For the last year, I’ve been trying to better understand the experience of people of different ethnicities—particularly African Americans. I’m not going to pretend that I’m unfamiliar with racism. Racism exists within Canadian culture, just as much as in any other. But what we read and see on the news here… It’s different.
Coming to America, I didn’t get it. Now here for a little over a year, I still don’t. Reading multiple books, some detailing recent experiences, others a little more distant, has been helpful. I’m gaining some perspective on what African Americans have experienced over the last 150 plus years. And I hope, at least to some degree, it is helping me to be a genuinely compassionate person (though only time will tell). But a recent commute audiobook, The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, helped me understand what I can’t really get from reading a book, no matter how much I’d like to.
See, this is a book that left me short for words. The stories shared in it are simultaneously inspiring and heartbreaking. There is a weightiness to Wilkerson’s writing that I’ve seen in few other books. The historical background and family dynamics she shares… honestly, I still can’t quite get my head around it all.
And I wonder if, at least to some degree, that’s okay. Wilkerson, much like Ta-Nehisi Coates (Between the World and Me), and Margot Lee Shetterly (Hidden Figures), is giving me facts and perspective. She can tell me what happened, and why, and the effects that reverberate from before the Civil War into our own day. She can help me peek underneath the surface, just a little bit, of the African American experience.
But that’s the limit. I can see what’s happened (and continues to happen). I can understand intellectually. I can be moved emotionally (and am). But I can’t pretend that I have a common reference point. There isn’t one; at least, not in my life. I suspect to pretend to try would be at least as insensitive as acting as though the past doesn’t have ongoing implications on the present. And there isn’t something that can give me that same kind of context that would truly allow me to empathize.
So what should we say then? Is there even any point in trying? Of course there is. We should all desire to understand the experiences of other people, regardless of the limits that exist on our ability to empathize. Limits don’t preclude compassion, but they do inspire a sense of humility. So that’s where I want to start. I’ve heard and read enough stories to know that I don’t want to see this history continue to damage untold millions of men, women, and children (some of whom may be reading this). I can’t pretend that I have any experience remotely similar, let alone a quick and easy answer to the problem. But even without an easy answer, I have hope. I know the answer that does exist and it is found in Christ. And when the evils of the past and the present are finally and fully accounted for, and every tear is wiped away, it will be a glorious day. Until then, I can keep praying to be compassionate, sensitive, and humble enough to know when to not stick my foot in my mouth.