How many times has somebody genuinely wanted to help you with a situation, but because they weren’t members of the same social class you dismissed them by saying something along the lines of, “How can you truly care? You don’t understand what it’s like to be (insert identity here)?” Or maybe you said, “You’ve never had to (insert struggle here).” I too am guilty of misinterpreting a person’s willingness to help as a showcase of condescendence in my past. And, I too, was wrong.
Yes it’s true that unless you have experienced the exact same events, exact same reactions, and exact same outcomes, you can’t truly understand exactly how somebody feels. However, one of human beings’ greatest accomplishments is the ability to empathize. It doesn’t take the exact same experiences to empathize with someone. Not everybody has genial intentions all the time, but simply having a different background does not necessarily make a person insensitive to others’ concerns.
During times of social change, it takes the compassion, empathy, and effort of people of the majority to help promote change for those in the minority. Regardless of their motives, whether they are for the greater good or self-serving, without the support of those in power, change would occur much more slowly, if at all. Martin Luther King, Jr. was partly successful because he did not only propagate social equality to the disenfranchised, but to all. I realize that, had it not been for the spilled blood and lives of many White people during the 1860’s I might not have the ability to lead a free life today.
I have participated in various movements, volunteered for years with youth, and tried to help them develop skills to cope with poverty, abuse, and other forms of injustice so that they might have a better chance to develop and obtain goals they might not otherwise have. Recently, I signed the marriage boycott to show my support of equal rights for the LGBT community. Although I don’t know what it feels like to have the exact same struggles, but I can empathize.
Last week a coworker and friend invited me out before I returned to America after several months working in Chile. We went to a small restaurant and discussed differences between the USA and Chile covering everything from governmental and work-related politics to geographical and cultural differences. We talked about how difficult it can be to manage the cost of living in Chile, specifically Santiago, where the cost of living is inflated. The typical workday starts at 9:00 AM, ends at 7:00 PM, and the wages are rarely sufficient to support oneself. At that part of the conversation she said something that truly resonated with me. “Now you can forget about here.”
I asked her what she meant and why she said that. I explained that although the days were long and the wages were low, I didn’t regret going there. These kinds of experiences have their ups and downs, pros and cons, but ultimately have a major impact on our lives and paths. She replied, “You can go on and do big things. For me, this is it. I can’t move up anywhere from here.”
My friend is a secretary and has been working at the firm for three years. Because she was not given the option to go to school, her chances for advancement have been severely limited, and she sits by and watches as the very apparent class system dictates how far one can go in their career. She may know more about the legal processes than most of the new lawyers, but she’ll never have the chance to work in any other capacity as long as she is here. I’ve watched time and time again as people walk past her and other secretaries without acknowledging their presence yet treat me with the utmost respect.
Even after the volunteering, special interest groups, and reading texts about social mobility and class constructs, last week was the first time I truly identified with a privileged class—and that bothered me very much. Back home in the States I definitely wouldn’t describe myself as such, but traveling abroad literally brings a different world into focus.
When dealing with youth, it is much easier to see their situation as temporary—something that can be changed with a little intervention. To look into the dismayed eyes of an intelligent and driven adult who does not have access to upward mobility because of class restraints is completely different. Growing up, due to my socio-economic background, I always felt I was at a disadvantage and had to work twice as hard to gain access to the institutions and facilities that others felt entitled, but I never felt hopeless. I knew that if I put in 200% where others put in 100%, I could be successful.
I can’t honestly say I know what hopelessness feels like, but I can definitely empathize. Our backgrounds and identities should not be ignored, nor should they prohibit us from learning from one another. As we open ourselves up to that learning we may find ourselves not only better equipped for helping others, but also helping ourselves become more fulfilled in life. In America, the very fact that we have these opportunities is freedom we should never take for granted.
Michael Maine is dedicated to global communication, collaboration, and cooperation. Originally planning on utilizing his problem solving and strategic strengths in the corporate sector, his eyes were opened and life changed after taking his first Sociology class at Southwestern University, where he graduated with a bachelor in Business and minors in both Sociology and Communications.