The “Official” Crib Notes

to Better Understanding the Minority Experience

Sep 2, 2017 · 5 min read
Mikael Kristenson,


The parallels between understanding matters of race and taking an exam with a pass/fail grading curve are similiar. A bit extreme, but similar. It’s easy to say “you either get it or you don’t.” Granted there’s a whole lot more to it than that, but roll with me on that analogy.

Before we get to the answers, you have understand that given some people’s racial experiences, they’re response of “I’m tired of having to educate white people about my feelings …” is more than a little justified. It is a wholly valid response. I say that not to be dismissive, but we don’t ask a rape victim to recount the experience of having been raped or spell out the emotional horror that follows such an experience simply because we want to know. It’s just not done. Understand, I’m not throwing cold water on anyone’s desire to understand the experience of People of Color, but at its core the experience is human and more relatable then one might first imagine. I say that because, well … People of Color are human just as white people are human

I’ve written about empathy versus understanding, but I think this essay by John Metta really addresses the reluctance to explain the realities of racial experiences.

About the Exam

The problem in flat-out asking someone about their experience in not just matters of race, but anything is two-fold: it has everything to do with the timing of the inquiry and it also hinges upon having a pre-existing relationship with that person. I don’t have a problem telling people what it’s like being four-feet tall. But if I’m in the middle of some activity and a complete stranger asks me about the challenges I face with the expectation that I owe them a response to what I, as the respondent, feel is a personal and probing question, as if I’m the Little Person Help Desk representative and it’s my duty give a full accounting, they’ll be lucky if I don’t read them the riot act.

The Instructions

Some people are not afraid to admit their ignorance might sound racist to People of Color. Now, I’m guessing they think that everyone is going to slide them a little grace and say, You can be a little bit racist because me forfeiting my emotional discomfort is worth telling you what you want to know.

No. That’s not so. That approach wreaks of presumption and privilege.

If poking me with a knife is something I don’t like, why would I allow you continue to poke me with a knife while I explain to you why I don’t like being poked with a knife? Yes, that’s an extremely simplistic example, but you get the point.

If you know your approach has the potential of sounding even remotely offensive/racist, check yourself. Do everything in your power to mitigate the chances of it happening. Your desire to know doesn’t supercede my right to care for myself.

** How to Better Understand the Minority Experience: The Exam **

People — all people — want to be understood, especially in the areas of their lives where challenges exist. Everyone at one time or another has said something equivalent to, No. I don’t want to talk about it. It’s too painful, it’ll take too long … blah, blah, blah. As the official spokesperson for all of humanity (nothing could be further from the truth, this is just the way “I” see things), chances are, what they’re really saying is I don’t know if I can trust you. I don’t know if I can trust you to begin to understand what I have to say. I don’t know if you’re going to either try to ’splain away my pain or if you’re going to stick around long enough validate my feelings and position.

It’s human nature. But people — all people, and in this case, the people we’re talking about are People of Color—are more likely to share their challenges within the context of a trusting relationship. No one likes to be treated like a dispensary or an on-call help desk representative.

Show Your Work

I’ve found that my closest friends never ask me the “what is it like to be four-feet tall.” You know why? Because they have invested the time to build a relationship with me, to interact with me, and to be with me in the world in a variety of situations to witness a few of my life’s inane, infuriating, wonderful, and profound moments for themselves.

You intimately learn about another person’s experience by seeing that person, with whom you’re in relationship, denigrated by another.

You learn when the hair on the back of your neck crackles with fury when you see the person you are in relationship with and care for maintaining their dignity with every fiber of their being when they’re denied X or told they are not enough Y when they more than meet said requirements.

“Telling/explaining” is the cheat sheet to this test. Being in a relationship with someone, anyone, is an investment of time. If you are unwilling to invest the time it takes to get to know AT LEAST ONE Person of Color intimately, then you aren’t deserving of an answer. Besides, the things you learn about someone you are in relationship with become written on your heart. And you never forget them.

Pencils Down

In short, the test question isn’t “how do we understand the minority experience if we’re too tired to explain?” People of Color, their Allies, and others in society are already progressing, be it ever so slowly. So you see, the real test question that begs to be asked is “how do I understand the minority experience if I’m too tired to do the work of being in relationship with a Person of Color?”

The answer is you can’t.*

Love one another.

*Revisit paragraphs 8 and 9 for suggested ways you can better understand the minority experience, only if you’re willing to do the work.

Clay Rivers

Writing from the intersection of race, faith, and equality. Join the conversation, but you have to bring your own espresso.

Clay Rivers

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Author, art director, actor, and optimist. I write about equality, faith, and racism. Let’s chat over espresso. Books at:

Clay Rivers

Writing from the intersection of race, faith, and equality. Join the conversation, but you have to bring your own espresso.