I was fortunate this week to visit and spend time with my friend Ian Harvie. Born and raised in Portland, Harvie is a Los Angeles-based comedian known for his standup comedy and appearances on Emmy Award-winning show “Transparent.”
Harvie is transgender. And as it turns out, EqualityMaine just announced it will honor him with its “Great Pioneer” award at its annual gala.
Last year Harvie gave a talk at TEDxDirigo, one in which he tried to put the audience in his shoes, particularly the many who had told him in the past, “I can’t imagine what it’s like to be you.”
I was caught off guard when Ian asked me what I would like to say to other people if I were given a similar opportunity. Honestly, I was stumped. But after a little bit of thought, I realized I’d want to say what I’ve said in one way or another plenty of times by way of this column and my blog.
I would encourage those in the audience to try to listen to people who have experiences different from their own. Actually make a concerted effort to do this.
Social media can be this wonderful listening tool, but many use it to amplify their own myopic views. This tendency spans across the political spectrum, and it is sad to see such a beautiful basket of opportunities to better understand each other go wasted day after day.
I would express thanks to those who have opened up about their lives and perspectives and shared them widely. I try to listen as best as I can. I’m not always successful, but I am much better off when I do. You know when you’re talking with someone and realize they’re just waiting their turn to project? It feels that way on Twitter and Facebook, in the comments section and wherever else we engage a discouragingly large amount of the time. But I remain grateful and better whenever I truly try to hear people out and better understand where they’re coming from.
Here is one thing I have learned: If you’re in the middle of an exchange and you go, “No! Actually, it’s like this!” Take a second and ask if you’ve actually considered any other perspective. Chances are if your impulse is “No!” you haven’t really done that. If that’s your impulse, you’re likely shutting out the world even if you fancy yourself progressive and open-minded. You don’t have to agree, but at least try to hear.
It’s sad to see truly thoughtful people get caught up in their own myopia.
Truly consider your own barriers to experiencing the world the way others experience it. If you are white and straight and cisgender or some or all of the above — those of us with the largest share of characteristics that are referred to by default as “normal” — and especially if you are just living around others who are mostly like you, there are experiences you just will not instinctively understand. It’s OK to not fundamentally understand every experience, so it’s equally OK to not pretend that you do.
Listen before asserting you know what’s up. It will make everything better.
Every time white, straight and cis people insist on asserting their perspectives without considering others, they’re helping to uphold the systems that have made life more difficult for everyone else. We help police violence continue, we help systemic poverty kill and we help to keep unjust drug laws that have resulted in the mass incarceration of people of color on the books.
And to compound an already sad scenario, you deprive yourself of new insights into the world and intimacy with people who don’t experience life exactly as you do.
For people who are still skeptical of all this talk of “white privilege” and for those who think that “safe spaces” are only a plea from whiny children, I recently heard a young, drunk white man yell, “I’m not going to go to jail because I’m white” as he was kicked out of a bar. It was the second time that week when I heard a white man outwardly celebrate and flaunt his privilege.
I haven’t always known what to do with what I’ve learned by listening. And sometimes it feels uncomfortable or scary. But that’s a normal and standard setting for so many people. It’s a luxury to only feel that some of the time. It’s my luxury. But instead of avoiding that feeling by shutting it out, let’s just try to be stronger and be there for each other.
We are a beautiful, complicated and messed up people. Let’s try to be better.
Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was a teenager. He’s an owner-partner of a Portland-based content production company and lives with his family, dogs and garden in Cornish.