There is an old expression that most of us have heard at one time or another in our lives: “Walk a mile in my shoes.” On the surface this phrase seems to make sense. It suggests that we can’t really understand what another person feels or thinks until we have experienced what they have. While I agree that the thought behind that concept may be true, I have come to believe that it’s just not possible to do this.
I can’t, as a white male in America, ever experience what an African American experiences in today’s society. The several recent deaths of African Americans at the hands of white police, and video of the manner in which Sandra Bland was treated by a Texas law enforcement officer prior to her alleged suicide cause a pit in my stomach. One real tragedy in our society today is that we only hear about the sensational abuses that make the news and promote nationwide outrage, but not the everyday marginalization of minorities characterizing their everyday lives. We know that people of color are being followed around grocery and department stores every day, but that doesn’t make the news. There are even more subtle practices of racism that I never see, but are certainly felt by our non-white brothers and sisters. Poor service, long waits, unfriendly glares and countless other manifestations happen to so many in our society all the time, some of us never even notice. Those that feel these snubs notice them all the time, I don’t.
We can be quick to make judgments about those of different backgrounds who live on the fringes of society, and find themselves, for example, begging for money on the streets. There was a time when my response was less than kind. “He looks pretty healthy, why doesn’t he get a job?” might have been my reaction. Maybe we hear some complain about issues that may seem trivial in our lives. My knee-jerk reaction might have been “Just get over it!” We often filter our response through our own set of lenses that have been formed by the accumulation of all of our life experiences from the day we were born. I now think there is something in our subconscious which supposes that everyone else uses that same set of filters. Nothing can be further from the truth.
I can use my imagination to try to project what others may have experienced, but no matter how vivid my imagination is, I now know that I can never experience the hurt and devastation that discrimination has caused in the lives of so many in this country and in the world in general. I just can’t fit into those shoes.
So if it’s really true that I can’t walk a mile in anybody else’s shoes, what can I do? First of all, I can give up making any assumptions regarding what others feel or “should be” feeling. I can listen with an empathetic ear. I can think for a long time, if necessary, before responding to others regarding their circumstances. Most of all, I can be kind. I know that makes God smile.
The above piece is reprinted from the August issue of Evergreen Notes newsletter and The Spire.