Why can some white people easily grasp what Black people experience in the United States and others find it nearly impossible?
For Argument’s Sake
Let’s swap out Black people for short-statured people. No average-sized person can fully understand the challenges that we Little People face: foremost, living in a world that is not built to our scale. Everyday items like staircases, upper kitchen cabinets, top shelves in grocery stores, and driving vehicles—each provides its own unique set of challenges. Then there are the 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 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 to relate to that experience is a willingness to step into that Little Person’s shoes and then imagine what specific experiences might entail. 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. Still, 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 attempting to look at the world through the eyes of a Black person poses no threat to them? Doing so does not mandate that your experience is wrong and the other person’s is correct.
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 experiences. That’s called compassion.
Compassion in Action
Compassion doesn’t end with the ability to recognize how others feel. That’s called observation. I can observe a friend and realize that a person feels tremendous loss over their 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 that person is experiencing must be a far deeper pain than losing a sibling, aunt, uncle, or another family member. I 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 to try to see the world through his eyes as best I can—and taking action. Will I fully understand what that person is going through? No. Because their relationship with their mother was different from mine. But that fact should not stop me from attempting to understand his situation.
It’s common knowledge that white Americans have a different life experience than Black people, but that doesn’t mean they can’t understand. And for anyone to play the “well, I’ll never understand what Black people go through” card as a 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 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 to make the world a lot more equitable place for Black people. And they’re not all Republicans, or Democrats, 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 people have been murdered with impunity since then. Don’t believe me? Take a look at this article on a mass lynching from only one hundred years ago.
With the advent of smartphones, 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 only touches their lives when they choose to allow it. Black people and People of Color don’t have that luxury. 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 please, 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 privilege and makes you an ally for racial equity.
So it comes down to this: If you still don’t understand what Black people are going through in these United States, there’s only one reason: you don’t want to.
Love one another.