“100% of the time, I am going to default to their [any minority’s] reaction because I know it’s true . . . I am no longer going to say my perspective is the right one because it’s the majority perspective.”
–Jen Hatmaker, Surviving Sarah with Sarah Bragg
A few years ago, I was working at a fitness facility. I worked in the Aquatics Department, mostly teaching and organizing swim lessons, and one afternoon, one of the swim instructors called me to let me know she would be late because her car had broken down on her way into work.
Once she arrived, I asked if she had been able to get her car started, but she said no, she had just begun to walk to work.
“You walked that entire way in this weather?” I gasped, glancing out the window at the huge snowflakes flying wildly through the air.
“Oh no,” she laughed. “A cop was driving by and offered me a ride.” She paused as she dropped her bag into the chair next to her. “He was black, so I knew it was safe.”
I froze. Untamable thoughts raced through my mind: She was afraid of a policeman, the very person who was supposed to keep us safe. She was threatened until she discovered he was more like her than like me. She had to think about whether she would be safer inside a police car or walking along the side of the road alone.
I stared at my friend, unable to find words, until she turned and walked toward her waiting class, already splashing and giggling in the pool.
This was just after the Black Lives Matter movement had started, just after I had moved off the family farm in Small Town, Ohio and into the “big city”, just after I had only begun to understand that my charmed experience in America is not everyone’s. My eyes were only beginning to see my beloved country for all it’s good, bad, and ugly parts–and this experience cracked my heart wide open.
This was the story that changed everything for me, but it was not the first story I had heard. It was just the first time I believed–truly, unequivocally believed–the person telling the story. That sounds bad, doesn’t it? That I hadn’t believed other people telling me racism and discrimination exists in the country we claim is The Land of the Free. But we all do it. Or, at least, we have all done it at some point.
Think about it:
How often do we hear others share their hard, heartbreaking experiences and think: Surely not. Not here.
How often do we hear sexual assault survivors bravely tell their stories only to accuse: “Well, were you drunk? Maybe you said yes and you just don’t remember.”
How often do we hear people of color talk about their experiences with racism and think: Really? Are you sure that really happened?
How often do we hear those in the LGBTQ community tell stories filled with homophobia and transphobia and biphobia and say, “Well, I don’t know if they really meant that.”
We are all gaslighting each other so badly that I’m surprised there is even still a Church at all. When no one believes one another, how do we live and work together? How can we possibly learn, speak, or love when no one’s experiences are valid except for our own?
We can’t and we don’t.
Instead, we gaslight and second-guess and disbelieve people who are literally just telling the truth about their own lives. We surround ourselves with people just like us. We create echo-chambers in attempt to avoid conflict. We stop listening and learning, and grow comfortable instead. We become wildly exclusive.
The way to stop that? Believe the experiences of others–even when (or perhaps especially when) the stories we hear don’t make any sense to us. I’m convinced it is the only way.
But let’s not kid ourselves: this is hard work, the act of believing other people’s experiences without conditions or questions. Are you having a hard time listening without an agenda? Here’s a few tips:
- Stop comparing your experiences with theirs. You’ve heard that comparison is the thief of joy–it is also the thief of compassion.
- Accept that you will never be the expert on experiences which are not yours. Listen to learn, not to refute.
- Practice intentional silence. Listen more, speak less.
What do you need us to hear about your story?
This is a safe, welcoming space.
Let me know in the comments below or on social media with #MakingRoomOnThePew.