As a White person, I do not know what it is like to be Black. As someone raised Jewish in a largely Christian culture, as a male in a heavily female profession, as a humanist in a profoundly religious society, I have experienced a sense of being different, of alienation, even some degree of oppression. But it is not the same. And claiming that because one has experienced alienation or oppression, one knows exactly what someone else’s alienation or oppression is like is inaccurate and even offensive. Imagine a man telling woman who has just given birth that he knows exactly how she feels because he broke his arm once. Not going to go over well.
At its worst, focusing on the common elements of our experience can set us up for minimization, for downplaying the unique elements of the experience of those different from us by equating it to our own. Such minimization gets in the way of true understanding, and can come across as dismissive. This is what can happen when White people, responding to the idea of structural racism, point out their own hardships, which may be enormous, as evidence that all people have obstacles they face. Yes, we all have obstacles to conquer. But they are different. One can call out the unique challenges facing Black people as a result of systemic racism without diminishing the challenges faced by many White people. It’s not a competition to see whose suffering is worse; there’s plenty to go around.
At its best, however, acknowledging the common human experience of suffering can allow us to achieve sympathy – a sense of caring and concern for another – or even better empathy, the ability to truly recognize and share the feelings of another. But to do this we have to go beyond “I feel your pain. I’ve also had pain,” to “I know pain is real, but I don’t know yours. I want to hear about your pain.” White people who want to address structural racism can’t just rely on any of their own experiences of difficulty or alienation or oppression. They have to be willing to listen – really listen – to the experiences of Black people.
So finally to Bradley. Bradley entered my life about four years ago, via my wife, Lynn. Bradley, a Black man who is incarcerated in Wisconsin, contacted our minister after hearing her speak about Black Lives Matter on local TV. (I recognize this mention of a minister may be jarring after my reference to Judaism and humanism above – just trust me on this.) What about my Black life, he asked? What about my son’s black life? Do they matter? What are you doing about those? That led to the start of a correspondence between Bradley and Lynn, and eventually a deep relationship of which I am privileged to be a part.
Getting to know Bradley has enriched my life, and given me an understanding of racism that I could never get from any number of books or workshops. Recently, Bradley gave a sermon via telephone from his cell that is the best, or at least the most personal, exposition of the real meaning of Black Lives Matter I have yet encountered. I urge you to listen here – the sermon starts at around minute 31, with remarks from Lynn following Bradley’s.
Thank you, brother Bradley, for opening my eyes by opening your heart.