Traffic Stop: White people listening to Black Stories

Network by Tom Price at Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Network by Tom Price at Yorkshire Sculpture Park

If you ever listen to America’s National Public Radio, you likely have heard StoryCorps.  Two people, usually friends or family, sit in front of a microphone and tell a story.

The stories that ultimately air are moving, tender, and important. Their staff members edit them expertly.

The Beauty of StoryCorps

StoryCorps’ mission is to preserve and share humanity’s stories in order to build connections between people and create a more just and compassionate world.

We do this to remind one another of our shared humanity, to strengthen and build the connections between people, to teach the value of listening, and to weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that everyone’s story matters. At the same time, we are creating an invaluable archive for future generations.

As someone who loves audio, I’m drawn into their stories. But not everyone likes to listen to podcasts or radio. They want visuals. StoryCorps also creates animation to go with some of their stories.

But Whose Stories Do we Believe?

Traffic Stop is devastating and powerful. We learn of Alex Landau, a Black man, and his dreadful encounter with police officers during a traffic stop. His experience is not uncommon. For decades Black men and women have been telling this same story. Most white people have not been listening.

Perhaps more white people are beginning to hear and listen as a multitude of eyewitness accounts come out because of the Black Lives Matter protests. There now is increased media coverage.

These stories of injustice, racism, and police brutality are not new stories, but like Doubting Thomas of old, lots of white folks need to see it to believe. The hours of video that now capture the violence through smart phones and other devices give white people the proof they feel they need when they have refused to trust Black victims reporting about their own experiences.

White Privilege and Hearing Stories

Alex Landau and his mother, Patsy Hathaway, on a visit to StoryCorps.

Alex Landau and his mother, Patsy Hathaway, on a visit to StoryCorps.

This selective listening/believing is a feature of privilege–white privilege means that as a white man I am more likely to believe and trust stories I hear from other white men.

When the person telling the story is different from me, doubts and suspicions emerge–It sounds like she is exaggerating. I need to know the whole story first. I’m sure there was some misunderstanding. There is an immediate siding with the person in the story who looks most like me. These reactions rise unbidden. They serve to kick the knees out of a person’s story. The reactions inoculate me from truly hearing and from feeling responsible to do anything to change the system.

Countering the privileged-driven reactions requires self-awareness. The starting point for me is to be aware and acknowledge that someone tampered with my brain. Many someones in fact. The reality is I was raised by my society to be racist and sexist.

This is not about how I feel or think I feel or want to feel towards people of color. It is how my brain has been programmed to react through a relentless barrage of messages I received from films, TV shows, news reports, and from other fellow whites. We impart to each other a code that gets passed on like a computer virus. It becomes part of our internal system and affects our thinking and feelings around people who are different from us.

We not only need to reeducate ourselves; we need to rewire our brains.

Listening deeply to stories changes our brains.

Perhaps it is the brilliance of StoryCorps to bring out a story that creatively reveals white privilege in action for the majority white NPR audience. Alex’ mom is white and middle class. She never imagined her Black male son was at risk of being targeted by the police.

Alex Landau, who is African-American, was adopted by a white couple as a child and grew up in largely white, middle-class suburbs of Denver.

Still, “we never talked about race growing up,” Landau tells his mother, Patsy Hathaway, on a visit to StoryCorps. “I just don’t think that was ever a conversation.”

“I thought that love would conquer all and skin color really didn’t matter,” Hathaway says. “I had to learn the really hard way when they almost killed you.”

That was in 2009, when Landau, then a college student, was stopped by Denver police officers and severely beaten.

Take a moment to settle in and listen deeply as Alex tells his story to his mom.


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