I know a man, a white man, who is upset lately about the possibility of the Redskins changing their name. He thinks it’s silly for Native Americans to complain about it, that they should feel honored, that he would feel honored if he were in their position. I tried explaining to him that he doesn’t understand being in their position because he never has to prove to anyone that his people aren’t a bunch of silly cartoon characters who say “-um” after every word. He responded with brief surprise at my admonition and then went on to talk to people he knew already agreed with him. Sadly, I feel this small example is representative of the state of the marketplace of ideas in our country.
I belong to the majority group in my community — I am a white Christian man in a Southern college town. My “people” have been the people in power for centuries. I have had little to no reason to feel that I was ever threatened because of my differences in color or culture, nor have I often felt that others “just don’t understand where I’m coming from” in those areas. People in the majority don’t know what it’s like to be surrounded by people who think they’re something they’re not, or who don’t want to take the trouble to learn anything beyond what they see superficially.
Two years is only a short time, but for two years I was a white man in central China, and non-Beijing, non-Shanghai China is not accustomed to diversity. Any visibly foreign person who goes to the country will be subject to staring and whispers of “waiguoren.” Sometimes I would walk down the street and young men would whistle at me and call me “beautiful young lady” because of my paleness (which is a female Chinese ideal). My Chinese coworkers thought of me at first glance as a “big shot” and snob, and some taxi drivers, seeing me and other foreigners coming, would get dollar signs in their eyes and overcharge us.
Being a white foreigner in China is still easier than being a non-white foreigner (or even a non-Chinese Asian), but the experience gave me some perspective: People living in the comfort of their own group don’t understand the complexity and value of another group’s experiences unless they invest some of their life into knowing that other group. We tend to make stupid caricatures of each other, especially when those caricatures make us feel better about ourselves. We can’t let those caricatures stand in for reality, but unfortunately most of American entertainment continues to reinforce them. Turn off the TV, get out of your own majority group (even if on a larger scale, you belong to a minority), and see for yourself how other people live, what they feel, and why they do what they do. It’s hard to do this without starting at a point where we think our ways are the best, but we’ve all got to try.