Monday, 28 September 2020

Breaking open: the work of listening in a racist world

image of dark landscape with sky and clouds - moody and blurry

This is a transcript from a talk I gave last week, to mark the end of my two-year postdoc at Concordia’s Acts of Listening Lab. It was written to be listened to live with an audience, but I hope that something comes through from the written words.

To celebrate the International Day of Listening, join Acts of Listening Lab postdoctoral fellow Rajni Shah as they reflect on two years of research into the work of listening across difference. This talk will include reflections on Rajni’s ‘Listening Tables’ series, as well as personal reflections from their own embodied experiences as a non-binary person of colour living on unceded lands. Those who identify as QTBIPOC are especially welcomed.

Start here:

As a listener (including those who are reading) I invite you to begin by thinking about what it means for your listening to meet my listening, in this online meeting place. This is a slow, somewhat meditative talk. It asks you to bring your listening. So before you go any further, take some time to listen in to your own body. Ask yourself:

What do I need in order to be able to listen right now?

Do you need to be here, reading or listening to this talk? Is now the moment? Perhaps when you tuned in, you found that you need something else right now. If so, please honour that desire.

If now is the right moment, please take one action to help yourself arrive into your own listening. This might be making a cup of tea, running a bath, meditating, changing your location, putting on music, or anything else that will allow you to feel just a little more arrived.

When you’re ready, we’ll begin.


I acknowledge that I wrote and recorded this talk as a visitor on Gadigal lands and waters. I offer deep respect and gratitude to Gadigal elders past, present, and emerging, and to all Indigenous peoples around the world who are doing the heart work of continuing and resisting.

I acknowledge the kookaburras and the lizards, and the many other creatures who were close by as I wrote this talk, whose songs and dances teach me about time.

I acknowledge the whales, who are making their passage south as I write this.

I acknowledge my own heritage and blood family, who are from the Kumaoni region in present-day Uttarakhand, India.

And I acknowledge and thank all the people who made the Listening Tables project. Luis, Caite, Andrea, MJ, and Alana at the Acts of Listening Lab. Guest listeners Ellen, Leo, Savita, and Eldad. The listeners who came back each time to share and grow this practice: Emma, Hanss, Seçkin, Victoria, and Ayumi. And all those who attended Listening Tables between August and November 2019.

Thank you.


I try to turn things right side up.

Which is the same as to say,

I turn things upside down.

Which is the same as to say,

I try to make sense of the world.

Which is the same as to say,

I tried to rearrange the room in order to rearrange our thoughts,

which is a way of saying,

I invited us to rearrange our minds and hearts by inviting us to rearrange the room, the table,
                                    and our listening.

1. Breaking

The first Listening Table. Tiohtià:ke/Montréal. August 2019.

I am nervous, and newly arrived back on to these lands. I came from unceded Gadigal lands, where I was not invited, and arrived on the unceded lands of the Kanien’kehá:ka Nation, where I was not invited, into the University, where I was invited, but which itself is at the heart of a history of peoples and actions that were not invited.

In any one moment, there are so many arrivals.
Harms done, that continue to harm.
Harms done that continue to be done.

I am aware of this discomfort, the shame of mobility and the histories that enable or necessitate it, the shame of racisms, my own and others, the shame that pours through lineage into our bodies.

On this day, same as most days, I am trying to find new ways to arrive myself.

At the first Listening Table, I was nervous. 30 people arrived. They had, as invited, brought food to share. Their hearts were suddenly right there, beating, in the room, expectant, and to a greater or lesser degree, trusting me to hold their experience. And I was nervous, and this is how it began.

I had arrived hours earlier, more than five hours earlier to set up the room. I like to give myself the time to arrive, see, here I was again, trying to give myself the time and space I needed to arrive. But when the people came into the room, I was nervous, I moved quickly. I remember myself losing the ground beneath my feet. I remember myself not yet feeling arrived from those lands, these lands, the bright sparkling waters and thick air of Gadigal country. Not knowing how to be arrived in that room. Not knowing how to be oriented.

