Decades ago, in a graduate level class on communications theory, I learned that we rarely talk to another person as he or she really is. Instead, we talk to that person as we conceive the individual to be. We talk to the Other—our concept of who that person is.
In talking with a group, we may speak to the Generalized Other—what we conceive that group to be, based on our experiences with and knowledge of individuals in the group.
This means, in my mind, that the more experiences and knowledge we have in common with an individual, the more likely we are to exchange ideas and beliefs clearly. The greater the gap between us in shared experiences and knowledge, the greater the likelihood of misunderstanding.
I believe this gap in experience and knowledge is at the heart of a lot of our current conflict over racial equality.
As an old white man, I wonder if there is any contribution from me that could be acceptable in trying to close the divide.
I freely admit that I will never face some of the abuse, roadblocks or challenges that African-Americans face constantly because of their skin color. I will never know some of the prejudices they have felt. Because of what people call my “white privilege” I am largely spared those things.
I believe that I recognize racial injustice; I have seen it at work in this country and others. I have always supported civil rights legislation and other legal and social efforts to insure that people of any color have equal opportunity and equal protection in our society. But apparently, believing this and voting for it is not enough these days. Simply saying “I’ve always been for it” could be criticized as “virtue signaling”—jumping on the bandwagon as it is passing by.
Apparently something more is required of me—but what, and how do I approach it?
In all my years, I have had relatively few opportunities to associate closely with black people. That was not by my choice, but simply because of where life has taken me. Except for one long-ago exception, my experiences with black people have all been positive.
I have learned from personal experience that judging others by their physical characteristics leads me into foolish mistakes at best, and at worst deprives me of opportunities to be enriched by other people. I have tried to overcome the human failing of making snap judgments about people based on what they look like; instead, I try to learn more about the individual.
It is very difficult for me to communicate with anyone solely as a member of a group—an African-American, and Asian, a feminist, someone who has a disability, or a militant advocate of any particular cause. It isn’t that I oppose their calls for change, but I don’t like to be judged by someone else’s sense of commitment to a cause, whatever it may be. Sometimes there is an implied challenge: Either you respond to this exactly as I do, or you’re the enemy.
Often I have been approached by ardent activists for worthy causes whose invitation to discussion goes something like this: “We need to talk about this problem—but if you can’t agree from the beginning that I am completely right on certain points and you are all wrong, I say you’re not serious about helping.” That doesn’t put us on equal ground.
If it would help to heal the ugly racial divide in this country, I would be glad to sit down with anyone and discuss the differences in our lives because we are of different races. No doubt I’ve got a lot to learn, and I’m willing.
But what I would prefer to talk about is how we are alike as children of God. How would the world change if we could focus more on our spiritual kinship with each other and with Him?