I made a great new friend this semester. Her name is G and she is an international student from China who is in the TESOL program with me. We got assigned as coteachers, meaning we are teaching our ESL class together. We’ve grown quite close in a relatively short period of time as we experience together the highs and lows of being in the classroom for the first time. We realized, as well, that we have a lot of things in common and have bonded over our mutual love of chocolate, our strangely similar bedtime habits and our ever persistent skin problems. G even said to me the other day, “Wow, we have so much in common, even though we are from completely different parts of the world!” Indeed, despite our cultural and geographic differences, we share so much.
However, we began talking about the future and whether or not G would stay in the United States after graduation. She told me that one day when she and a friend (another Chinese student) were walking across Columbia’s campus, they passed by a woman who said to them, “Chinese, go back to your own country.” This bigoted comment, understandably, really stung her. She worries that people here don’t like Chinese people, and the thought of living somewhere where she is not welcomed is keeping her from deciding whether she will stay in the US. It’s not job opportunities, being away from her family or missing food from home that is affecting her decision. It’s the racism and prejudice she has experienced since being here that could potentially decide her future.
Later that same night, a Spanish-speaking Dominican woman in our ESL class told us that she frequently experiences condescension and rudeness from Americans because of the way she speaks. She said oftentimes she knows that people can understand what she is saying but they still say something like “What are you even talking about?” in order to “seem smarter than [her].” I asked if other students in the class had had similar experiences, and most of them nodded in affirmation.
I was thinking about both of these situations, and then I remembered my 15 year old nephew who was recently told by a girl he is dating that her mother is uncomfortable with the fact that he is half black.
There are many well-intentioned people who spout expressions like, “There’s only one race — the human race,” “I’m colorblind, I don’t see race,” and the classic, “Why can’t we all just focus on our similarities instead of our differences?” The three anecdotes I just recounted are three reasons why each of these expressions is moot and possibly even harmful.
By focusing so fervently on the similarities that humans share, we are discounting the differences that play a definitive role in the lives of those individual humans. If I had simply chosen to revel in the commonalities between G and me, I would have been blind to the fact that her being Chinese in America gives her a fundamentally different experience of this country than I have. I would not be able to empathize with my ESL students and understand both the stress and discrimination they experience as immigrants and second language learners. By saying “I don’t see race” to my nephew, I would never be able to even begin to understand him and the unique prejudices he faces because of his identity as a biracial person.
By insisting that differences don’t matter, we are silencing the stories of individuals who know by experience that their nationality, race, language or gender makes their lives fundamentally different from other, more privileged groups. In addition, each culture has their own history that should not be swept aside for the sake of “focusing on our similarities.” If anything, we need to learn to truly appreciate the cultures and histories of people who are different than ourselves so that we can better understand the oppressions they face today.
In short yes, we are all human. But we do not all experience the world in the same way. If it’s the differences between us that are at the root of these systems of oppression, we cannot deny those differences. On the contrary, we must confront them directly if we are to ever truly understand one another.
So I urge you to learn more about the people in your lives who may come from a different cultural, ethnic or socio-economic group than you do. Listen to their stories and do not attempt to assuage their feelings. Learn to simply listen. Try to recognize the ways in which you may be complicit in the oppression of others. Do not complain that you suffer from white guilt, male guilt, hetero guilt or any other kind of guilt. Your guilt accomplishes nothing. Instead, turn those feelings of guilt into something productive by helping to make the voices of oppressed groups heard.
All that being said, I will leave you with this quote from the amazing feminist writer bell hooks who can sum up more eloquently in 30 words everything I have tried to say in 800:
Beloved community is formed not by the eradication of difference but by its affirmation, by each of us claiming the identities and cultural legacies that shape who we are and how we live in the world.