As much as I am an ally of people of color, if I want to understand I MUST speak to someone who has lived it. No matter that I was poor growing up (or that I continued to be poor through my adulthood — including my life now), no matter WHAT experiences I have that mirror the experience of others (people of color or not), I still did not live what someone else lived.
I’ve had this discussion with men as well. That no matter how similar of a life that they have had to my own experience, they can never truly understand — other than intellectually — what I have gone through as a woman.
This is NOT to dismiss injustices or horrible child experiences that a man has, just that they have lived in an entirely different world than I have. But, like the rest of us, they can’t fathom how different the lives of others truly are. That old saw about “walking in someone else’s shoes?” It can never happen in any other way than as an intellectual exercise.
I’m not saying that those who are different from myself can never learn what I went through, nor that white people can never learn what is to be a person of color in our society. I’m saying simply that while a person who is different can sympathize with the first person, they can never truly empathize with them.
Too often I see people interrupting someone speaking about their experiences, simply because they assume they have heard everything they need to know about that person’s life experience (something I have been guilty of in the past myself – I’m trying to end that particular habit). I see people “explaining” to the person they are speaking to because they have a view of that person as ignorant or unable to think/understand (and it goes FAR beyond man-splaining, white people do it all of the time to those of color).
No, I am NOT saying that anyone with a penis is evil. Nor that white people are always wrong when discussing the life of a person (or group of persons) of color. I AM saying that we need to step outside of our defensiveness and actually LISTEN to those who are different from ourselves. I am saying that we cannot be the arbiters of the lives of others different from ourselves. We can only be the captains of our own lives, and have to stop trying to make everyone else fit neatly into our worldview.