Walking in those other shoes

The old proverb that you don’t know what someone else is going through until you walk around in his or her shoes is routinely and historically pertinent. Yet, one of the challenges we face is we wear those shoes with our own biases and context. In other words, the socks we wear will give those shoes a different feel.

Too often, I read letters to the editor and posted comments or listen to conversation that bias the experience. It is something we must guard against. The same goes when we extrapolate personal or second-hand anecdotes to paint all circumstances with a broad-brush. In other words, the person believes every situation must be this way, as this is what I experienced on one occasion.

As a white man in his sixties, I have a context that is different from an African-American teen male. For the most part, I can go anywhere I want without repercussions. I can walk into a hotel or gathering and go unquestioned. When I am stopped by law enforcement, I am less worried that the next move I make may be my last. An African-American man dressed for church, does not have that same level of trust. And, an African-American teen is in even more in jeopardy if he acts rashly.

I also know I have that white privilege thing. The more common example of white privilege is not overt; it is people who look like me who do not know they benefit from it. It is not the blatant, in your face, white privilege seen on the news by white supremacists. It is the everyday lack of awareness.

It also can spill over into white victimization. This “I am being held down because African-Americans and other minority groups are getting more than a fair break” belief exists and is fed by more strident media and white supremacist groups. It is a way the latter groups recruit to their folds. I experienced this yesterday in a troubling conversation with an old friend. He painted too many woes with the broad brush of this white victimization. I kept thinking “really?”

There is a reason African-Americans and other minority groups feel threatened or feel their rights matter less or not at all. They have been disenfranchised for centuries, sometimes in violent or suppressive ways. We must do our best to guard against this happening, but it is still going on. . People of color are too often the victims of police shootings. It is debilitating and dispiriting. No one deserves to be treated like that.

On the flip side, we must acknowledge that some whites do feel victimized. Life has dealt them some tough hands or fewer opportunities. Yet, it is dwarfed by those who benefit from white privilege. In my opinion, a white person can feel both and not realize it. What concerns me is when these examples are used with a broad brush in an effort to paint over the benefits of white privilege.

With that said, we need to step back and look at why things happen without the lens of biased sources. There often are a multitude of factors that cause things to happen, but race clearly is one of those factors. Poverty is an American problem we must deal with better. Pretending it does not exist won’t make it go away. Limited and limiting opportunities in various communities are a factor. Crime and drug use can fill this void and send a community into a death spiral. Predatory lending or rental practices are an issue. Lack of educational advancement is an issue. Food deserts and hunger are issues. Family size is an issue as poverty is correlated with larger families.

These issues affect people of all colors. They impact urban as well as rural settings. Many may not realize that the largest numbers of American people in poverty are white. The propensity of poverty is higher for non-whites, but I want to make a point that poverty knows no racial boundaries. Fear is used to sell influence and recruit votes. Yet, most issues are complex and blaming other groups is not the answer. It also gets in the way of understanding challenges others may be going through and vice-versa.

I fully recognize my own anecdotes and context have flavored my opinions. In my view, we should acknowledge we have those biases and do our best to look beyond them as well. It will help as we walk around in those other shoes.

Missing context

It is not uncommon to see simplistic solutions or rationales skirt passed needed context. The other day, I read an op-ed that more of the blame on education problems should be laid at the feet of parents than teachers.

Actually, the problem has multiple factors, parents being one of them. But, the missing context is the high percentage of single parents and parents living in poverty. It is quite difficult for single parents to juggle a job (or two) and children and be able to attend all parent/ teacher meetings and help kids with their homework. And, kids in poverty have heard far fewer words in the home and start and remain behind as reported by David Brooks in “30 million fewer words.”

It is not unusual to read a letter to the editor say the problem with poverty is too many single parent families. Again, that is one of multiple causes, but why? There is a high correlation between poverty and large families. So, better funded family planning efforts have shown they can address both issues. Holistic sex education, better access to birth control, and straight shooting answers to questions can help young women and men with these issues.

Healthcare access is another concern that impacts people in poverty. The US is a leader in western world countries in a bad area – maternal death rates in delivery. We still have fifteen states who did not expand Medicaid. Rural hospitals have closed without needed funding. As a result, we have fewer doctors and nurses in these underserved communities. And, this does not reflect food deserts and their impact on community health.

Poverty, poor education, and poor healthcare issues go part and parcel with large family size, more single parents, and lack of opportunity in the community. There are multiple factors that drive these issues, but not doing enough to support families and children, whether it is better and safer after-school programs, whether it is more active community policing to address crime that comes with fewer opportunities, whether it is job retraining where companies and community colleges can address shortages, whether it is asset based community development to restore old buildings to something inviting and/ or commerce related, are all contributors in their absence.

I have worked with a number of homeless working families in an organization I was involved with. These folks were not in poverty due to lack of piety. Some of the most pious people I have ever met are homeless mothers. Poverty is simply the lack of money. Many had multiple jobs. They simply lost their home due to a healthcare crisis, due to childcare issue, due to the loss of car or one of the jobs, or their spouse or boyfriend beat them and they had to get out.

When we discuss the reasons why things happen, we need to think of the larger context. Otherwise, we will solve the wrong problem. A community developer from New York noted his chagrin when a community tore down a school (or left it empty). A community needs an asset like this not just for children, but for community activities for adults and children. This is the premise of asset based community development – repair or repurpose buildings.

Let’s think holistically. Let’s dig into the real causes. Let’s think of those who are in need and how we can help them climb the ladder. We cannot push them up the ladder, but we can make sure the rungs are well built and help them make the first few steps. A social worker I worked with used the phrase that she walked side by side with her clients. I like that. Let’s do more of that.