You know when there’s a tragedy, and how everyone talks about it for a few days? We greet each other with “how tragic”s. In a way, we feel the pain of people dealing with an earthquake or a bombing or a draught, somewhere across the world. But we are still able to live our lives while we are aware of these events. We get on. We are separate from those events. Our sympathy flickers on and then off again. We are aware, but in our cores, we are ready to forget.
Translate this flickering to our everyday relationships. This is the state that white people exist in all the time, when it comes to relating to others. Our society functions in a way that demands we separate ourselves from one another, that we withhold feelings of empathy. We are encouraged to connect with people in our social classes, with people who look like us, who grew up like us, who have led lives similar to ours. This makes sense. It’s easy to get on with someone who has many experiences like our own, less so people who we have less in common with. Staying disconnected from others allows us to get on in our own lives more easily, or it does if you’re a person coming from a place of privilege. And this is that state of white people I just mentioned. We look at things like racism or sexism and say “Man, that stuff is terrible, I’m glad that it’s 2016 and we don’t have to deal with that anymore,” This is false. To make a blanket statements like this ignores the fact that individuals, groups, and even countries are multi-faceted. As a white girl, I don’t experience racism, but as a white girl, I do experience sexism. This is a simple example of having a faceted existence. We are all made up of parts, and we cannot say that the experiences of others are null because we don’t experience them ourselves.
From one white kid to another, it doesn’t destroy you to let your guard down and listen to others. It will make you and your relationships stronger. We carry our ignorance casually, by way of jokes and common language. These are microaggressions. Microaggressions remind marginalized people (queer people, trans people, disabled people, women, people of color) that they are not like everyone else, that they are different, and it is implied with this focus, lesser. Even men experience minor microaggressions that aim to keep them in a box of strict masculinity. Men become the butt of jokes when they dabble in anything feminine (the hate on man buns, anyone?). And these things keep us apart. They keep us from relating to one another, and instead train us to see people as foreign objects.
These behaviors are the small blocks that keep big walls up around marginalized people in terms of education, work, and housing opportunities. As white people, thinking about marginalized people as different works horribly against them, even if it doesn’t feel like it to us. Even as a white girl who is hyper-aware of these issues and constantly trying to educate myself in new ways, I feel that disconnect. I am aware of and sympathetic to the issues suffered by marginalized groups, and I seek to understand their feelings of dissatisfaction and pain. But I do not feel their feelings in my bones the way they do. It does not break me down. Even my experiences as a woman aren’t as exhausting as those of female friends of mine who have been through sexual assaults or in bad relationships. I do not feel their female experience the way they feel it.
That’s to be expected. We cannot ever fully put ourselves in another’s shoes. But we have ears and eyes and minds and we can listen and see and think. We do not have to be ignorant to the experiences of others. Ignoring opportunities to learn is a choice. Even when one makes the choice to learn, there is no end, no graduation from that education. I can never walk in the shoes of other people, or even in those of my close friends. But I will press my foot into that stiff shoe until it bleeds. When we’re ignored, we doubt our voices. If no one is listening, am I even heard? It is our responsibility to listen to others. I am here, and I am listening.