How Could It Be Otherwise?

Acknowledging the experience of put-upon segments of society, while counselling caution about interpreting that experience.

The cop is suspicious. How could it be otherwise? Dressed all in black, the bearded and pony-tailed young man exudes something very close to belligerence, his responses to the cop’s questions barely polite. His story? The reason he gives for being on this dark side street so late at night? He claims he’s on his way to the convenience store. How convenient. If he had said he were on his way home, he’d have had to have some purchase in hand.

After a few moments of conversation, the cop waves him on his way, but is clearly unhappy with the interaction. The cop is still suspicious: with numerous break-ins in the area, any young adult male out on his own at this hour gets a second glance, never mind one dressed like a goth. The young man is at least as unhappy with the interaction: without having committed or even thought about any criminal activity, he has been stopped and questioned by the police based on nothing more than his appearance.

How could it be otherwise? Young male. Long hair. Black clothing. White skin.

Say what? This pedestrian so casually profiled, not to say stereotyped, isn’t a person of colour?

Well, no.

After the verdict in George Zimmerman’s trial and President Obama’s comments on the experience of young African-American men (including himself), it’s worth a moment of reflection on the limits of experience: that very experience that the President recently said is ‘inescapably’ brought to bear in reactions to things that happen in and to our communities.

“The president said that distrust shadows African-American men: They sometimes are closely followed when they shop at department stores; they can draw nervous stares on elevators and hear car locks clicking when they walk down the street — experiences that he said he personally felt before becoming a well-known figure. It’s inescapable for people to bring those experiences to bear, he said.”

Certainly young African-American males have their own experience: I don’t doubt it for a moment. I do counsel caution about its interpretation. It is easy to conflate our experience with our interpretation of that experience in the stories we tell ourselves, as individuals, as communities, as a society.

Forty years ago, I complained to my then-middle-aged father about the problems I was having getting service on an insurance claim.

They think they can ignore me because I’m young.

My father laughed.

You think they ignore you because you’re young. Your grandmother thinks they ignore her because she’s old. Your mother thinks they ignore her because she’s a woman. The truth is, they ignore everyone.

My experience of being ignored? Undeniable. My interpretation of that reality? A little questionable.

No young African-American male can have had the experience of being followed in a department store, looked at nervously in an elevator, or stopped by the police on a dark side street based on nothing more than age and style affectations: that is, as a young white male dressed all in black. No male of any age or colour can have had my experience of being asked by a stranger to our office to bring him a cup of coffee, Before the meeting starts, there’s a good girl: a meeting I was about to lead.

Black, white. Young, old. Male, female. Our stories are about how we see ourselves in the world, as well as about our experience of that world.  How could it be otherwise?

Maybe in one way. As we listen to each other’s stories, maybe we can come to understand each other’s experience. Maybe we can even come to understand our own experience in new ways.


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10 Responses to How Could It Be Otherwise?

  1. Jim Robertson says:

    Well said Isabel.

    It is too bad we don’t “we listen to each other’s stories” enough.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – Thanks, Jim. On the receiving end, it may well be a combination of fear (not wanting to hear them when we do have access/exposure to such stories) and inertia (not seeking them out when they don’t naturally come our way). On the transmission end, it may well be fear of giving up treasured (and unexamined) assumptions/interpretations that have come to define us and a lack of easily accessible vehicles for such transmission. A lot to overcome.

  2. Jim taylor says:

    I hope you told the guy, “Go get it yourself; there’s a good boy!”


    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – As I recall, I just got the coffee without comment, figuring that he would do his own internal commenting when he saw me running the meeting. I do know he didn’t say anything to me afterwards, though, so maybe nothing struck him as untoward about his behaviour.

  3. Dave J says:

    I remember one time when I was young standing at the locked door of a building I wished to enter. I said to another person who arrived at about the same time, “They locked the door on me.” The person reminded me, “It is not about you, Dave, they locked the door on everyone.” I have never forgotten that comment.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Dave – A great story! It reminds me of the book (that I didn’t read) about the Four Agreements, apparently based on Toltec wisdom. One of the agreements is this: “Don’t take anything personally – Nothing others do is because of you. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality, their own dream. When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won’t be the victim of needless suffering.” So there you go. It isn’t only not all about you: it isn’t all about any of us.

  4. Mary Gibson says:

    Excellent, Isabel. Someone should send it to Obama.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Mary – Thanks kindly. I’ll check my LinkedIn connections to see how many degrees of separation there are between the prez and me. I’m guessing more than the average…

  5. Alison says:

    Sorry I’m late reading this entry. I enjoyed it, and I have to think my dad would have enjoyed it as well. I always feel there are two sides to any story, and it’s something to remember whenever we feel persecuted in any way.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Alison – No apologies necessary – thanks for reading, whenever! Glad that you think Harry would have enjoyed it. He always seemed to me like the calm at the eye of the storm. Calmness is a good trait – like gratitude, it tends to breed more of the same.

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