Here we are again. Another heaping of social injustice served up at the expense of another black life snuffed out with impunity. (Correction: expendable black life snuffed out with impunity.) That in the 21st century, groups of people find it acceptable and enable others to trample upon the humanity of others is a disgrace. These situations beg the question: why is it that some white people can easily grasp what Black Americans experience in the United States and others find it nearly impossible? The reason will not surprise you.
For Argument’s Sake
Let’s swap out Black Americans for short-statured people. No average-sized person can fully understand the challenges that we Little People face: the physical challenges of living in a world is not built to our scale. Everyday items like staircases, upper kitchen cabinets, top shelves in grocery stores, and driving vehicles provide their own unique set of challenges … you get the picture. Then there’s day to day emotional challenges of dealing with people who gawk and stare. But there’s the universality of the human experience — situations and events that are common to every person’s time on earth — which transcends height. For now, let’s call that “humanity.” As a garden variety average-sized person, you will never fully understand what it’s like to stand forty-eight inches tall, but you surely can relate to one of the accompanying challenges: being stared at. And you can certainly imagine what it would be like to have every eye in a room find you, regardless of the reason.
The first thing that allows you (or anyone for that matter) to relate to that experience is a willingness to step into that Little Person’s shoes and then imagine what certain experiences would be like. Even if being “the new kid at school” or “the new employee” is the closest firsthand experience you have that compares to the objectification that Little People often experience, based on that similar experience you can then better understand a Little Person’s experience. You have not divested yourself of your height, nor any of the advantages therein, but you have allowed yourself to experience the insight that says, “the way I experience the world is not the only way people can experience the world.”
See what I mean?
So why is it is so hard for some white people to realize that stepping out of their own experience (which sometimes they do not even see as privileged), and attempting to a look at the world through the eyes of a black person does not diminish who they are?
Doing so does not mandate that your experience is wrong and the other person’s is right.
It diminishes not one iota of whiteness, experience, or standing, in any way, shape, or form. The only thing it costs is the realization the black people are people, too.
It only proves that your life experiences are different in some ways and very similar in others to black people. Christ demonstrated the ability to identify with and respond to other people’s experience. That’s called compassion.
Compassion in Action
Compassion doesn’t end with the ability to recognize how others feel. That’s called observation. Observation says that I am able to look at a friend and recognize that he feels a great sense of loss over his mother’s passing even though my mother is still very much alive.
Compassion occurs when I fill in the gap (of what it’s like to lose one’s mother) and reason that what he is experiencing must be a far deeper pain than losing a sibling, aunt, uncle, or other family member, and am then moved to act on his behalf in some way. That’s not simply observing his feelings, but stepping out of the comfort zone of knowing my mother is still alive to attempt to see the world through his eyes as best I can and taking action. Will I fully understand what he is going through? No. Because his relationship with his mother was different from mine. But that fact should not stop me from attempting understand his situation.
It’s common knowledge that white Americans have a different life experience than black Americans, but that doesn’t mean that because they’re white they don’t have the capacity to understand. And for anyone to play the “well, I’ll never understand what black people go through” card as license to avoid trying is inhumane at worst and deeply flawed at best. White only goes skin deep.
We all live, we all love, we all bleed.
Think about it. If being white limited someone’s compassion, how do you explain interracial marriage?
I know several white people who were brought up, by their own admission, in some embarrassingly racist environments. But they’ve managed to set the privilege of their race aside, take a step back, and see that everyone doesn’t have the same life experience that they do. They’ve actually changed the course of their lives in an effort to make the world a lot more equitable place for black Americans. And they’re not all Republicans, or Democratics, or Liberals, or Conservative, or Christians, or Jewish, or Muslim, or Sikh, or any other truncated label you’d like to stick on a group. They’re people.
The Advent of Racial Tension
Racial tension didn’t just come to a boiling point with Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, or Philando Castile. Racial tensions have existed in America since before the first slave ships unloaded Africans in Virginia. And Black Americans have been murdered with impunity since then. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this article on a mass lynching from only 100 years ago.
With the advent of smart phones, everyone everywhere can now record shootings of black Americans that would otherwise go unreported or disbelieved. (The same holds true when law enforcement officers are shot; but we’re not talking about that. I just wanted to nip that in the bud.) And thanks to the voracious appetite of the media, these events are broadcast twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
Sea Salt and Cracked Pepper potato chips
White people have the luxury of being able to ignore racism. Their tastes are normative in this nation’s culture. Racism is something that need only touch their lives when they choose to allow it. Black people and people of color don’t have that luxury. Outside of our own homes, everywhere we go, people will always note the pigmentation of our skin, much the way that I, as a short-statured person, don’t have the luxury of moving through the world without my height being a distinguishing factor … for better or worse. (And don’t start singing the “but, I don’t see color” chorus. I have an essay that addresses that topic on tap.)
In the same way that pulling a bag of sea salt and cracked pepper potato chips from the top shelf in the grocery store for me (after seeing me trying unsuccessfully to snag that same bag for myself) leverages your height on my behalf and for that moment makes you an ally for the vertically challenged; acknowledging and speaking out against racial inequality leverages your white privilege and makes you an ally for racial equality.
So it comes down to this: if you still don’t understand what black Americans are going through in these United States, there’s only one reason: you don’t want to.
Love one another.