Empathy Over Moral Superiority

Yesterday, I was part of a conversation regarding race and culture— one of my favorite, juicy topics.

In the conversation, my African American friend mentioned an incident from a few days before, where a Latina woman at her workplace, a new immigrant to the US, complimented her hair, touched it with awe, and began asking her questions about it curiously.

My friend was obviously perturbed and triggered — unbeknownst to this woman from a foreign country, her action emulated the way slaveowners touched slaves in America’s grisly, unsavory past, and thus, it was a blatant sign of disrespect in her eyes.

Since my friend recognized that this woman probably was not as well-acquainted with the historical context and social norms in the USA, she rebuked her and informed her that what she did was inappropriate, explaining the historical significance.

Hearing the story made me a little sad. I completely understood how the incident totally threw off my friend and was perceived as both disrespectful and an invasion of her space.

Having lived in India and being a naturally affectionate person, I could also see how someone from another country might be more touchy-feely and naturally curious than the average American, and how that is a well-accepted norm in the culture in which she grew up.

While I felt it was important that my friend shared the historical/cultural significance with the woman and give her context, I also feel sad that, due to being misunderstood, this woman may feel less safe to express her natural curiosity with Americans going forward.

This is where intent becomes important, and where I believe we must develop the subtle discernment to know what is meant to be an insult, and what is not.

I feel one of the big problems with our political climate is the false belief that everyone has access to the same exact information as we do and is knowingly doing the “wrong” thing — which could not be further from the truth.

Let’s be real — Someone fresh from countries like India or Ecuador has no idea of the dos and donts of how to act with a Black person in America — and how can we expect them to?

They were never taught American history and culture at that level of nuance and depth, just like the typical American may not know that in India, it is considered disrespectful to cross your legs when sitting with elders.

All you know coming from your own culture is your own experience, what interacting with people throughout your life was like.

Your curious innocence in a new country, then, can easily be mistaken for callousness and disrespect in a completely new context. But you don’t deserve to be rebuked for that.

Unfortunately, despite living in the same country, a conservative Trump voter surrounded by white people in middle America has had very different life experiences and influences than a social justice warrior in DC. They might as well be from two different countries — completely different cultures, experiences, values, stories, influences.

And I would argue that is neither of their faults; that’s just a result of the environment they have been exposed to.

So, who am I to judge either of them? The problem occurs when people think that only their reality, their experiences, their understandings are valid, and not others’.

A Universal Truth

In this charged political and social climate, I wish for more empathy and understanding of this basic truth: that we, as human beings, cannot even begin to understand what another person’s life is like, because we have only experienced our own lives.

And so it is especially important, in these complex and multifaceted times, to develop the consciousness and the patience to see things from multiple perspectives, to give the benefit of the doubt, to ask and answer more questions, and to not assume we know anything until we are sure.

Having lived abroad for most of my adult life, I, too, have been judged, rebuked, ostracized in America at times for my insatiable curiosity, which is why this story hit home for me. I’m sure some of you have as well, and you have conveniently tucked that part of your life away, like I have.

There are some of us who may still be foolish enough to look at the world with innocent and awe-filled eyes, like a giant present that cannot wait to be unwrapped. Our curiosity and deep desire to connect with others drives us above all else.

We may not ask the ‘right’ questions or say the ‘right’ things, but we know our intentions could not be more pure.

What is diversity and inclusion? It’s accepting and integrating all points of view, whether we agree or not. It’s being patient and empathetic with one another.

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