Twelve years ago, my family had a one-night Miami layover on the way to our vacation destination. An airport taxi dropped us at our hotel close to eleven. We checked in and asked about the restaurant. No luck. It had closed an hour before, the desk clerk told us, but there was a sandwich place around the corner that was still open.
We lugged our bags up to our room. Then my daughter and I set out in search of food. We walked out the front door to a brightly lit street. Streetlights glowed over dark, quiet businesses. At the corner we turned left. The hotel’s marble façade ended here, becoming dirty brick. No one was on the street. Another left turn. Here there were fewer streetlights and trash collected in the gutters.
One bright spot stood out at the far end of the block. A line snaked up to an open-air counter serving delicious Cuban sandwiches. I think we were the only white people there.
This brief moment strikes me as a relevant metaphor for the way I live. I grew up in a culturally, racially and religiously diverse city, but these days I spend most of my time in a safe, rural, mostly white, mostly Christian community, where the percentage of all others is in the single digits. Just twenty minutes away across the river is a small city with greater diversity and greater poverty, as well as a significantly higher crime rate.
It’s easy to peer out from our safe bubble and make assumptions about why the rest of the world is so messed up. We’re working hard and doing our part, so we assume others are lazy. Or maybe our lives are okay, but they’re not as good as they once were, so we need a change to bring back whatever era our nostalgia makes seem best. And since for many of us here, interactions with people of color are few and far between, it’s easy to “other” them, instead of trying to relate.
So, what can we do to understand a world beyond ours? How can we make sense of the protests, the opposite political party, or the experiences of someone of a different faith or race or class?
I have a few suggestions.
Spend a day in an urban environment. Visit a locally owned restaurant or store. Notice diversity with curiosity, not judgement. We all have bias. The trick is to recognize our own and combat it.
Talk with homeless people. On winter weekends, you’ll find my friend, D., parked downtown in that city across the river, handing out hats, gloves, and socks, and sometimes coats and boots. I went with her a couple of times. Most people were white, under 60, and some were families. All were appreciative and polite. None wanted to take any more than they needed.
Since we can’t redo life, or really walk in someone’s shoes, search online for voices who are different than yours. Listen to what they have to say. I’m a beginner on Twitter, but I’ve found news and perspectives more up to the minute than any other means. Check out @mkguliford and @leedsgarcia. I’m always on the lookout for new sources. Put your favorites in the comments.
One thing I’ve learned from diverse voices is that it’s not their job to explain to me what their world is like. Take some time to educate yourself. Teaching Tolerance is a great resource. Find out why white privilege exists, what it really means to be a Muslim, or the truth about immigration.
Tune in to NPR. Once on a trip to Chicago, I noticed that no matter where someone had immigrated from, taxis always had NPR playing. I asked a driver why. He told me, “They are the only ones who report on my country.” If you’re looking for balanced reporting that covers world news rather than only how news affects the US, give them a listen.
Watch TED talks. Experts in technology, entertainment and design will open your eyes to amazing achievements far beyond your corner of the world. If you want a podcast taste of the videos, consider The TED Radio Hour for curated collections on a theme, like this episode.
If you look a little farther than your window, you might be surprised what you see.
Do you have better ideas than mine? I’d love to chat. Comment below.