I wanted to reach through the television, take her hand, look her in the eye and sincerely apologize for this unfair truth. She didn’t want to have to “choose her words” or be judged by them. She wanted her intentions to be recognized. She wanted her heart to be seen. She felt victimized by those who judged her unfairly. The amazing thing was that after 6 weeks of portraying a black woman, it was these feelings that gave her an inkling of what it feels like to be black and she didn’t seem to recognize it.
48 year old Carmen Wurgel had spent 6 weeks living as a black woman for the documentary series, “Black. White.” While she consciously and intellectually recognized and could discuss the differences and difficulties she experienced – both as a black woman and as a white woman trying to understand a black woman – she failed to recognized that the feelings she had as a white woman – misunderstood by a black woman – was just a small representation of how blacks feel when they are discriminated against. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. She wasn’t being judged based on who she was as a person. She was being judged based on someone else’s perceptions. She was being judged.
The documentary also featured Rene, a black woman, who spent the same six weeks living as a white woman. This unfair truth I mentioned is that Rene didn’t filter what Carmen said through Carmen’s intentions. Rene filtered Carmen’s words through Rene’s perspective, which has been decades in the making. Everything Rene has experienced has contributed to her perspective. Rene expects to be discriminated against because she has been discriminated against so often in her life – beginning when she was very young.
Carmen expects to be understood and judged by her intentions. She doesn’t expect that she will be misunderstood or discriminated against because she doesn’t experience discrimination on a regular basis and – most importantly – probably didn’t experience invalidating discrimination as a young child.
This means Carmen does have to “choose her words.” She has to consider what she says and how others will interpret those words. For anyone who has seen the basic communication model, we’re talking about endcoding and decoding.
So what about Rene? What responsibility does she have in her relationships with people of a different race? Is it everyone else’s job to make sure they don’t say something to offend her? Does she have any responsibility to consciously recognize her own prejudices against whites?
And she has them. It this case, Rene is prejudiced against Carmen. Simple statements like, “There she goes again!” are evidence of that. Rene has seen Carmen exhibit some behavior and expects to see it again.
I have some prejudices – recognized or not. So do you. I’m not just talking about racial prejudices. What about religion? Politics? Socioeconomic differences? Age? Gender? Even parenting methods. The list is huge.
My responsibility is to consciously and constantly challenge my preconceived ideas. To approach people and situations with an open mind, not an expectation to be followed by disappointment or in some cases, righteous indignation. My responsibility is to give people the benefit of the doubt. To attempt to empathize with someone who is different from myself. Why did they say that? Why did they do that? My responsibility is to look for the things we have in common because it’s far easier to latch onto one difference and make it overshadow everything else than to make an effort to communicate – really communicate – with another person.
That’s my responsibility. That’s Rene’s responsibility That’s Carmen’s responsibility. That’s your responsibility.
That’s our responsibility.