That first table, I had no idea how things would go. I had a plan, of course. The plan was this. During the first hour, in one room, the Acts of Listening Lab, are ten people around a beautiful table. Microphones at the table. Pretty light hanging in the middle of the room. Those people, the ten, mostly strangers to each other, are invited to sit together for a full hour and wait for words to arrive. Those people are invited to meet across difference through listening.

A chance to be heard, and held.
A seat at the table.

And in the other room, the one that is called the Sun Room, the room in which we would be meeting now, in which I’m imagining us all sharing this talk, in the Sun Room are the rest of the 30. There are papered tables, pens and pencils, plants, natural light, cushions, chairs, and headphones through which these people can listen in to the listening conversation that is happening between the ten in the Acts of Listening Lab across the hallway. Later, in the second hour, we will come together, and share food, and share words.

This was the plan. And this is how it went. In some ways, it went exactly to plan.

I began with an introduction. And as part of this introduction, I invited us to enter into a process during which we would, together, select who would go into the Acts of Listening Lab, to sit at the table, and who would listen in from the Sun Room. I said something like this:

“The work of Listening Tables is about reorientation. It’s about the fact that how attention is distributed is political. One way of thinking about it is that it is about what happens when we centre the margins in order to problematise default behaviours. To this end, in considering whether you want to take part in the Table, please ask yourself whether yours is a voice and a body that you see represented in all its diversity in mainstream media, whether yours is a voice that is heard, that has agency in the world. If so, maybe it is your turn to listen in, to take a different role, in order for us to collectively reorient. If yours is a voice that you feel is unheard, unrepresented, placed at the margins, then you might consider stepping up, to take your place at the table, even if this feels a little challenging or takes some bravery.”

I like to make invitations in this way, clear enough that there is an intention that can be heard, but open enough that each person can gather around that invitation in the ways that resonate for them. Rather than me determining which bodies need to sit at the table, the invitation asks each person to determine for themselves which role they will take on that evening. It was an invitation to both listen in and listen out, to place ourselves at the point where those things meet.

What I didn’t say explicitly is that this is an anti-racist practice.

I wondered, in the weeks and months after that first Listening Table, whether I should have been more blunt.

Racism is a blunt tool that presents itself in blunt ways. The work of reorientation, of listening, of figuring out how we might even stand a chance of arriving in a room together, is at once subtle and blunt. It is careful, delicate, difficult work, and it is incredibly simple.


I’ve thought about trying to explain to you what actually happened during that first table. The complexities of the listening experiences that presented themselves over those few hours we spent together, and the many obstacles to listening that were present. I’ve thought about trying to explain how some people seemed so aware of their bodies and voices in relation to others, and others seemed not to be aware at all, and how these behaviours fell so devastatingly neatly along lines of racialisation and speaking privilege. But every time I try to put the facts of that evening into words, I get knotted up in the complexity of its emotions. It would take me more than the hour that we have to talk my way into that knot, and then I would have to leave us all knotted up.

Knotted up is a place I’ve been and know.
But I’d rather focus on loosening the knots than recreating them.

What I will say is this.

White supremacy was present with us in that room, during that first table, in all its hard armour.

Unexpressed pain and anger and grief were present, and they obliterated the possibility of listening.

Tenderness was present, as was warmth, trust, and desire.

Harm was done.

Hurt was felt.

And in the midst of all this, solidarity was present, and listening was present.


After the first Listening Table, a dear friend asked me: why didn’t you make it a closed space? Why not make it a project for people who identify as Black, Indigenous, and people of colour? My answer is that I love being in BIPOC-only spaces. I seek them out. I love leading for BIPOC communities. I love the places we are able to go together, the trust, the delicacy, the respect, the world-making that happens when we’re not dealing with the assumptions of whiteness. But those can’t be the only spaces in which we are able to express ourselves. They can’t be the only spaces in which we are seen and heard. And they can’t be the only spaces in which we are centered.

What happened during and following that first Listening Table was shattering. It was messy and hard and deeply felt for many people. And I changed things, of course I changed things as the project moved forward and evolved. But I also started to understand something about that shattered place.

I started to understand that this is the work.

