Have You Ever: The “Other Shoes” Challenge

Terence Crutcher: Questions From Two Perspectives .The news I have in front of me is confusing. I hear two stories, very far apart, both insisting they are the “truth” or point to the truth.  Justified or unjustified.  Guilty or not guilty. They are mutually exclusive narratives, and it is impossible for them both to be the “true reality.” Either one or the other is wholly true, neither is at all true, or the external, ultimate truth of the event is somewhere in between. And I want to know the truth!

But I have a problem in trying to figure out what to believe. I am stuck inside my head, my experience, my community, my version of the world. And my version of the world is white, middle class, male, heterosexual, Christian. I have generally felt safe and comfortable my whole life. I have tended to be trusted and well-liked; doors have opened for me, and at least part of that has been because of how I look and talk, and not who I am on the inside. I have always had a “safety-cushion” of support around me, friends and resources at the ready if I ever have need.

Imagine I am playing the game “Have You Ever” with someone.  Based on my history, you might hear a dialogue like this:

“Have you ever… been black?
Me: “Nope”
“Have you ever been a woman?”
Again, “nope.”
“A refugee? Homeless? Unemployed?”
“Nope. Nope. And nope (not since the age of 14).”
“Muslim? Sikh? Hindu? Jewish? Baha’i? Maybe atheist or agnostic?”
“Nope. Always a Christian.”
“And always a US citizen, never anything else?”
Correct.

I have never been anything besides who I am. The world-view I have built has all the assumptions of someone who has never been any of the things listed above. Therefore, when I see a story that shows a black man being shot by police, and the recurring “black suspect-white officer” narrative, and an expanding grief, and fear, and outrage, in the larger community primarily outside the community of people who generally look and have lived life in ways more like me, I have a “default” perspective that I can easily take. I also have a choice.

I can listen to the stories that protect, match, reinforce the view that this whole problem is not really a problem for anyone (media is trying to scare us), or that it is a problem for everyone (aka “All Lives Matter”), that these cases are isolated, that really more white people are killed by police (and not very many, anyway, and police are in danger every day, also true- “blue lives matter”). I can stay on “my side of town” and avoid unrest or protest or even conversation about the issue.

Or, I can choose to try to understand a different version, even if, in the end, I remain uncertain about “the truth” of what really happened. I can get to know people who have a different perspective than me, perhaps lived a very different life than me, and listen to them deeply. I can spend time with them and try to see their perspectives as valid, as informed as mine is, based on experiences and understanding that cannot be mine but are still very real and very true for my new friends. It may change my understanding; if it does, it is because I have let myself experience “other-ness.” I have spent a little (tiny amount of) time in their shoes. And I should. Although I can never ever have a life that is not mine, I can expand my understanding in ways that connect me to deeper understanding, and be affected in a good way. I am a racist and sexist and prejudiced, but perhaps I can be less racist and sexist and prejudiced. With effort, I can improve my way of being and living. I can join the larger world outside my community and be a part of it, too.

If I do that, I will begin to see how hundreds of years of history shaped someone else’s current perspective. I will hear family stories that include “my great grandmother, who was a slave,” and “my great-uncle, who was lynched,” and “my father, who couldn’t use the same restroom as your father,”and “my older brother, who was followed in the department store because they thought he was a shop-lifter” or, “my little brother, who was shot because he held up a toy gun.” I will begin to imagine what it might be like if that were my history, if those were my family members; what it would be like to walk down the sidewalk and have to look the other way so fair-skinned people didn’t think I was getting too close to their children, or looking at them too long.

I have heard some of these stories personally. I am getting to know people who have lived very different lives than mine. And I am changing. I will never ever fully feel these histories, because they are not mine, but I am closer to understanding.

I have been a part of the human race my whole life, but I have a very small, skewed understanding of it because of my place in time, a place of privilege into which I was born. It is not my fault that I was born in this skin. It is simply time for me to examine all of the human race, not just my part of it. And that takes leaving my home, my “side of town,” my cultural, socioeconomic, political and religious insulation, even for short periods of time. I need to get to know people different than me. I need to try to understand them. I need to listen to their stories, try to see through their eyes, soak up some of their worldview and, even if I can’t know what is like to have lived their life and have their world-view, I owe them, myself, humanity, to try to know more. I must. It will affect me and, if I’m open, it will help me think and act like I belong to humanity, and not just to “my group.”

I challenge you to do the same: if you look, and have lived a life, more like me, examine your insulation, consider how your perspective might be limited, and leave it, even just for a little while. Go to a Black Lives Matter meeting, attend a Ralph Ellison Foundation event, visit a mosque or a temple, have tea with someone from a different country, work with the poor or homeless. And, try not to talk too much. Don’t put your world-view, your perspective, into the conversation just yet. Instead, listen deeply and openly. Try to imagine that life, that perspective, that world-view.

And then, write it down, so you don’t forget it. Post it on your own Facebook page, or blog, perhaps with the title “Other Shoes.” Let’s start trying to understand others the way we would want them to understand us – deeply, fully. and let’s see where it takes us.

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