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.