A lot of white people who support Black Lives Matter have been using a slogan lately. They use it on signs, in posts, in memes, and in tweets. It is, “I understand that I will never understand, but I stand with you.” I get it. I know what it’s trying to say, that as someone who has never been the direct victim of racism, I can’t understand what it’s like for those who have. I even appreciate the sentiment, that we can stand in common cause with people even though we haven’t been through what they’ve been through. But, the statement sets too high a bar for understanding, and it ultimately highlights what separates us instead of underlining our common humanity.
The slogan, taken at face value, is saying that the only way to understand something is to personally experience it. If that were true, none of us actually understand very much at all. The only things we can hope to understand are our own thoughts and feelings since they are the only things we have direct experience of. If applied to a more mundane topic, it’s like saying that no one can understand an internal combustion engine unless they have personally combusted at some point. That just seems absurd.
Taking it a little less literally, it could be taken in two ways. It could mean that you can’t understand something without witnessing that thing. People can understand internal combustion engines because they have witnessed combustion (and all the other things that go into an engine). But taking the slogan this way makes it really negative. Everyone has witnessed racism. That means that the only people who will never understand are people who refuse to understand. I don’t think that’s what it was meant to express.
The second less literal way to take the statement is saying that you can’t understand unless you have had a relevantly similar experience. Unless we artificially restrict what counts as relevant, this broadens the realm of understanding enough to make the statement false. Every woman (which is more than half the world’s population) who has ever experienced sexism has had a relevantly similar experience. Every Jewish person who has experienced antisemitism has had a relevantly similar experience. Every Muslim who has experienced anti-Islamic speech and actions has had a relevantly similar experience. Every LGBTQ+ person, disabled person, indigenous person, and little person has had a relevantly similar experience. I am a cis-gendered, straight, white male from the United States. To use the lingo, I have about every kind of privilege imaginable. Yet I have been harassed by law enforcement. I was even forced to get out of my car for about 45 minutes once while they searched it for drugs. I’ve never so much as had a sip of beer, let alone anything illegal. I don’t drive erratically. Or speed. But, I had long hair and a big, bushy beard, so they profiled me and decided I was on drugs. It was humiliating. I felt powerless. I’m not saying this as a “woe is me,” I’m saying it because if I’ve had at least one relevantly similar experience, I have to think most people on the planet have. And that means almost everyone can understand on some level.
Saying “on some level” is important. With anything, there are different levels or ways of understanding. A poet might understand metaphor on a deeper level than an actuary. That doesn’t mean that an actuary can never understand metaphor. When I’m saying that most people can understand racism on some level, I know that they don’t understand it as viscerally or as completely as black people do. But if you can’t say you understand something unless you understand it completely, no one would understand anything. Even black people wouldn’t understand racism since they don’t know what it’s like from the side in power.
This was a somewhat long-winded way of getting to my point. I really don’t like people saying, “I understand that I will never understand,” because it seems to me like a way of othering a group of people. Sympathy and empathy are ways of understanding that are vital to morality. I don’t just try to understand things as an intellectual exercise. I strive to be understanding at all times. I have to object to any statement that says my empathy is impossible.