Nothing Like You. Everything Like You.
I am a white, middle class male American who grew up in the suburbs. How boring is that?
And yet, when I was a year and a half old, my parents moved from the house I lived in as a baby into a neighborhood that was probably the most diverse one could possibly hope for in late-1970's Nashville. The house wasn't big, by any stretch of the imagination. I remember being able to stand at one wall of my parents' bedroom and see all the way to the far wall of the garage they converted into a living room. But my exposure to other cultures was bigger than you might expect.
I'm guessing that Nashville during that time was a big draw to recent immigrant families. The economy was a little touch and go, and Nashville represented somewhat of a clean slate with pockets of recent migrants to plug them into a cheap city. Just within a block of my house, I befriended Catholic Mexican, Hindu Indian, and Jewish American families.
I have a picture of us all playing in the gravel of my driveway when I was probably 6 or 7 years old. I have no memory of this photo being taken. Then again, my mom was a sneaky photographer like that, usually ending in some wonderful pictures.
What I also have no memory of is thinking that our differences were anything that should divide us. They were differences. We were all beautiful little kids loved dearly by our parents who called us home at sundown in different languages to eat different cuisine.
There are days when I almost wish I had never learned that those differences matter in the world. Because of course, they do.
I don't mean this to say that we should dwell on these differences, that they should affect the way we view someone's humanity. Just like another recent post of mine on this blog, it is a both/and approach we must take, rather than an either/or. The first two major waves of feminism provide an example of what I'm talking about.
The First Wave taught us that we must view women as equals: that they must be allowed to vote, to work outside the home, to get an equal education...in short, to be citizens equal to men in the marketplace of the society.
The Second Wave attempted to add a caveat to the approach of the First Wave: Women should be allowed all the rights of men, but that we should be reminded that women and men are not alike, and that those differences should be respected.
I believe that this bilateral approach to thinking about our society in 2012 is crucial.
When my wife and I lived in Brooklyn, our block was bounded by three different public housing projects and an industrial wasteland that left black soot on our windowsills at all times of the year. A couple of afternoons went by in the spring when we noticed that a minivan belonging to a Puerto Rican family next door bore a scrawled shoe-polished message in memory of someone who was only a few weeks old.
Our neighborhood was full of young white couples like us, and we knew that most of them never interacted with the families who had lived there for at least a generation or more. My wife and I made a genuine effort one day when leaving the house for dinner to express our condolences and offer to help out the family in whatever small way we could. The dumbfounded look on the faces of our neighbors when we spoke to them in empathetic, kind tones is something I will never forget.
We recognized the fact that we were different. We mourned differently and showed it differently. But we could identify with their loss, and tried our best to bridge a cultural gap with that effort.
Why are we so hesitant to show this empathy because people are not like us? The recent burning of Korans at an American Air Force base in the Middle East is unfortunate, even if in accident. There is much frustration in our country at the President's apology. Where's the error in this apology? Why not apologize, and be seen as being overly humble and contrite, than being seen as insensitive? Are we that afraid of our own international reputation as badasses that we're afraid we'll be seen as weak? Are we afraid to be too kind? We have multiple Republican candidates equating Islam with hatred and evil.
Tell me, how many people who are nothing like you have you met in the past year?