“People don’t see” A plea for empathy

I normally make it a point to not talk too much about politics online. Simply put, I don’t have the energy (or maybe emotional fortitude) to get into arguments with strangers. With everything that has happened over the past week, however, I thought I would somewhat break that rule for today–at least long enough to hope my own experiences may help anyone else struggling out there.

Now, I will be the first to admit that I grew up with a very (here comes that p-word people hate) privileged childhood. My father had a very good job that paid well, and while he worked very hard to get to where he was, I never had to witness that struggle. By the time I was old enough to understand things like money, we had reached a point where it wasn’t a struggle. My mother was able to stay home with us. We owned a house (eventually a house and a vacation condo). We lived in a great school district, got to go on great trips, didn’t have to worry much about crime (“turn the alarm on in case someone tries to break in while we’re gone” was about the extent of my worry about criminals as a child/teen). From having my horizons broadened now, I know that I was very, very lucky (and continue to be so. Not everyone has the safety net I still do—even as a self-sufficient adult).

At the time, however, that was all normal. Everyone I knew had the same things we did to some extent. Sure, maybe that family owned Hondas instead of a Lexuses (Lexi?), but they still had a well-running car. Likely two. Maybe even three if they had a teen driver. Maybe so and so was going to Palm Springs this year rather than Hawaii over Winter Break, but they were still going away for the week to have a good time. White, Black, Hispanic, Asian… everyone living in my little sphere seemed more or less the same.

While that in some ways is great (I never saw any blatant racists in my neighborhood, I was never told to not play with X or Y children) it is also part of the problem. I never saw any racism, and thus to younger me, it didn’t exist.

I recently finished the book Polarity in Motion by Brenda Vicars—which turned out to be rather timely, as far as subject matter, this week—and one line truly stuck out to me: “I guess people don’t see their own way of seeing.” There are people, I’m sure, who are far more qualified than I am to speak about issues of poverty and race and justice and whatever else than I am, but from all I have learned, that quote perhaps sums up what I have learned the best. It is difficult to see issues when you haven’t experienced them.

Was anyone a racist in my neighborhood? Maybe. As a little blond girl, when would I have really seen it? Though I had friends of multiple races, the demographics in my neighborhood were almost a fifty/fifty split between White and Asian, so when going through all of my friends from back then (White, White, Asian, Asian, White…) I can’t even say I spent much time speaking to anyone who was a true minority in our neighborhood. Thinking back on high school, I honestly could only talk about three Black students by name (two of them mixed race) and that is because I knew them from classes we shared. I didn’t make a conscious decision to stay away from Black students, there just wasn’t a large number of Black students to start with, and I never would have thought to try to become friends with someone specifically because they were Black. That would have felt racist.

What I most remember about the end of high school, though, when it comes to these issues—and the thought that so often pops up when I see Facebook arguments about Black Lives Matter vs. All Lives Matter, etc.—is my gut reaction to affirmative action as a high schooler. With absolutely no knowledge into what it was other than “it takes race into consideration with admissions” I hated it. Sure, racism was something we learned about in school, but that was in the past. There were plenty of races at my high school! Sure there were only a handful of Black or Hispanic students as far as I knew, but they were there, and they were doing just as well as I was. They all lived in the same neighborhoods as the rest of us. They all went on the same vacations and had the same cars. Making it easier for them to get into college over me felt like racism against me. It took several, several years of expanding my horizons and meeting people who didn’t grow up like I did to understand what programs meant to overcome the problems built up over centuries of institutional racism were truly meant to do.

And that’s why I can never think too harshly of people who claim saying “Black Lives Matter” is racist. Because that used to be me. Before I left my own little bubble, it would have been perfectly simple to continue thinking that racism wasn’t a thing. That poverty wasn’t that much of an issue. To think that most people lived the way I did. Everyone I talked to certainly did, after all! It is a nearly impossible thing to see how you see. There is a reason things don’t seem like problems when you aren’t the one experiencing them. As much as I try to read about other people’s experiences now (as an author, I think it’s part of the job description, trying to learn how other people experience life outside of me) I know that I will never fully understand their problems the way they do. Similarly, they will never understand mine the way I do (because all of us do have problems). I can’t claim I have all the answers. I can’t claim I have even a single answer. I can just say I wish people would step back from their gut reactions and talking points long enough to understand that just because they don’t see X doesn’t mean that X isn’t a legitimate issue.

I am lucky that, overall, my problems aren’t too difficult to handle. I consider myself equally lucky now that I can see that that isn’t the case for everyone. Change won’t happen while people are busy digging in their heels, all trying to yell about their problems being the real problems. Being out of work because the factory you worked in for forty years in rural Arkansas is a problem that needs to be addressed. Not being able to feed your children in the inner city is a problem that needs to be addressed. Black men ending up dead as they have this week is a problem that needs to be addressed. Cops ending up dead as they have this week is a problem that needs to be addressed. Pointing to the other side as being the problem and not being willing to help them because no one is helping you is certainly a problem that needs to be addressed.

As I said, it is not an easy thing to see outside of your own experiences. It has taken me over a decade of listening to accounts on all sides to understand as much as I do, and even then I’m sure someone suffering in any situation could school me on what their life is really like. I can only hope that people try to get past their gut reactions and try for empathy on all sides. Until we stop viewing the other side as idiots who don’t understand, nothing will happen outside of the shouting.

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