I started to understand, to trust, that this is urgent work.

I started to understand how much work it would take.

It is hard work.

It is heart and spirit work.

It takes time and patience and persistence.

It takes trust and vulnerability and not knowing.

And it will always include breaking.

2. Open

It is just over a year since that first Listening Table.

Surprisingly, I am writing this talk from a place of breaking open.

At first, I feel this as an opposition. The task of writing a talk and the task of being with my own breaking open feel at odds. But I am curious to know what will come from this moment of thin spirit, thin skin. So I invite them to be one. I write as one who is breaking open. I write from a place that is in close kinship with the unbearable, with the unbearables. Some humans would call this the work of decolonising self. Some would call it sickness, or failure. Some would call it transformation. And some would pretend really hard that it was not happening.

But it is happening.

I am breaking open.

We are breaking open.

For many years, I did not do this blunt work. I was more subtle, more refined, and more successful. I was much more pleasing to those who needed pleasing, and much more approachable, and much less sensitive. I did everything I needed to do in order to survive. Or maybe, I did everything I needed to in order to help others survive. Or maybe, and I fear this one is the closest to the truth, maybe I did everything I needed to do in order to help systems of oppression stay alive. I hated the idea of finding solidarity with other people of colour, because I did not want to see race. I did not want to see racism. What I didn’t realise was what is now so obvious to me: that I was holding racism in place, and it was destroying me.


My parents bet their survival on rationalising the world. I bet mine on feeling it. Such a risky strategy! It leaves me feeling the sicknesses of systems that I carry inside me and am a part of. It leaves me a weak player, a sad and angry player, and sometimes, oftentimes, a non-player. My parents feel contentment, and they wish the same for me. The other day, one of them said to me: “I worry that you’re too focused on the negative. You have to make the best of what is here.”

What they don’t know is that the work I am doing is joy work. It is the work of making room for joy, and feeling joy in this body, as a world-making way of being. Sometimes, it feels like breaking open. Sometimes it feels like battle. Sometimes it feels like being a killjoy. Sometimes it feels like dreaming. Sometimes it feels like I am spinning away into other realms. And sometimes, the best of times, I remember that my joy exists right now, alongside all the other joys and sorrows. Sometimes, I remember that this moment isn’t one moment in a sequence of moments, but one moment in alongside and intertwined with many other moments. Sometimes I remember to unhook myself from the blinkered behaviours I have learnt for survival, and I live in alignment with my joy. Sometimes, this is the work. The work of feeling joy.

what needs saying in this moment?

I want to live in an expanded world where there is room for all of us.

Do you want this too?

But really?

Even if it means destroying what you have built?

what needs saying in this moment?

nothing needs saying. nothing more needs saying. nothing more can be said.

stop trying to speak yourself into the future.

stop trying to mend.

your listening reveals your own boundaries. uncovers the earth. opens up the possibility that you might notice the moon.

your own listening doesn’t even try to be separate from the vibrations of this planet.

your own listening asks for surrender.

what needs saying in this moment?

no more questions.

hold the moment open.

break the moment open.

and stay there.

3. The Work

What does it mean to reclaim that phrase, “the work”?

I take everything that I used to consider ‘not work’ and place it inside that phrase these days.

So breaking open is the work.

Taking rest is the work.

Having a conversation that spills over from where or what I intended, is the work.

Being held is the work.

Saying “I love you” and feeling it is the work.

Intimate friendship is the work.

Saying “no” is the work.

Holding change is the work.

Attending to the pain in my body is the work.

Crying is the work.

Dreaming is the work.

Listening is the work.


In my introduction to the first Listening Table, I said: “Let’s trust in the process, let’s trust we are the people who need to be in this room.”

I do believe that we were the people who needed to be in the room. Even the person who told me afterwards that they had a horrible time at the Listening Table, that they hated not being able to talk more, that they felt constrained and attacked and disappointed that they had trusted me. And that they wished they had listened in to their own desire to say “no” instead of feeling compelled by my invitation to show up. I have to trust that this was their work on that day.

