“There’s a simple trick for getting along with all kinds of people. You climb into his skin and walk around in it.” (Atticus Finch) – from the Jack’s Winning Words blog. Jack went on to write – The Civil Rights Movement was stirred by more than the marches. The novel, “To Kill a Mocking Bird,” also played a role. Do you recall that the character Atticus from that book and movie helped his children see civil rights in a new way?
There is another well-known saying – “You can’t really understand another person’s experience until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.”
While I agree with the underlying sentiment of both expressions, the reality is that none of us has the ability to truly put ourselves in someone else’s skin or shoes, so that we experience things from the same perspective. There have been attempts by whites in the past to understand the perspective of African-American, the first reportedly by journalist Ray Sprigle. In 1948 (from WikiPedia), Sprigle disguised himself as a black man and wrote a series of articles under the title, “I Was a Negro in the South for 30 Days“, which was published in many newspapers. In 1961 journalist John Howard Griffin published Black Like Me, a nonfiction book which describes his six-week experience travelling on Greyhound buses (occasionally hitchhiking) throughout the racially segregated states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia passing as a black man. Griffin kept a journal of his experiences which became the material for the book and later the film. Griffin was a white native of Dallas, Texas and underwent treatments under a doctor’s supervision that turned his skin dark. His book was turned into a 1961 movie starring James Whitmore.
Both Sprigle and Griffin reported quite a bit of harassment over their articles and the book’s assessment of racism in America at that time. One can perhaps make the leap through time to see that today we have greatly expanded the categories of people who are stereotyped and discriminated against in our society. African-Americans have been joined by other identifiable racial or ethnic groups who have migrated to American and who are “profiled” to use a modern term by the white segment of our society and many would say by the police and other authorities. Add to that list the whole GLBT category of people whose appearance may blend in, but who fail the “WHAT” test for the so-called moral majority. There is no way to get some Doctor to help you disguise yourself in enough ways such that you could, “climb into his skin and walk around in it” for each of these groups.
So, we really can’t put ourselves into the skin or shoes of another person. Most of us can’t truly understand what it’s like to be judged by what you are or what you look like rather than who you are. The people who make those judgments seldom take the time to get to know who you are, since they have already formed an opinion of you based upon what you are or what you look like. It is also interesting that those very groups who are being discriminated against many times develop stereotypes about their tormentors, which they then indiscriminately apply to all who share a similar appearance. African-Americans, many with more than enough reason from personal experiences; often have “white bread” stereotypes that they use as a broad-brush for all Caucasians that they encounter. The GLBT community likely has some strong stereotypes about the “straight” community, as well. Unfortunately, all too many of the traits of these caricatures are based in observed behavior by all of the groups involved. We tend to hold onto the worst case scenarios that we observe and let the good that was also there fade in our memories.
The strength of those dueling stereotypes can make the establishment of true lines of communications difficult. Fortunately most of the groups have one thing in common that is both powerful and useful for getting passed the barriers that separate – faith. None of the stereotyped groups is shunned because they are atheists. In fact, many have very strong religious beliefs that were born out of the need for God’s help to get through the hardships of the discrimination. Some of the most virulent haters may thump their Bibles and claim that those they hate are Godless or that “Their God” condemns the behavior that they don’t approve of; having put aside the most basic Commandment of all to love one another as they love their God. Pray for them for they have truly lost their way.
So, it is not surprising that often the churches that these groups belong to and the church leaders are often at the forefront of the efforts to promote understanding and acceptance between the groups. It is hard to continue turning the other cheek when you have been slapped upside both sides of your head, Tased and perhaps shot. It is hard to stay positive and motivated to work within “the system”, when the system has denied you the basic marital rights that you deserve. It is hard not to get angry when you are stopped and search every time you try to fly somewhere just because of where you or your parents came to America from. Put yourself in those shoes and you won’t be able to walk a mile before you are stopped and questioned about why you are walking through “their neighborhood”. You should, it will be pointed out, “go back to where you belong.” For all of these reasons, it is critical that the churches keep delivering the messages of forgiveness and love for your fellow men; and that they keep reaching out, no matter how many times their hand is rejected.
The church leaders who are preaching against hate and discrimination and for tolerance and love are just trying to show us all the way back to the core beliefs of our Faiths. There are more than a few examples in the Bible of Jesus and the Disciples reaching out to people who were not “like us”, not Jews; and even a few descriptions of Him going into their homes to share meals. Eventually, those who were ”not like us” became the majority of the believers, because they accepted the message of the Good News.
I have a feeling that our goal may not have to be to get all the way to understanding everything about the people in any of these groups; but, rather, to get rid of the hate that comes along with the stereotypes that we have adopted about them. I could walk 10 miles in the shoes of Snoop Dog and still not understand some of the stuff that he says or where he’s coming from; but, maybe I should stop worrying about that and focus instead in accepting him as a fellow man. I may never understand the attraction between two men (or two women) for each other, but I do understand the concept of the love that they can share and that’s enough for me. To use a famous phrase from someone who had every right not to be in the mood to say them, “can’t we all just get along?”