Try and Understand

December 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

I’m sure like me, your Facebook or Twitter feed is filled with news articles, but mostly opinions, about Ferguson and similar events. And, people are generally taking one of two sides: 1) what happened to Michael Brown is a crime and Officer Darren Wilson should be (should have been) arrested or 2) Officer Darren Wilson was only doing his job.

This is such a polarizing topic, that I bet as you’re reading this, you’re wondering which side I’m on and if I’m not siding with you, that you might just unfriend me on Facebook. I’m saying this because I have this sick fascination of watching or listening to or reading things I know I’ll disagree with just to get riled up and feel self-righteous. (If we’re honest, I think most of us do this.) But just to get distractions out of the way, I think Darren Wilson should have been arrested and made accountable for his actions. But if you disagree with me, please stay with me. At least for a few more minutes.

A few years back, I lived in Costa Rica for a couple months. I like walking, and would often walk into town — which was about a mile away from our apartment. Every time I walked alone, men in trucks would whistle or catcall or both. I hated it, but didn’t acknowledge it. One night, I was walking along the road from the beach to a restaurant. I was with two men (whom I knew), but was walking ahead of them a bit. A truck drove by and men in the truck whistled and catcalled, and I had had enough. I yelled at the guys in the truck and flailed my arms. I was furious. The two guys I was with said I was overreacting. That I should have taken it as a compliment.

I think — I hope — we are making strides in our culture that catcalling is not a compliment, but a threat. Now, that was a pretty minor event, but I wanted to share it as an example of an event that multiple people observed and came up with two completely different responses. At it’s root, I think that’s what is happening with events like Ferguson. By no means am I suggesting that being black is like being a woman. I’m not saying that. But I am saying that I think it’s hard to know what it’s like to be “other”. I mean, truly, white people don’t know what it is like to be black, unless you’re John Howard Griffin. Men don’t know what it’s like to be women (for the most part). I’m not a behavioral scientist, but when I say “know”, I mean something more on the lines of “experience” rather than “conscious of”. Whites may have an idea of what it’s like to be black from books, or movies, or black friends, but we don’t really know.

But, here’s the other thing. I guarantee that everyone has had a moment in their lives that they were judged because of some outward appearance. Maybe it was racial, or ethnic, or gender related. Maybe it was because of your hair or your clothes or your piercings or tattoos. Maybe it was because of your height or weight. If this has happened to you, you know what it’s like to be judged. Because you know, you can have empathy. You can begin to understand what it might be like for someone else. I believe that blacks have been treated unfairly as a race. I believe there have been a lot of injustices done against them. But nothing will change if we don’t try and understand. That’s the least we can do: try and understand.

Also, when you unfriend people you don’t agree with, you’re just preaching to the choir. To reach those you disagree with, first: understand where they are coming from. Empathize. Then speak your mind.


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