Sunday, February 21, 2016

Unknown Unknowns

I had one person ask me whether it was an advantage to be brown and female. And I was like, “No, it is not an advantage. How stupid do you have to be to think that that is an advantage in life?”

This was actually a very intelligent person. It was a wakeup call to me that a lot of people think that. It’s not just bigots.
Arwa Mahdawi
This quote is from an interview with Ms. Mahdawi about her website,, that appeared in The Atlantic. Interestingly, she’s arguably more charitable when she mentions the same interaction on NPR, there thinking that he interlocutor “must be living on a different planet,” rather than simply stupid.

But either way, that raises an interesting question. Why do we so often expect people who are not us to understand what our lives our like? Or put another way, why do we have the exception that other people are aware our subjective understanding of our own experiences? Part of it, at least as I see it, is the idea that we often think that we understand what it would be like to live other people’s lives - it would be the same as it is now, just that one or two things would be different.

Mary Ann Franks, in her paper “How to Feel Like a Woman, or Why Punishment Is a Drag,” notes that “[E]mpathy is the capacity to imaginatively put oneself in the place of another and attempt to feel as they feel.” It says nothing about one's imagination being correct, or the attempt being successful. And thus we should expect that people will get it wrong some percentage of the time. Now it’s possible that people will mis-imagine what it feels like to be another person because they are, deliberately or not, engaging in only superficial empathy, but it's important to expand the the act of empathizing with others beyond the bounds of accuracy; especially when we live in a society that often rejects the possibility of accurately empathizing with someone unlike oneself. When I was in college, the idea of “it’s a Black thing - you wouldn’t understand,” gained currency, and is a direct result of the idea that only someone who has lived an experience themselves can understand it. And it's still around; the Lady Gaga song “’Til It Happens to You,” being a recent example.

Casting people who ask questions that cast our experiences in a way that flies in the face of our own understanding as stupid, “living on a different planet” or even as only superficially empathetic encourages us to react to those questions in a way that, ultimately, discourages people from asking. And it’s difficult to educate people as to what our experiences are like if they’re unwilling to inquire.

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