People tend to associate with those who are similar. At the same time, the more you get to know about each person you meet, the more similarities you can find, even among those with different backgrounds, nationalities, races, religions.
That’s one of the reasons I love Humans of New York so much; the stories UGA grad and Marietta native Brandon Stanton draws out from the people whose pictures he takes, and the words of support and identification that his followers’ post as comments, demonstrate to me that despite our differences, we can all connect, emotionally. Each of us has aspirations and disappointments, relatives and friends, health and economic realities to contend with. And it is on that very personal human emotional level that we can relate.
Stories like these help us understand how there is no Us vs Them. Ridding oneself of that inherent tendency to label, categorize, dismiss is not easy, but it’s the first step.
As I pointed out last week, the world is built more for members of some groups than others. Part of truly understanding that there is no Us vs Them is also acknowledging that others’ experiences in life, while unlike yours, are completely valid. You can only truly know how you’ve been treated, and that is informed by your own race, religion, gender identity, sexual preference, etc. Members of Facebook groups I belong to have been wrestling with the fact that being “woke” is not enough; they cannot frame the conversation around what is easy for them to hear. They cannot frame the conversation.
So how can we really see each other as individual human beings with individual life experiences? We need to actually connect, listen, learn and not judge according to our own yardstick.
Begin with a personal effort to get to know someone better: extend a dinner invitation to a coworker, a classmate, a neighbor; invite his or her entire family to go play miniature golf. Find the commonalities. Get to a place where you can ask questions, replace preconceptions with this person’s story. And another’s story, and another’s. Dismantle what is taking up space in your brain and your heart and fill it with friendship. I believe that grassroots local efforts are the most effective way to bridge gaps. That’s not to say a nationwide network can’t be built to allow organizations to share successes and resources or ask for help. But the actual work on the ground requires personal interactions with those who are different.
It works. I read recently about several efforts that impressed me with their thoughtfulness: A black church and a white church in Roswell, GA facilitated a series of small groups discussions that broke down walls and led to social outings as well. A Muslim woman began hosting dinner parties with strangers to eradicate preconceptions. Perhaps most mind blowing, a black man spent decades befriending hundreds of KKK members, and once they saw their biases were unfounded, they voluntarily gave up their robes and quit.
I can’t imagine all their conversations were easy to hear, but in each case, each person recognized that change starts somewhere and only when we bridge gaps, can we build a better place. This week I took a few steps too. I volunteered to host a Jewish Muslim dinner this fall in my home for women in one Facebook group I belong to and today I participated in a “train the trainer” workshop to teach how to facilitate discussions about Israel.
So yes, we will get past the “different” to find the “same,” and then we will be ready to embrace what makes us different too. No more Us vs Them.