Speaking to the Identities of Others

“… Good education may leave students deeply dissatisfied … Students who have been well served by good teachers may walk away angry—angry that their prejudices have been challenged and their sense of self shaken.”–Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach

     “Everyone bleeds the same.”

        An experience pertaining to this statement has transformed how I interact with people.

     It was in a Multicultural Psychology class where many of my prejudices were challenged. At one point in our class, we discussed a book by Dr. Maura Cullen—“35 Dumb Things Well-Intended People Say.”

When I heard the title of the book, I shuddered. What dumb things have I said?

     … As it turns out, a LOT!

     There are many young people like myself—white, middle-class college students—seeking to become more culturally-aware and sensitive individuals. To me, “Everybody bleeds the same” was one of many catchphrases that ‘covered all of the bases,’ as it were; it (appears to be) all-encompassing, all-loving, and all-compassionate.

“We’re all part of the same race, the human race.”

     So, when my instructor flashed that phrase up on the board—“Everybody bleeds the same”—as a ‘Dumb Thing Well-Intentioned People Say,’ I was taken aback; if this wasn’t the right thing to say, then what was?

     I became angry, emotional. I became stubborn that my way was the right way. How I perceive the world is the way to perceive the world. My way is good!

My life and environment seemed to glorify the idea of ‘color-blindness’—not seeing race.

A few years ago, you may have heard me say something along the lines of “I don’t care if you are pink, purple, or orange—I treat all people the same.”

The teacher gave the class a knowing look. I sat quiet, dumbfounded.
     Is that truly a dumb thing to say? But I’m human! We’re human!
It seemed that my teacher was mocking me, mocking us students.
     How could she? She is white, too! She’s rather brazen; not seeing humans—that’s awfully offensive of her! She should be careful not to say that outside of the classroom!

     If it wasn’t for my emotional tie to my former way of thinking, I would not have learned the valuable lesson I did, that day; if the instructor hadn’t given rise to my conflict, I may possibly be insulting (more) people in my life.

After inviting us to discuss her prompt, she continued:

     She taught us why such a statement is fundamentally wrong; we need to see race. We need to acknowledge those of marginalized identities and celebrate them. The intersectionality of a person’s identities is the result of his or her existential context(s) (the environments which shape a person’s existence, and how a person navigates his or her existence); denying a person their identities—their personhood, their self—does more harm than good; not only does it perpetuate prejudice and stereotyping, but also causes grief to those of non-normative status (which, socially and economically speaking, is a LOT of people!).

     Whenever I have discussions of diversity with others, I always try to bring this story into the conversation. I would like to think that openly admitting to my error is humbling, in a sense, and invites others to share in like-mindedness. However, I recognize, too, that my words may never reach the ears or the minds of those that I may feel need to hear it most. When I meet such people, I must allow myself to be ‘dissatisfied’—to recognize that others can hold views and opinions differing from my own, held steadfast by their own experiences. I feel that embracing this dichotomy will allow me to, ultimately, express more compassion to people from all walks of life.

     At present, I cringe as I review the list of ‘35 Dumb Things Well-Intended People Say.’ Even where I am in my personal journey, I still say things which, in retrospect, I consider insensitive. Just a couple of days ago, I have spoken the phrases, “I know exactly how you feel” and “The same thing happens to me, too” when comparing the experiences of oppression in sexual/gender identity to those of racial/ethnic identities (and I will atone for the blunder!). Though not necessarily mutually exclusive, it is important to recognize that different categories of identities shape others’ experiences in very personal and unique ways; insisting or assuming that we all feel the same, think the same, and experience the world the same way does not do justice to those who differ from us.

     As someone who will likely teach somebody something at some point, I hope that, through my aspired sense of sensitivity towards others, I will find a means for us all to explore our conflicts in a safe way in order to further our collective understanding of the human experience.

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