Learning to See the Invisible Realities

I remember the moment I realized that women experience a different reality than men. A friend in Uganda—a woman and fellow expat—was telling me what it was like to walk through a busy market by herself. Men catcalled her, they tried to grab her, they propositioned her.

But we’d walked through that same market together plenty of times and—aside from the occasional unwelcome comment here and there—I hadn’t seen any of that.

It didn’t happen when I was with her, she said, because I’m a man.

It struck me then that she lived a reality that wasn’t just different than mine—it was also invisible to me. It didn’t exist when I was there, so I couldn’t see it.

The only way I could learn about it was to listen to her and believe her.

It was a few years later when I heard that—before he was shot and killed by police during a routine traffic stop—Philando Castile was pulled over 49 times. He was only 32 years old and a law-abiding citizen. On average he was pulled over once every 3 months from the moment he started driving.

I’m 36 and I’ve only been pulled over 2 or 3 times in my life.

That’s when it finally struck me that black people in America experience a different reality than white people. And like my friend walking through the market in Uganda, that reality can stay almost invisible to me if I let it.

So when I see stuff like this—two black men arrested for waiting for a friend in a Starbucks—I’ve learned not to write it off as an “isolated event.” This is part of a reality that black people have to live every day. It’s a reality in which our society suspects, threatens, blames, and punishes black people much more often and more harshly than white people.

It’s a reality that I don’t experience. So if I want to learn about it I have to listen to and believe the people who do.

1 Comment

  1. Good stuff, brother. I’ve found this dynamic to be similar to being an aid worker in Africa (or anywhere). You come back home and tell stories that are so far out of people’s reality and understanding. And you can see in their eyes that they don’t connect in any way with what you’re saying. It’s not real. It’s invisible, at best.

    I’ve spent much of my life trying to get white American’s to understand the reality of white privilege, institutionalized racism, and the fact that the war on drugs and the governmental embrace of private prison systems is just a more socially acceptable (from white communities) continuation of slavery and institutionalized racism.

    But it just isn’t real to most people, especially white people. Because it’s invisible to them, if they can even believe that.

    That’s why I appreciate films like 13th, The House I Live In, and many others that help people understand the depths and truths of racism, and all it’s nuances. And now, people like Jaron Lanier and Jeremy Bailenson (Stanford) are using things like Virtual Reality to help people build their empathy muscles and understand what it’s like to live in someone else’s’ reality. I think this is part of the solution.

    Thanks for posting this, for caring so deeply, and for being a light in this world. Peace to you, my friend.

    (sorry for the blog post length response there….)

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