I recently read a note written by a friend of mine who was thanking someone for understanding him – even though his friend was white and he was Asian. On the surface this sounded pretty harmless as I’m sure it was intended to be. But it made me think of something a little more sinister – something implied by that statement that runs much deeper and, while based in some truth, turns out to be more of a self-fulfilling prophesy than anything else.
The statement, “even though you’re ___ and I’m ___” reveals a subtle assumption about the world and how we have been taught to expect it to work. If someone has a definable difference from you (in this case ethnicity and cultural background), then it is expected and assumed that there will be difficulties in communication and understanding.
Now, I’ll be the first to trumpet the fact that societies MUST be on watch for breakdowns in communication and the lack of understanding between people. These things must be recognized and corrected, and often it IS a cultural or simple “definable” difference that leads to misunderstandings. However, arriving at the blatant expectation that this is the norm is dangerous and does more harm than good – even if that assumption is based on past experiences and is merely a rational reaction to the patterns of the world.
Pointing to the Asian/white comparison in particular, I have noticed a very disturbing trend. This is not limited to the Asian community at all, but since this is the one with which I have more first hand experience, I’ll use it as an example. For one thing there is a very subtle “us in contrast to them” mentality. This is perfectly natural when forging a minority group or community identity, but it can lead to a community that becomes inwardly focused and sees everyone outside of their defined qualities as being outside of their experience, thus making it very difficult to understand each other. Not only does this assumption lead to more misunderstanding than there probably would be in the first place, but it also yields some pretty ridiculous distinguishments that have little to do with reality.
Often I hear the phrase, “Oh, that’s so Asian!” spoken among Asians in reference to something they do which they have noticed “all the other Asians in their community” also do. From an outsider’s perspective, I have to laugh to myself because there is absolutely NOTHING so Asian about whatever it is they’re talking about, but they have the blinders on so tight they can’t recognize their own common bonds with “humanity,” other cultures, and people with different backgrounds. I think to myself, “No, that’s so HUMAN.” Of course, speaking this kind of generalization has been received with much argumentation and protest – as if I was threatening the very foundation of bedrock qualities which some Asians have tied their entire identity up in.
Wouldn’t it be a scandal indeed if one of my Asian friends who struggled being comfortable being Asian in “a white man’s world” and struggled carving out an identity for himself found out that many of the things he clung to as being “so Asian” and integral to his Asian identity were not specifically Asian at all. Rather, these were qualities which he shared with humanity as whole, or simply with certain pockets of society. These “pockets” may have less simple group definitions such as black, white, Asian, and Latino – but more nuanced ones such as “traditional conservative valued” or “lower middle class” or “suburban teen from artistically and culturally attuned family background.”
Granted, even the boundaries of these groups are further blurred across the many domains to which we find ourselves belonging – making the same mistakes of mischaracterized definitions just as likely within these so-called “definable groups” as they are in the more simple ones. I remember back to my high school year when people were divided into groups such as “jocks” “preps” “grunge” “skater” “goth” “artists” “band geeks” and so on and so forth… By the time most of us made it through out college years we discovered that there was a little bit of every group in each of us, but far be it from me to explain to a high school kid that they might really have 95% in common with someone from a difference social group and only 5% different when they think those numbers are reversed or non-existent at all.
It seems to me that as we become adults, we simply have exchanged one group myth for another, and by insisting that we belong to a certain group or community we find ourselves creating non-existent distinguishing characteristics for ourselves and using them as tools to separate ourselves and excuses for being unable to communicate or understand each other. In reality, I believe that we probably are able to understand each other a lot better than we think, and empathy to the individual can go a lot further than we expect. In other words, even though, as individuals we have many things different, it shouldn’t be a surprise to me that another human has the ability to reach outside of his own personal experience and empathies with me even though he’s him and I’m me – group definitions aside.
