Friday, August 20, 2010

Yes, A White Person Can Understand What It Is Like to Be Black...

...or asian, or hispanic, etc.  And yes, a man can understand what it is like to be a woman.  A straight person can understand what it is like to be gay.

Did I get your attention?  Cool.

I've seen this question in the race conversation a lot - everybody has - and I think the answer is clearly "yes".  The important part of the question, though, is that race has nothing to do with it.

The real question is "Can one human being understand what it is like to be another human being."  Race is just one variable in our experience as human beings.  Gender is another.  Dis/ability is another, as are age and economic class and culture and religion and anything else you can think of that describes a person.  The question is, can we understand each other?  The answer is yes - it has to be yes for any of our communication or relationships to be meaningful at all.  If the answer is no, then apoia'giajds;aio hgdag;ieha.

Now, if the question is "Can one human being experience the experiences of another human being", the answer is obviously no across the board.  We can't live another person's life - we can't be them.  But we have more than just experience to help us understand other people.

We have limbic resonance.  Your mammalian brain broadcasts how you feel through subtle clues many times per second, thousands of times in a given conversation, entirely outside of your control.  Outside of my control, my mammalian brain picks up on these cues.  Happiness, sadness, anger, even things like obesity, are actually contagious in this way.  Our mammalian brains are always striving to understand and communicate with each other, and this process is not impeded in the slightest by something constructed like race or ethnicity.

We have empathy.  We have the capacity (with the exception of sociopaths or perhaps severely autistic persons) to feel what other people are feeling.  When we see a sad face, we feel a pang of sadness.  When we see an angry face, our pulse rate goes up a few beats or more.  Reveling in empathy isn't very helpful, but it is there.  We know from the research of people like Charles Darwin all the way to Paul Ekman that emotional facial expressions are universal regardless of culture.  If you haven't read Paul Ekman's books, I highly recommend them.  He has demonstrated through decades of research and facial analysis that the facial expressions that accompany emotions are universally human and entirely cross-cultural.  Culture teaches us different ways of managing those emotional reactions, but the reactions go deeper than culture or ethnicity, all the way to biology.  We are 'wired' to communicate emotional experiences and emotional states, whether we are New Guinean stone-age hunter-gatherers or Japanese executives.

We have sympathy.  This is the imaginative capacity to understand, from a slight remove, what it is like to be another person.  We can find experiences in our lives that are similar to experiences in other lives.  We can listen to their stories and imagine ourselves in those stories.  We can ask them what it is like to be in their skin and the words they tell us have meaning.  We have to be careful that we're not just projecting our own experience and biases onto the other person - but that's what listening is for!

We have imagination.  We can imagine, and understand to a degree, what it is to be a big blue alien on Pandora, or an Elf, or a cyborg, or an artificially intelligent robot, or a killer whale, or Jesus, or our parents, or our ancestors.  We started developing this capacity when we were toddlers.  We can use it to manipulate others or to help them, to build up or to destroy, but we have it.  We can walk in each other's shoes just like we can walk on Mars or the bottom of the ocean.  More information and broader experience sharpens this capacity, as does wisdom, but we have it almost from the beginning.

What we cannot do is to have the same experiences as another person.  We can't mind meld or download their experiences into our brains.  So, while I am not black, not a woman, not gay, not hispanic, etc., can I understand what it is like to be those things?  It takes some effort and imagination, but yes.   Can I have the experiences of those other categories of people?  Can I embody them?  Can I be just like them and live their lives?  Not at all - of course not!  No more than they can embody me or have my experiences or live my life.

So, the bad news is, we're just going to have to listen to each other, and actually use our capacities for understanding.


Doug Hagler said...

Clearly, I am the Fool.

Pete said...

We share the same humanity and telos. Jesus heals what he assumed...humanity. Good article.


Shawn Coons said...

For the first 34 years of my life I was not a parent, but I knew lots of parents, in fact I had parents!

When my wife was pregnant, I read lots of books about being a parent. I talked to other parents about being a parent. I imagined what it was like to be a parent. I spent a lot of time observing, thinking, having sympathy and empathy.

I did everything I could short of having the experience of being a parent.

Guess what?

After I became a parent, I learned I didn't understand very well what it was like to be a parent. It wasn't enough to know intellectually the challenges that parents face, or the feelings that they might feel.

Only by being a parent every minute of every day, and experiencing first hand the feelings, challenges, and joys of parenting did I really understand what it was like to be a parent.

I have no doubt the same applies to being a person of color.

Doug Hagler said...

@ Shawn Coons: Thanks for the comment - I'm pretty sure you're agreeing with what I wrote. You were able to understand what it was like to be a parent, but you were not able to experience being a parent yourself...until you experienced being a parent.

Aric Clark said...

Good stuff Doug.

