The Problem with “We’re All Human”

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.

-C

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9 thoughts on “The Problem with “We’re All Human”

  1. I totally agree. I find that the most people who are “colorblind” happen to be persons of privilege and follow through denial in similar fashions. I will be posting a similar topic in my narrative “Road to Feminism,” hopefully by March 8, which commemorates International Women’s Day.

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  2. I think your article has validity. It’s important to recognize differences without trying to erase them or invalidate them. However, “colorblind” is what this country strives for in its laws. “…without regard for sex, race, religion…” so I think it’s also important to see that there are two different things going on here. One is the idea that we should treat people differently based on some things about them that they can’t control, like their race, or that shouldn’t matter, like their sex or orientation or religion. The other is the idea that race or sex don’t matter to the person and to their experience. As a policy, I think it’s difficult to suggest that we should treat everyone differently because even if we know that there are differences, how do we know what is the right way to treat them?

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    1. I completely agree! I think that maybe the way I wrote the post, it sounds like we should ONLY focus on our differences, which wasn’t my intention. I think that all people should be treated equally under the law, and we should all treat one another with equal respect, no matter our race, religion, gender, sexuality, etc. However, we also need to recognize that there are differences in the cultures that we each grow up in, and that there are differences in the ways that we experience the world and in the ways we are treated (even though there shouldn’t be!). Either argument (“We’re all the same” or “We’re all different”) can be harmful if taken too far. I would never want someone to say, “Well black people are different, therefore they’re inferior.” The main point was that there are inequalities which lead to differences in experience and worldview. If that makes sense? I feel like I’m rambling. haha.

      I guess what I wanted to get across is that there SHOULDN’T be a difference in the way people are treated, but the reality is that there IS and we should all be aware of the consequences that those inequalities have for the lives of people who experience them.

      -C

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  3. I learned the concept of race three years ago, after I landed on this country. It’s also because there are so many controversial or “sensitive” topics about race here, I love to see more beauty of it.
    There is no hate to those people who think narrowly on the topic of race and other factors to define others. There is always hope to see more people who are well aware of full perspectives on others and are eager to have impact on others.
    If you only see the sky right above you, I would be honored to invite you to see the real sky.

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    1. It’s so interesting how race is such an important factor in America — it is inherently intertwined with people’s identities and personal cultural histories here. In other some other countries, this isn’t the case. It’s always intriguing to me to hear the experiences of people who come to America and first come to understand the idea of “race” while they live here.

      I love what you said at the end… “If you only see the sky right above you, I would be honored to invite you to see the real sky.” As always, you have a beautifully creative way with words ❤

      -C

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  4. I agree with everything here! I didn’t realise I was different until I moved to London when I was 10, but then I learn about race and all the difference there were. I’ve found that your race matters too much to other people, but they don’t stop to think how it affects you. It certainly shouldn’t be ignored-just as men and women have different worldviews because of their historical places, each race has a different shared culture and history. It’s almost insulting to ignore it, but expect them to acknowledge yours.

    This is something that’s pretty close to my heart since I know how hard it can be and all the pressures you face to get rid of your differences and ‘fit in’. It really shakes you and it took me a good while to be comfortable with who I was and how I was. I think there’s a middle path to follow, where you do certain things out of respect for the host culture/country but don’t let it erase your own original identity.

    -The Ace

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