Candidates Who Listen—And to Whom They're Listening

[Content Note: Privilege; monolithizing.]

One of the themes of this presidential election (of every presidential election), at least on the left side of the aisle, is which candidate is better for marginalized people.

Bernie is better for black people! Hillary is better for women! Bernie is better for LGBT people! Hillary is better for people with disabilities! Etc ad infinitum.

You'll never hear me make such a blanket claim, for reasons I've already explained, not least of which being that no marginalized group is a monolith with a universal set of interests. And because there are people whose identities straddle multiple axes of marginalization.

But lots of people make those blanket claims, without regard for individual needs and intersecting identities.

And as proof, they submit single votes on individual bills, or single quotes from long-ago speeches. Or, they say, this candidate listens.

Now, don't get me wrong: Listening is great! And I think it was important when, for example, Hillary Clinton said during her address in Harlem this week that white people need to listen to black people about their lives and experiences and believe them—especially because that comes embedded with the promise that she's going to do what she urges other white folks to do. And when she also said, "Hold me accountable," it is an invitation to do precisely that if she fails to listen.

But listening, even if that does indeed result in being a stronger advocate for marginalized people, is what presidents in a representative democracy are supposed to do.

It is my bare minimum expectation that a Democratic candidate for the presidency would listen to every community of color, to women, to LGB people, to trans people, to people with disabilities, to documented immigrants, to undocumented immigrants, to refugees, to people from marginalized religions, to atheists, to young people, to old people, to people who are poor, hungry, homeless. (That is not a complete list, nor are those mutually exclusive categories.)

Because no group is a monolith, different people within those communities are going to have different ideas of what constitutes a trustworthy and effective candidate, but there are common themes and needs, and the more listening one does, the more one hears the harmony, instead of what at first may seem like a cacophony of discordant expectations.

It is the job of a president who cares about justice to find those harmonies.

So listening is necessary. And a willingness to listen, meaningfully and in good faith, is terrific.

But what's getting lost in all the discussion of which candidate is better for what community is the fact that however good they may be is not only because of their own ability to listen, but because of the people who are giving them something to which to listen.

If I had a dollar for every time I've seen a white person hectoring one of my black colleagues on Twitter for criticizing Bernie Sanders, shouting at them that they're stupid if they don't realize Sanders is the best candidate for black people, well, I could mount a third-party vanity campaign faster than you can say "Michael Bloomberg."

These white supporters lecture black critics while ignoring that, if Sanders is indeed, in any measure, a good representative for black people, it's because he's listened to and learned from black people.

Which is not a credit to Sanders, since that's what he's supposed to be doing. It's a credit to the people to whom he listened.

Being a marginalized person who endeavors to educate a privileged person on your needs can be a daunting task. And often a waste of fucking time. It means risking that they might not listen, but giving and time and energy to talk to them anyway, on the chance that it will make a difference.

No marginalized person is obliged to provide education to a privileged person (especially not on demand). But it's something we have to do, when we are choosing one person to represent our needs in a national agenda, a person who will serve as both head of government and head of state.

Not everyone wants to do it, or will. Not everyone will have the sort of access that gives them the chance to be heard by a (possibly) future president. But there are people who do get that access, and make use of it. There are people who make criticisms of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, in their own spaces, in the hope they might get heard. Maybe their concerns will be amplified by someone with access they don't have.

People who want presidential candidates to listen to what they have to say about their own lived experiences are brave and tenacious—and an integral part of the electoral process.

After all, what difference does it make if a candidate is willing to listen, if there's no one to listen to?

So, maybe the best way to honor one's candidate, if one has a preferred candidate, is to knock it off with the brazen claims about who will better for what community, and instead show some gratitude and respect toward the people in that community who have put their trust, often precariously at best, in a candidate to listen.

I can't be the only person who is tired of being told that I'm fixing to vote against my own best interests, by people who haven't even bothered to listen long enough to find out what my interests are.

I'm glad we've got candidates who listen, to varying degrees of success. But I'm even more glad for the people to whom they can listen, who are willing and able to raise their voices. Who advocate for their needs and compel better policy.

I endeavor to remain among them, working my teaspoon.

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