Or Thinking About Walking In Another's Shoes

While in college and graduate school, I majored in philosophy. Why? To be honest, part of liking philosophy was that I didn't like science. However, I liked the notion about thinking and not merely repeating what you have heard someone else say was the truth.

I have taught philosophy at three different colleges or universities for the past 15-years. Each semester I tell my students that taking this philosophy class can change their lives. I mean it. However, my guess is that ¾ of them think that I am blowing academic smoke. I am used to that and do not push that assertion...I just teach the class. Usually, midway through the semester, several doubting Thomases will say that this class has helped them to think.

For half the semester, we deal with an excellent textbook, but, after the midterm, I have them look into current issues facing us in America and do so from a philosophical Weltanschauung. These topics include racism, sexism, sexual orientation, etc.

For weeks, many of the students will post replies as if they know what it is like to be a minority, female, or gay when they are not in one of those groups. I will mentioned how impossible it is to make statements as if they know what it is like when they have not walked in that person's shoes.

The first topic after the midterm is racism. One of the problems is their average age is late teens or early twenties. For many of my students, I am old enough to be their grandfather. When they talk about racism in America, it is time sensitive. From their limited exposure, they do not fully comprehend the broader picture of racism in America. When I was starting college, it was at the beginning of the civil rights movement. Unless you are a black or you are a white that joined the movement after it started as all liberal whites did, you do not know what those times were like. Even white liberals cannot come very close to understanding a white.

In 1961, I graduated from high school and went off to college. In that same year, John Howard Griffin, a white liberal, wrote about his journey throughout the Deep South. The book, Black Like Me, woke-up a lot of white liberals to a reality that we missed. Blacks already knew about segregation. Griffin had physical changes done to him to look black. He took Methoxsalen, which is a drug, to change his skin pigmentation and spent hours under a tanning lamp.

The cover of Griffin's book

The cover of Griffin's book

Griffin studied racism in the South in the late 50s. He entered the Southern world as a black. For a couple of months, he rode public buses all over...pretending to be black. He pretended pretty well with some mistakes, but he knew he was pretending and could return to being white. He was the closest that any white person has come to being and living as a black in America.

Moreover, what is true about whites not being able to walk in the shoes of blacks is equally true when it comes to understanding what it means to be a woman from a perspective of a man. You cannot pretend even as much as Griffin did. Therefore, men need to be cautious making utterances as if they knew.

The same is true about gays and lesbians. I have spent years doing psychotherapy with gays in an attempt to help them address discrimination issues and their personal identity. Nonetheless, as many hours that I have spent counseling, my understanding of how gays feel is a best minimal.

I have mentioned many times to my classes over the years that it is an impossible task to attempt to walk in another's shoes especially if we are not the same sex, color, or orientation. That seems obvious, but we often forget the obvious.

In the wake of the Zimmerman trial, President Obama had an informal press conference on July 19. If you have not watched it, please take the time to do so.

I am a liberal and progressive politically and socially, but I am not far enough to the left. I hope to someday interview Obama. Okay, I would be satisfied just being in his presence. Last Friday, we saw a man who told us about his feelings—something that he hardly ever does in public. There are myriads of questions that I would like to ask him about race. As liberal as I am, I am fully aware that I am years behind understanding what it is to be black men or a black person in general.

I learned much in that 15-minute talk that he had with America. Regardless of your political party, Obama talked honestly and straightforward to all of us about an issue facing all of us...racism. To have the most powerful person in America and the world to talk about his feelings was one of those moments that I hope none of us will ever forget.

In the coming years of addressing racism in America, we need to remember we can never replicate living in another person's shoes. Nonetheless, we can look more closely at least at the shoes of blacks and other minorities. Obama, out of pain and suffering both for Trayvon Martin, African Americans, and himself, expressed where he was as a black in a country that hasn't come of age yet with race. Perhaps out of this senseless episode of the killing of Trayvon Martin, we all can learn something to move America closer to the promised land of equality.

At the end of Obama's informal press conference, he alluded to Martin Luther King's I have dream comment: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." In a month from now, we will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of his speech. We have not gotten there yet, but we are moving in the correct direction.

An old man and his grandson

An Old Man and His Grandson

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