Friday, March 13, 2009

Yes and...

An interesting article about writing without cultural awareness. Apparently there has been a big discussion on livejournal (which I don't follow - just sort of stumbled into it) about race and racism and reverse-racism, etc. There seem to be two sides: the 'we should treat everyone as if color doesn't matter' side and the 'you will never know what another race goes through' side. Both sides have valid points. It's not an easy problem by any means. Empathy can be taken for pity, rudeness for racism, and effort for privilege. I find it hard to write about this now without double- and triple-examining my words. It's certainly an awareness.
One of the life-changing experiences I had in college was diversity training as an RA. It was a week-long affair, and one that I probably learned the most from any job about people and priviledge and prejudice. One of the exercises separated the men and women - women talked about things that had been said to them based on the fact that they were women and wouldn't be said to men. I believe, "You shouldn't have worn that dress if you didn't want sex" and "You're just a bitch" were some of the examples; if not, they are in the vein of what was said. Then the women were told to pick two of the things that had been said to them and we followed our RC into the next room. The men were all in a circle with their eyes closed. We whispered the statements to each man in turn, walking the circle. It was really creepy hearing those words come from our mouths and telling them to people who, while we knew and laughed with, were not quite friends yet. After we were done, they told us what the men had been told: Think of a woman you respect and admire, someone you love, and hold them in your hand. Close your eyes and imagine, as each of us came around and said our statements, that those statements are being said to the woman you love. One of the RA men cried and I felt terrible, but also realized we shouldn't have been told those things either. I'll never forget the guy who cried - such a sweetheart who cherished his loved ones. It made me feel a warmth for him that I can conjure to this day to know there are people out there who you might not guess who hold such a deep love and are still vulnerable in a way that I tend not to be anymore.
Another training that we went through was for the room to be divided. We all started out on one side, and then different topics were brought up - people of color, children who were abused, women, GLBT, etc - and each in turn those who belonged to those minority groups were asked to step to the other side of the room. That side of the room was asked to talk to the majority, to tell them things that you wanted them to know. It was an emotional day, and it hurt sometimes to see the people I had begun to form friendships on a different side from myself. The one that stands out in my mind, and really the reason for this post, is the race one. I don't reveal details here too often for fear of alienating someone who is reading and making it my story, instead of a shared one (the smiley face theory from those who have read Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics), but I am white. Perhaps that has come through anyway through that unconscious priviledge I've been reading about, but for the most part I tend to try and be equanimous. Back to the story - one person, a person I deeply respect for her intellect and her willingness to talk, said, "You will never know what it's like to be black."
As an empathetic person, at first I was appalled. It was like a huge line had been drawn between myself and her, as if the trust that I had given in our shared experiences was some kind of distant thing to her because of my skin color, that all of our time together had been me fully investing and her holding back because I was not "black". Suddenly our shared experiences were marred by the fact that I no longer trusted that I knew how she felt. I didn't like it, and the words she said stayed with me, and still do to this day.
Eventually though, after thinking about it for a couple days, I realized she was absolutely right. There is no way for me to know because I am not black. She was not invalidating our experience together by saying that; she was merely stating the obvious in her mind. Just as it amazes me that the men around me can walk into a job and tell someone they know how to do something and be taken at face value, she sees the discrepancy because that's how it is for her, just like I have to explain why I know how to fix computers whenever I say I can.
This idea came to ease in my mind because it does not preclude me from understanding a situation after taking in viewpoints; to me, it means that I will not inherently pick up on certain things and sometimes I might have to work a little harder to break down my own misconceptions. This does not mean I will ever understand it a prima facie, merely that I can accept it from that point of view. I put that in italics because to me it seems a very casual dismissal of all I have read to believe that I will ever have the experience to speak from that point of view (which implies understanding.) I believe that I can find it relevant, act on that relevance but to know it, to be it, is something else.
On that note, I strongly feel no one should ever tell me what I can't feel, and I find it coming from the same reasons that she did by saying, "You can't know what it's like to be black." There is a small but very important distinction between the two; telling me I don't know what it's like is absolutely valid - the only experience I can experience is my own. Telling me I cannot feel assumes you have some superiority and know what is my capacity for emotion and that your feelings are beyond it.

More to follow...

EDIT: This article seems like a good place to start...

1 comment:

Kory said...

this is a subject near and dear to me of late. Both are children are black, and my wife and I have the complexion of mayonnaise.

The statement is absolutely correct, but (without making assumptions about the context in which it was spoken). It was likely borne out by frustration.

On election night when Eugene Robinson said "I can finally tell my children they can be anything they want, and actually believe it." I got a brief peek at that experience. The joy came with a subtle pain that our cultural narratives WILL be different, despite the love of a family bond.

As you pointed out we can never truly know the mind of the other, but that shouldn't restrain our desire to learn and understand what we can. What we must avoid is making pronouncements or minimalizing concerns based on our own limited comprehension. Understand that even a frustrated and at times hurtful word, comes from a real experience, and no matter how distorted a perception may appear to us, it would not exist if there was not some validation or reinforcement to it.