At a certain basic level, understanding has to be possible or else, as you say, "alekjtiasglkshign!" We can be friends with, have relationships with, and even come to predict the thoughts and behaviors of people very different from ourselves with effort. This is surely "understanding".

But there is still a pretty big gap between this kind of understanding and actually experiencing what another person experiences. I think people who say "we can't understand a person of a different race/gender/culture" mean is that this gap is a pretty big one and often claims of understanding are presumptuous.

At the very least before we claim to understand we have to put a lot of work in. And it has to involve a lot of listening to the person we are trying to understand. We should be suspicious of blanket claims like "I know what it is like to be a black person" coming from anyone who is not black. But we should be especially suspicious when the claim is made by someone of privilege relative to the people they are claiming to understand.

reborn1995 said...


i think you're on to something important. The "you don't know what it's like" card gets played all the time in conflicts. What purpose does it serve? What is it meant to do? To prove?

It certainly doesn't seem helpful in conflict resolution or reconciliation to me. Does the person want to remain isolated? Does the person want to maintain the division or conflict? Does the person not want to help the other person understand?

Sometimes i wonder (dare i say) if it isn't a mark of pride or arrogance. "You don't know what it's like"--i've had experiences you'll never have or understand and that gives me one up over you.

Anyway, i've rambled long enough. Instead of slapping each other in the face with "you don't know what it's like," we could develop a habit of helping other people empathize, sympathize, imagine, understand, etc.


Doug Hagler said...

@ Aric: True. I just want to change the focus, because what I hear most often is "You can't understand" - as if we are dealing with alien lifeforms instead of other kinds of human beings. Certainly, "I understand" can be condescending (which I didn't really get into in this post) or projection or over-empathizing (which I mentioned) - it can also be a meaningful statement between two people.

As I said more than once in the post - this comes with effort, and in particular, with respectful listening, and with actively engaging the conscious things we can do in order to understand better.

Perhaps even more, if understanding is mostly impossible, then hopes for reconciliation between any two groups are pretty much empty. The best a minority group could hope for, if it cannot be understood by people in the majority group, is to somehow find political leverage and force legal concessions. The only recourse there is force. Not only is that not the world I *want* to live in, it is not the world I think we *do* live in.

Aric Clark said...

@ Doug,

A key point in your favor are polls like these, which show that the more people who personally know someone who is an out-of-the-closet homosexual the less they disapprove of homosexuality. The transformative difference between people over 40 who overwhelmingly disapprove of homosexuality and people under 30 who overwhelmingly approve? Having Gay friends.

So there is no question that you are right and understanding is possible and necessary for change.

Aric Clark said...


I understand what you are saying and sympathize. I agree that it is not productive to simply push other people away by saying "you can't know what its like".

Not to be a broken record, but part of the reason I suggested above we should be suspicious of easy claims of understanding, especially when the claim comes from a person of relative privilege, is because power-dynamics do in fact complicate efforts to understand one another.

Words like yours could easily, if said in a certain way or at a certain time, be another example of "blaming the victim". Generally if a woman, child, or minority makes a claim of suffering unique to their identity, they are owed the benefit of the doubt. The dominant social instinct is to do the opposite: to discredit them or ignore them.

A good friend of mine once said to me "if men want to help the feminist movement they can make photo-copies and fetch coffee." When I've repeated this to other men they usually respond by getting defensive and saying "you see! they are just as sexist as they claim we are!" What they don't see is an invitation there to genuine understanding. Men can't make room for women to have an equal voice in society by speaking up on their behalf. That is just an extension of male privilege. The only way men can effectively make room for women to have an equal voice in society is to begin deposing their own voice. To experience what it is to be silenced for a while.

Rather than hearing a person saying "you can't understand what its like" as a rejection, consider hearing it as an invitation into radically altering your perspective. Perhaps it is actually true, sometimes, that "you can't get there from here." Perhaps we have to be willing to walk a mile in another person's shoes before we can understand. At the very least, doing so will be more effective at overcoming their objections than merely insisting "yes I can understand!".

Doug Hagler said...

I'm also willing to bet that if my response to "you can't understand me" was putting all of my honest effort into understanding as well as I possibly could, the dynamic would sure change.

Jodie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jodie said...

Interesting post.

Where I went was that we can place ourselves in situations where the shoe is on the other foot, thereby experiencing what we have not experienced. So a white American can experience elsewhere what non-white Americans experience here, even much worse. It is much easier done than you think.

But when someone says "you can't understand me", usually that is meant to be a conversation stopper. It accuses me of being unimaginative, unsympathetic, unfeeling, and stupid.

It's a hostile stand-in for "You don't understand me and I don't want you to. I just want you to sit there and watch me sulk and wallow in self pity".

Something I sometimes have little patience for.