Once group definitions are applied, the notion that there should even be a qualifying “even though you’re ___ and I’m ___” remark is often fallacious and based in a complete lack of understanding that most of the qualities we use to separate ourselves categorically from other humans are really shared cross-categorically with other humans. Of course, this isn’t expressed in the, “even though you’re a major extrovert and I’m a major introvert” sort of way which would be more proper – it is generalized into, “even though you’re white and I’m Asian” – revealing a possible subtle association of being naturally extroverted with being white and being introverted with being Asian – a complete falsehood along ethnic lines, but an easy one to settle on since the examples of such extremes abound in obvious quantities. Some people may be surprised to find that there are extremely introverted people from all cultural backgrounds – and extremely extroverted people among groups which are typified as being introverted.
To those of you who may find themselves easily falling into the trap of “even though you’re ___ and I’m ___” thinking, I challenge you to consider the following: Life is not so simple that something as basic as ethnic and cultural background differences can be used as a baseline for excluding others from being able to “understand” you. On the other hand, life is not so complex that understanding and communication requires any significant amount of commonality in experience and disposition between two other people.
In my own experience as a “middleclass, Christian straight white male suburban Midwesterner” (MCCSWMSM) I have found that I can often relate better to my rich and poor friends than those in the same income tax bracket as myself. I often relate better to my atheist and Muslim friends than other Christians, my gay friends than straight friends, my black and Asian friends than my white counterparts, my female friends than my male friends, and my friends from the coasts (and especially overseas) rather than my fellow Midwesterners. What is so special about me that allows me to transcend traditional boundaries of division and misunderstanding? Is there something about my uniquely individual experience that has caused me to be a social chameleon, blending in where I’m not supposed to have the natural camouflage?
I will admit that my experiences in life have been “uniquely” individual, but the real truth is there’s nothing UNIQUE about that phenomena at all! There’s nothing unique or special about me that allows me to “transcend.” Once we start looking outside our traditional groupings it is refreshing to find that those groupings might only be based on 2% of our actual personal makeup and the other 98% is free fodder for indentifying with and understanding our fellow humans who lie outside our group.
I would suggest that the reason I have found that I can understand and relate to individuals outside my “groups” is because everyone is likely to have more in common with humans as a whole than the people crammed into their categorical group. Sure, if all we do is focus on the things that make us different from “them” and similar to “us” we’ll come to the distorted conclusion that we have more in common with us than them. We may also find ourselves creating false realities that don’t strictly differentiate us from them. On the other hand, even though we may find that we differ drastically from someone else, the power of human empathy to transcend differences and yield understanding and communication may actually surprise.
I’m no saint, and I find myself playing an inner monologue where I calmly explain to myself that the reason I don’t relate to some person as well as I would like is because of superficial differences such as our economic or cultural background, or belonging to a certain religious or interest group (such as sports or fine arts). It is a challenge to constantly remind myself that this is a false construct and an excuse to quit trying. It is tempting to “turn off” my empathy mechanism and rely on these false constructs to compound the already difficult task of relating to someone who has glaring differences. Truth be told, if I can see beyond these false constructs and focus on what I have in common with my fellow humans and make the effort to exercise and employ my natural born empathy, I will find that there are few people who fall beyond the grasp of understanding or being understood by me.
I’m not making the argument that there aren’t things which do help define cultures or that those things don’t carry any significant value in and of themselves. I’m simply saying that in my experience, I have observed that people have a tendency to lump far too many human characteristics together as being correlated with their culture than they actually are. In addition, often we rely too much on commonality as a bridge to understanding and are surprised when empathy transcends our differences.
My suggestion is that if we can identify and free ourselves from the misdefinitions of our falsely constructed groupings it will go a long way towards uniting us and teaching us that we really are all under the same sun, going through the same difficult “human experience” and suffering, rejoicing, mourning, and loving in the same basic human fashion. And sometimes, that is all we need to know to find a little empathy and understanding with our fellow humankind.
More reading: You Are Not So Smart: The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight