I hesitate to write about this, because I try to avoid conflict when I can. However, I feel I have no right to complain about the state of the world I am living in if I do nothing to try to change it by speaking up. Call me young or naive, but at this point in my life I am trying not to let fear dictate the choices I make.
I’d venture to say most people have at least heard of Jesse Williams’s acceptance speech for the Humanitarian Award at the BET Awards recently. I spent this morning watching his speech and then reading reactions to it. One response was a beautiful poem by Alice Walker. Another response was a hate-filled tirade by Stacey Dash, ironically accusing Jesse Williams of being hateful. I won’t link that here, because I only want to spread positivity in this space. Based on numbers alone, I would say that a 72 year old woman would have a clearer idea of whether things in this country have really improved for Black Americans than a 49 year old woman. Call me crazy, but I trust the opinion of a woman who truly lived through the Civil Rights Movement.
This whole situation makes me incredibly frustrated. Perhaps I am biased in my interpretations, but I felt Jesse Williams was passionate, but eloquent. I felt his words were carefully chosen so as not to insult. I do not believe speaking truths can be insulting and what he spoke was his truth, his experience. Who are we to deny him his experiences? It frustrates me to know that no matter how carefully you choose your words, some people will be outraged no matter what. No matter how careful you are not to offend, your message will be lost in people’s defensiveness.
I understand how and why labels exist, but I feel we have to acknowledge that the existence of these labels inevitably affects how people are treated. I have seen differences in the way people are treated based on race, sexual orientation, gender, the breed of dog they own, the neighborhood they live in, the profession they have, etc. There is no limit to how a person is labeled and judged. I’m not frustrated at the fact that labels and judgments exist. It would be absurd to think that we could eliminate that completely. Judgments are a part of how living things make sense of the world.
It seems to me that as a society, we accept that equality is something everybody should have. However, we talk about it as if we assume everybody already has it. We act as if we would rather live in ignorance and continue believing that everybody is equal and free rather than be open to listening when someone tells us that’s not the case. When people speak about problems, they are criticized for saying something about it. Somehow the issue is in the speaking about it, not in the fact that there is a problem in the first place. Do we believe that there is some sort of limit on freedom? If we help a group to gain equal rights, does that somehow make the rest of us less free?
It is unnerving to me that people lack the ability to try to understand other people’s experiences. People are somehow unable to accept that other people’s experiences might differ from their own. One time, I was out with a group of friends (predominantly white). We were waiting to get into a bar or club of some sort. There was a group of Asian people in front of us. I was at the back of my group, nowhere near the group in front of us. As the bouncer allowed the first group to go in, he looked at me and motioned to me, as if I was to go in with them. It was not harmful to me, but I recognized that he assumed I was a part of their group based on my race. I mentioned this to a friend I was with and she accused me of being oversensitive and told me that’s not what happened. In essence, my friend invalidated my experience simply because she had not experienced it herself and didn’t think it happened.
That moment has stuck with me for years. My friend did not see the moment as it happened. Had she seen it, she might have thought nothing of it because she did not see things from my perspective. Being two different people, we may interpret the same situation completely differently. As human beings, we draw on our prior experiences in order to make sense of things that happen in the present moment. This moment isn’t memorable to me because I feel outraged at the assumptions the bouncer made about me. I am not angry that he looked at me and noticed my race. I do not expect people to not notice that I am Asian nor do I expect them to pretend that my race does not exist. This moment is memorable to me because of the actions of my friend. Sure, it’s possible that she was right and the bouncer did not make assumptions about me based on my race. It’s also possible that I was being overly sensitive and I misinterpreted the situation. However, it’s bothersome to me that my friend was unable to acknowledge that perhaps there was a reason why I would interpret the situation the way I did. If time and time again, people treat you differently because of the way you look, it makes sense that you would eventually learn to expect it. Rather than picking people’s experiences apart and trying to find ways to invalidate them, I wish we would take the time to understand the source of their feelings. I bet very often the feelings would not be a result of that specific moment, but a culmination of moments that have happened before.
I believe we are all entitled to the freedom to be safe, healthy, and loved. We are all entitled to have our voices heard. We need to look out for our fellow man, not just for ourselves. If we could learn to genuinely care for others, there would be less of a need to selfishly look out for oneself.
I will end with this: I hope for a world where we can approach all things with love. Where our measure of success does not depend on pushing other people aside. Where we can truly hear what other people are saying, rather than focusing on our own feelings. I hope we can embrace other people’s experiences instead of just rejecting them because we find them inconvenient or uncomfortable. And, at the risk of sounding like a hippie/liberal/whatever else you want to label me, I hope for love for all.