Why do we resist acknowledging someone else’s struggle? Do we fear we are somehow being blamed? Do we fear that our own struggle is being invalidated?
For many of us, the protests around the country sparked by the acquittal of the police officer who shot the young man in Ferguson, brought this into sharp focus. With few exceptions, my friends and acquaintances lined up on predictable sides of the debate. Many instantly took rigid positions, from behind which they lobbed insults and criticisms at the other side.
The one side insisted that Michael Brown was a threat to Officer Darren Wilson, that his death was justified and not racially motivated. They also focused on and condemned the riots and looting, to the exclusion of the peaceful protests that far outnumbered the lawless activities. But underneath these positions, the spoken or unspoken sentiment was this: there is no racial bias in policing; the system is not unfair for black Americans.
The other side insisted that Michael Brown was yet another unarmed black boy killed for being black; and the acquittal just another example of a system that is rigged. Also voiced was the anguished cry from four centuries of blatant racism; poignant personal stories of lives and opportunities defined by skin color; and of a system that does not promise protection or justice to people of color.
Even if we debate Michael Brown’s innocence, whether Officer Wilson’s life was in danger, and whether deadly force was justified, I am baffled by those who deny the existence of a system that favors whites and discriminates against people of color.
I suppose to ignore cultural racism we must ignore history, ignore facts, ignore statistics. But even more significant, I think, is when we ignore the personal stories; instead of imagining for a moment the pain of growing up with racism, we push it away and insist it simply is not true.
How is it that we’re able to so completely ignore another person’s reality?
I do understand that it is painful and uncomfortable to bear witness to another’s struggle. This in itself can be motive enough to push away another’s experience: Your suffering makes me so uncomfortable, I don’t want to think about it, I don’t want to feel what you feel. In fact I can let myself off the hook entirely if I shift the focus: tell you to stop complaining and take responsibility for yourself, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, that sort of thing.
If we are hearing about a group’s subjugation, and we are part of the oppressing group, we can feel like we’re personally being blamed. I’ve read a lot of articles in the past few days written by black Americans; and a few times I’ve started feeling like crap for being white. I don’t like feeling like crap, particularly since I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong. So instead of sitting with my discomfort, I could get defensive and defiant, and start attacking the person who’s sharing. Feeling angry and outraged is easier to sit with than feelings of guilt and shame.
And in our competitive world, it may seem that to validate another’s pain invalidates or diminishes our own. I admit it: when I hear someone share how their daily lives are impacted by racism, there is a part of me that feels indignant: “well you should try being a woman in a patriarchal society!” And once I start thinking about my struggle, I’m no longer holding a space for their story, their struggle. But in truth, someone else’s struggle does not in any way invalidate my own.
There are so many to choose from, but this story from Vassar University English teacher Kiese Laymon is genuine and heartbreaking: http://gawker.com/my-vassar-college-faculty-id-makes-everything-ok-1664133077
The bandage has been ripped off, exposing deep racial wounds in this country. If we don’t want to waste this opportunity, if we truly want to improve things here in America, there are two things we can and should start doing immediately:
One, we need to learn to sit with our own discomfort. This is actually a great practice for life in general. We are so afraid of discomfort, we rush to soothe and placate ourselves. The next time you feel sad, lonely, hurt, or blamed, just sit with it for a while. What I don’t mean is to start a blaming rant: “I’m just a lazy excuse of a human being; no wonder things always sour for me. I will always be lonely. I don’t deserve happiness. And if happiness comes my way, guaranteed I’ll screw it up. Because I am a screw-up.” No, no, this is all wrong. Sit with it. No dialog. NO DIALOG. Just experience the uncomfortable feelings for a few minutes.
With this as a starting place, perhaps we can start to sit with the uncomfortable feelings that arise when an oppressed person tells us about how our group oppresses them; or about how we specifically benefit from privilege. We aren’t surrendering; in fact this isn’t a battle at all. It feels uncomfortable knowing that while doors have opened for me because I’m white, those same doors have not opened for people simply because of the color of their skin. That makes me feel personally uncomfortable. But you know what? It isn’t going to kill me to feel a little discomfort.
Two, we need to extend compassion. The best way to extend compassion is to ask, to listen, and to really hear and absorb what the other person is sharing. When someone shares their personal experiences, their reality, what could be more intimate and vulnerable? And if we invalidate, minimize, or jump in with our own experiences, we’ve just given them a sucker punch – just when they were opening up their tender parts to us. Each of us experiences life in a unique way, and for anyone to invalidate that is not only disrespectful, it is wrong. Compassion: let each other know we hear and honor their story.
America has a violent history. And life in America today is still unsafe, unfair, and unwelcoming to many people simply because of the group they belong to. I see no hope for national healing without first accepting this reality. And we need to go beyond accepting discrimination anecdotally: we must listen to stories, really try to understand others’ experiences, be willing to be uncomfortable, and just listen.