WeListen is one of the hottest new clubs on campus. Purporting to be a “grassroots, campus-based organization bridging the American political divide” by hosting talks on various topics from immigration reform to abortion, and marijuana regulation to environmental policy, the group hosts weekly talks about nothing, and changes the opinion of no one.
The following are my three main criticisms of WeListen, and why it should be aptly re-named to “WeGettheSh**BeatOutofUs”, because that’s what it feels like every time I walk out of one of your meetings.
WeListen will continue to fail to “bridge the political divide” because there is no discussion about power dynamics in any of your conversations. Thus, WeListen becomes a safe haven for targeted racism hiding behind free speech rhetoric and dog-whistle politics.
WeListen inordinately burdens people of color to explain themselves in white spaces, and reeks of tone-policing.
WeListen’s leadership is full of people who are complicit in white supremacy. Most of the leadership is comfortable with (and sometimes, advocates for) the invitation of racist, transphobic and xenophobic speakers such Ben Shapiro, Milo Yiannopoulos and Charles Murray to campus. Further, the demographic makeup of both the leadership and attendance of WeListen meetings is antithetical to any productive conversation where the intersectionality of race and politics is imminent.
First and foremost, WeListen does not foster productive conversations, ultimately because WeListen fails to adequately address race: a central factor undergirding every conversation they have. WeListen does not educate about nor acknowledge power dynamics in such conversations which pernicious and insidious notions about race underpin our conceptions of policy and law. WeListen also fails to discuss how law and policy actively work to marginalize, incarcerate, kill, and silence populations. Instead, WeListen invites an unscrupulous conversation between uneducated white people on issues that have the most dastardly effects on people of color.
Further, WeListen propagates targeted racism hiding behind free speech rhetoric. WeListen is another half-assed attempt — one with Ford School funding and bureaucratic leverage — to hold a conversation on the backs of the poor and politically powerless. And as much as they would like to “change the American political climate by building a movement of listeners on campuses across the country,” many people of color leave WeListen frustrated, assailed and exhausted from the attacks on their identity and personhood. This country will be majority-minority by 2050. Yet, their meetings maintain a stunning lack of diversity while relying on the charity and emotional labour of a few people of color to explain the formidable legacy of American racism, colonialism and imperialism around the world. The leadership has yet to muster up the courage to be open and honest about the history of this country, why they are here and their white privilege.
Third, the WeListen website reeks of coded language, respectability politics and tone policing. Championing phrases like “can’t seem to get along,” “not debate!,” “political disagreement is not inherently hostile” and “humanizing political adversaries,” WeListen capitalizes on the idea that political discussions must be “civil,” and if a member of a marginalized group conforms to socially acceptable or mainstream standards of appearance and behavior, they will be shielded from prejudices and systemic injustices. This is an organization which purposefully deflects attention from injustice and oppression, away from the substance and onto the style of the argument. It is for this reason WeListen is at odds with the political, social and economic liberation of people of color.
Lastly, the reality is that WeListen draws host to a number of people who feel comfortable in white supremacist spaces, and places like Young Americans for Freedom and College Republicans that invite white supremacists to campus. No, this isn’t an exaggeration: A quick facebook search of the executive board is all you need for this one. As the inspirational activist and organizer Hoai An Pham, LSA senior, expertly noted, “the entire board of a white supremacist group on campus regularly attends WeListen events and feels welcome there. So if you have conservative friends, particularly if you have friends in Young Americans for Freedom, or that invited Ben Shapiro to campus … please realize that you are friends with white supremacists and please stop acting like you can separate the personal and political and please stop with the “productive conversations.” White supremacists are incapable of listening to people of color on matters of institutional oppression. And WeListen fails to listen to those who need to be heard the most.
Yeah, WeListen. I’ve heard enough.