Until I moved to Maine about 10 years ago, almost all the people I knew and associated with in my life had backgrounds like mine. They were highly educated and financially comfortable white people.
I see now that no matter where I went, I found and gravitated toward people who were familiar. That’s common for everyone, I think, and old habits die hard. I lived in Washington, D.C., in the 1990s and in Houston, Texas, in the early 2000s where the opportunities for friendships with people not like me abounded. But, no. I found other white college graduates who mostly came from financially comfortable families.
About 10 or 15 years ago, though, I started wanting to expand my world. More than that, I wanted to help change the system. Through varied relationships with people who aren’t like me, I imagined building bridges, learning, and joining together to make the world a more loving and equitable place for everyone. That was around the time I moved to Maine.
After living my relatively closed-off life in Washington, D.C., and Houston, it was in Sanford, Maine, that I began expanding my world. Sure, Maine was the whitest state, but it was a place with plenty of socioeconomic diversity.
I wanted to live differently, to broaden my ideas about what life was really like. I was in a place where I thought I could make it happen. But how? If I saw a black or apparently working-class person, would I go up to them and suggest we hang out just because they were black or they seemed to be working class? Of course not. How could I get beyond simply “having an experience” and into a real life of living outside the silo of whiteness and privilege?
Enter the internet.
While it’s true that my friendships online and off are more varied than I could ever have imagined 10 years ago, and certainly there are benefits to having real friends from different backgrounds, that’s only part of the gift the internet can offer. Using the internet for good means people “like me” who identify as white and come from backgrounds of financial and educational privilege have extraordinary opportunities for research. We can educate ourselves and get over ourselves.
We shouldn’t start by trying to have friends who are different from us. We shouldn’t start by seeking out people who are different so our own lives can be improved. We should start by listening. Through the internet, we can actually hear from people who are different. We can learn what actually matters to people who aren’t living lives of privilege. We can figure out from there what we can do to be a part of solutions instead of perpetuating the problems.
If you want to participate in making the world a better place, I recommend finding online leaders in communities different from your own. Find their social media accounts. Read them. Read the conversations they are having with their peers. Let the internet’s rabbit trails lead you. I’m not talking about the amazing array of formal resources out there, though those are important. I’m talking about the personal conversations. I’m also not encouraging participation in the conversations. I recommend simply observing and learning.
I continue learning about the world in this way; taking advantage of the incredible fact that we can enter worlds vastly different from our own and hear what it’s really like for other people. Over the years, learning like this has helped me develop an awareness and appreciation of difference. I didn’t know what I didn’t know until I started really listening to people online without interjecting myself into their conversations.
Offline, there was no organic or logistically feasible way to learn so much about people with different backgrounds. My online learning led to personal growth that led to changes in my offline life.
Expanding my world isn’t something I do so my life will be better, but so I can be a part of a better life for everyone.
Heather Denkmire is a writer and artist who lives in Portland with her two young daughters. After a few challenging years, she is growing her small business, where her team helps nonprofit organizations win grants. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her columns appear monthly.