I do believe that we were the people who needed to be in the room. I include in this my own inability to arrive, my own chaos and mess, my own desire to hold it all together, and my inability to do so. The ways in which things spilled over the edges and taught me from there.

What fascinates me about attempting to listen with others is that it shows me things I could not see on my own. Or at least, it lets me notice things I have known but didn’t want to know. It is as if in the attempt to listen there is a surface-rising that takes place. Patterns, beliefs, assumptions, violences, histories, inequities float to the surface.

And there they are, announcing themselves, very seriously and very lightly.

“Here we are. Just as we have always been. But this time, you’re listening.”

If we are listening, if we are paying attention, it is almost clumsy, almost funny, how these structural inequities play themselves out. Our histories, our assumptions, our held tongues and polite conversations hold themselves up to us. And we laugh or hate or cry or look away, but they are there.

This is the work.

4. Listening

I think about the Acts of Listening Lab exactly as its name suggests: as a laboratory for listening, in which we conduct experiments in listening. In which we hope to come a little closer to understanding what listening is, and what it might be. In which we practice something called listening. The Listening Tables were conceived from this idea, that there was a place in which some people could come together to explore listening, to examine listening, to listen.

But listening, as I understand it – a practice which some might call ‘being’ or ‘feeling’ or ‘attending’ – listening without already knowing what we are listening to, is a big ask. It’s a big ask in a world that revolves hard around short attention spans, around goal-oriented tasks, around doing and producing and declaring ourselves. In a world that moves fast towards naming, calling out, and acting. In a world that does not value slowness, or multi-generational thinking.

So these attempts to practice listening are often met with resistance.
They are resistant and they create resistance.

Each Listening Table had a guest listener. Someone who had been invited to listen, to bring their listening to the table. This was part of the experiment. Every time I told someone about this idea of a guest listener, they didn’t understand what it could mean. We are so attached to the declarative, to words and their meanings, that it is hard for us to understand what it might mean to bring a listening. When I told people about it, it was almost like I was telling them about a guest nothingness. “But what will they do?” people would ask, those people including some of the guest listeners themselves. “They will listen.” I would reply, but no one could grasp what this could possibly mean. Even after we had these conversations, most people assumed that the role of the guest listener would involve speaking. This tells me a lot about how we value listening and how we value speaking.

A guest listener is someone who is invited to listen.

Someone who is invited to bring their listening, in the knowledge that each person’s listening changes the room, changes the work that can happen in the room.

In the knowledge that listening is work.

That each of us is changing, creating, manifesting the world through our listening.

That each of our listenings are linked.

And indeed, each guest listener brought such a different energy to the table. And not only that, but the fact that the guest listener was different each time changed who was in the room, and how they came into that room. This was most clear when my mum was the guest listener. People came to that table with a desire to meet my mum, or with an expectation of what it might mean to have a parent, an elder, in the room. And my mum is blind, so her listening, her experience of what it means to sit quietly in a room, was shaped by her experience of blindness. And her blindness, and her relationship to me, shaped my own listening, and my own being at that table. At the end of the night, so many people thanked my mum for her presence, for what she brought. And she didn’t understand what she had brought, or what she had done, that had so moved those people. Because it wasn’t her. It was her in relation to all of us, and all of us in relation to each other.

Each of our listenings are linked. In fact, to name them as ‘each’ feels inappropriate to the work of listening. We are creating each other all the time. We are creating our worlds all the time. We are listening each other into being all the time. It is how we orient ourselves. And it is happening, whether we acknowledge it or not.

5. A racist world

[one minute’s silence - listen]

6. A world

for the listeners
for the healers
for the seekers
for the killjoys

for the guests   and the hosts
for the spirits
for the ghosts
for the circles   and the spirals    and the mountains      and the songs

for stumbling
for tumbling
for shattering
for failing
for overflow
for being-with
for holding open
for breaking open
and for shutting down

for saying no
again and again
until it is time to say yes

for the circles   and the spirals    and the mountains      and the songs
for the lizards    and the whales    and the kookaburras    and the ants

for saying no
again and again
until it is time to say yes

for you, who need to hear this.
you know who you are. we know who we are.

Thank you for your listening.