Sunday, July 10, 2016

Feeling the Heat

If you have the chance, read this. It starts like this:

I have been told how dangerous being in the sun is by my white friends. How it will burn their skin, and how they have to take all these precautions when they are exposed to the sun. From the time they were kids they were warned about the dangers of sun exposure. They will go as far as changing the clothes they wear, and for some they fear being exposed to the sun at all.

How weird.

The sun doesn't hurt me, and never has. When I plan on going out, I never once bother to think about the sun. I can be exposed to the sun for hours. I have gotten darker when I've been exposed to the sun, but I've never been afraid or overly cautious of it. I hear people telling me about sun burns, but, I don't get burned...the sun can not really be all that bad?
Perhaps you can see where it's going. Overall, it makes for interesting reading, but it's about three paragraphs too long. The people this is aimed at are unlikely to read it all the way to the end. Sometimes, resisting the urge to bludgeon people with the point is helps drive the point home. Especially if you're angry or bitter about something.

It can be hard to find that line between wanting to communicate something that's important to you, but outside of their experience to them, and wanting them to know how angry and hurt you are because of their inability to understand what you've experienced.

I remember the first time I encountered someone who had been sunburned. It was an... experience. I don't think I've ever heard another human being scream like that just from being touched in my life. I think it's the only genuine jump scare I've ever had. And I remember when the other kids in the class were trying to explain it to me, and it simply didn't compute. It just made absolutely no sense. I recall that sense of "that can't be right," and that weird feeling that everyone was in on some sort of bizarre deception that they were trying to perpetrate on me for reasons that I couldn't understand.

I recall asking "How does the Sun burn you? You can't touch it." And how the situation devolved into this strange intellectual stand-off. When you're in the seventh grade, it can be hard to understand how things that seem so obvious get right by other people. But it's also hard to understand how, if something is so obvious, you've literally never heard of it before that moment.

And, to be honest, I still don't get sunburns. They're completely outside of my experience, and when people say: "I've known Black people who've had sunburns," it's really hard for me to not be openly skeptical of that fact.

So, I think I understand, somewhat, what it's like to be confronted with an experience that a part of someone's everyday life, but that you just can't relate to in any sort of meaningful way. I mean, I understand pain, and I understand what it means to be burned, but just like Crystal Michelle, I've never had to give it a second thought at any point in my life. I'm middle-aged, and it still catches me by surprise when I run into someone I know who has been sunburned.

Of course, the issue with sunburns is that I, and other people like myself, have no hand in them. If the world were nothing but White people, they'd still have that problem. And so I don't have to deal with the idea that somehow, their pain represents an indictment of me as a person, or as a member of a group. When a person I know is sunburned, I am neither implicated nor potentially complicit in that event. Which is something that I understand on an intellectual level, but haven't ever really had to experience.

And that is why, in part, Ms. Michelle's essay is three paragraphs too long. Because those last three are the paragraphs where the anger overcomes any chance at empathy. When I was in my twenties, someone I knew became sunburned pretty badly. And she'd asked me for help in applying some medicated cream to her back. I really didn't know how to touch her without causing her pain, and I felt the walls close down around me. If I ignored the fact that she was suffering, I wouldn't have to suffer not knowing the right way to ease her pain. The easy thing would have been to let them close, and that's even without being worried that it could somehow be blamed on me. I remember being so glad when it was all over.

It can be hard to have empathy for someone who hasn't suffered something in the way that we've suffered it, when we see them shielding themselves from even the reduced amount of pain that comes from knowing that someone else is feeling pain. But confronting pain, without really knowing how to do anything about it, really sucks. And when that pain carries an indictment of the self with it, it isn't any better.

It's weird to live in a world where something that many other people think of as benign strikes you as dangerous. I've learned to be okay with the fact that they just haven't had that experience, in much the same way that I've never had to deal with a sunburn first hand. And I want them to be okay with that fact. I want people to be okay with the fact that they may never had had any reason to see the authorities as anything other than helpful civil servants. I don't want them to share the fear and the stress that I was brought up to have. I'm willing to let them acknowledge the fears and the danger on their timeline - even if that means that they never get there.

And I don't do this for them. I do it for me. I don't want to be angry any more than I want to be afraid. Neither of them have served me as well as advertised.

1 comment:

Robert Moser said...

You raise good points, and I agree with what you say about anger. I meant what I said in Amy's post about the dangers of vs. thinking, and casting things as black v. white. But I also think your approach, focusing on the importance of empathy first, is probably the only way we're going to get to the better place we all want.

Thanks for writing this, and thanks for pointing me to it.

For what it's worth- I did not live in the states until I was a teen. I spent my childhood in a country where I was the only white kid most of my schoolmates had ever seen.

Most people were just curious, most of the time.

But I remember well what it was like to stick out from the crowd. I also remember having to hide from the local militia, because they were looking for foreigners to ransom/kill.

We would likely not have survived if it were not also for the goodwill of other people in the same country. Dodging a patrol by getting pulled in to random noodle shops by grandmas I'd never met, putting themselves at great risk, because they believed in treating people fairly.

Still, to this day, if I see a vehicle that looks like what those militias used to patrol in in my rearview, my pulse quickens a bit.

I'm not saying it's the same. But, at least a little, I can relate. It's a complicated world, but I do believe we can make it a better one. For everyone.