I reach the ends, answers will rebound, and I’ll feel more than the meeting of my fingertips. This feeling of smallness is ironic—dangerous, even—because I know that my various layers of privilege out-embody me. I decide this week to catalogue recent cultural apologies, to try to focus on something specific. There is anger, and violence, and racism, and I am overwhelmed, and I feel sorry that I am. I am overwhelmed right now in witnessing social spaces where empathy seems secondary, and yet I am complicit in holding those spaces because of my skin color. I write to puncture that space, but I also write with the fear, and guilt, of taking it up.

“If I apologized for slavery, would you accept?” This question forms one small line at the bottom of page 196 of Biss’s book. It would be easy to miss if you were reading quickly or unattuned to Biss’s economy of sentences or the way she fits big inquiries into small spaces. This is probably one of the lines that made reviewers find her book provocative. It is part of why I find her book provocative, and necessary.

I think of her writing as active listening. I read a voice that is frustrated, and pained, and aware of its power—and therefore further frustrated and pained. I read a voice that listens: as a journalist, to black communities in San Diego; as a neighbor, to the history of Rogers Park, in Chicago. I am talking about this book a lot right now with people I am close to who look like me, and who look like Biss: white, well-educated, middle-class. It is an easy point of connection. Admitting to the desire for this connection is not as easy. I want people who look like me to read it because it offers a model of self-inquiry and self-critique that is uncommon, and uncommonly public.

I am sensitive; I have always known this about myself. The thing I fear the most is doing the wrong thing. (Do the Right Thing). Through 12 years of prestigious and progressive public schooling and through most of four at Duke, I often prefaced contributions in class with “I’m sorry” or “I’m not sure if this is right, but…” Then I learned, through a professional workshop, that I didn’t have to apologize, as a woman, for taking up space or for having ideas. Throughout those 16 years none of my peers held me accountable for that. Many of them, of course, were doing the same thing.

Throughout 16 years of progressive education I did not often engage in conversations about race, either with those who share my skin color or with those who do not. I did not have the language, despite believing I did, to place myself among others. I did not have the language to place myself.

Ideally apologies are as much about self as other. They reflect, they incur, sympathy, sometimes empathy, and they are self-reflexive in turn.

Apologies are ideal because they are impossible. When the words are said and when the reparations are paid, the body remains. I believe in the body, even when I am most cerebral. I dance with my body; I also write with my body, and listen with my body. I attend a demonstration. I don’t say much, other than I’m glad to be here. I join the chant of “Black Lives Matter.” I thank those who organized it. I listen. I bookmark a lot of articles by a lot of different voices and I read them. I look at news images. I listen. I critique my listening. I realize it is a privilege to listen. I listen because I should not have to be told to do so in the first place.

“I listen as much to my own imaginings, as I watch those fleeting glimpses of my thoughts cross my consciousness, as I listen to others,” Dr. Wahneema Lubiano writes, as part of the new “No Apologies” campaign at Duke. “And I know that my work, my affinities, my life, are all richer for that listening. Listening is my way of recognizing the beckonings from others that might not be noted as easily when I am only hearing my voice speaking.”

I consider what the world would look like, what our conversations would look like, if we replaced “work ethic” with “listening ethic.” I write in order to do so. I write to try to make that which out-embodies me visible, and to claim it, and to interrogate it: that is the responsibility and product of having privilege and choosing to listen. This is not an exceptional action; it is an everyday practice.

“Listening does its own work,” Lubiano continues, “[it] is a result of strength, of endurance even against a long history of marginalization—yes, but it is at the same time a muscle, the deployment of which makes a social world possible.”


*Excerpted from the essay “All Apologies,” from Notes From No Man’s Land, by Eula Biss. You can listen to a collaborative reading of the essay, produced by Ninth Letter and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, here.