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Starbucks, can you help?

Is one day enough to understand someone else's experience; is it enough time to build empathy?

In light of this afternoon’s national conversation on bias at Starbucks, I began wondering if an afternoon is enough to change a mindset, to initiate a larger national discussion on difference, and to cover all the facets of diversity? I imagine not, but perhaps it’s a beginning.

And, in order to understand another’s bias and our own, can we ever really put ourselves in someone else’s shoes?

My literal shoe size is 8.5, but my figurative shoe size is much more significant. Walking in my shoes includes the baggage I carried for years, as someone who hid my limb difference from the world– the fear, the obsession, the paranoia and the shame. (My secret was my disability.) And today, my shoes are also filled with the reality of still having a missing hand, learning to accept it, and building the courage to flaunt it.

During a recent work staff meeting, we watched Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk: The Danger of a Single Story and were asked initially to share out one thing that we wished people knew about us? I quickly answered that I wanted people to know how much I fight to be perfect, out of a fear that people will think less of me because of my “disability.” I went on to share that sometimes I wondered what it would be like if my friends and colleagues could bandage their left hand in a ball for one day and lose its functionality–and I questioned if they would begin to understand my world by that simple act. How would my friends handle the stares of random people at the grocery store while they tried to balance the shopping basket, for example? Would they understand my drive to be Type A, as a need to control my environment and be seen as capable? Would they understand my desire sometimes to tuck my hand away and hide it, so that nobody would look, nobody would ask, and nobody would judge? In that short timeframe, would they realize how many solutions I have had to come up with to compensate for living in a two-handed world? Would they understand my new-found desire to share my difference out loud? Moreover, would one day in my shoes be enough to understand all my experience and what makes me me?

I began to think, what if I stretched that idea– could I try and put myself in someone else’s shoes for the day. How would I understand his/her experience? Would I be able to handle the complexities of that person’s life and would it provide me with a different way of thinking about the world? What if rather than always discussing diversity through an intellectualized lens, what if I tried to experience other’s differences first-hand. (Note: I recognize the implicit privilege that I have in being able just to wonder.)

So, what if…

  1. What if I were a different race for a day: would I understand
    racism differently? Would I understand the effect of stereotypes and
    stigmas differently? Would I understand privilege more deeply?
  2. What if I were a racist for the day: would I be able to understand
    the thought process differently (as portrayed in the video by Joyner
    Lucas–I’m Not Racist)? Would I see any flaws in my arguments and viewpoints?
  3. What if I were a different gender for the day: would I be able to
    understand the import of the glass ceiling and the #metoo movement?
    Would I question my own past behavior? Would I be worried about the
    future state of my gender?
  4. What if I were an ultra-conservative for the day: would I be able
    to understand how Trump got elected? Would I argue for pro-life, the
    Constitution, and the right to bear arms differently?
  5. What if I were an ultra-liberal for the day: would I understand the
    passion behind the Feel the Bern movement? Would I understand
    pro-choice, equal rights, and welfare differently?
  6. What if I were LGBTQ for the day: how would I understand my
    sexuality differently? Would I understand the need for marriage equality
    through a different lens?
  7. What if I were transgender for the day: how would I better understand the difficult choice and process of switching my gender?
  8. What if I were homophobic for the day: how would I understand homophobia and my reasons?
  9. What if I were in a wheelchair for the day: would I finally
    understand how difficult it can be to navigate the city streets and
    transportation? Would I be frustrated because I wanted people to see me
    as capable, smart, and able– not limited and confined?
  10. What if I had a physical difference that I couldn’t hide for the
    day: would I understand beauty differently? Would I come away with an
    understanding of how superficial and difficult dating online can be?
  11. What if I were severely overweight: would I stop judging people’s
    ability based on looks? Would I realize the discomfort of people’s
    stares? Would I want to redefine the beauty standards?
  12. What if I had depression for the day: would I understand the
    struggle to even get out of bed some days? Would I understand the desire
    to end my life?
  13. What if I had mental health issues for the day: would I stop
    stigmatizing those whose brain chemistry is not in their control? Would I
    understand the power of the mind differently?
  14. What if I had an addiction for the day: would I better understand
    temptation and gratification? Would I understand the power of the high?
    Would I realize that it’s a disease?
  15. What if I had a difficult childhood for a day: would I realize the
    unseen scars that can be left and the effects on relationships? Would I
    understand anger and sadness differently?
  16. What if I were a veteran for a day: how would I understand PTSD?
    Would I understand the power of war and death more intimately? Would I
    know fear and bravery in the same sentence? Would I have mental and
    physical wounds that I could and couldn’t explain to civilians?
  17. What if I had been a survivor of sexual molestation and/or rape for
    the day: would I understand the torment, the guilt, the survival and
    the effect on intimate relationships differently?
  18. What if I had been in an abusive relationship for the day: would I
    understand why I stayed? Would I understand why I believed my abuser
    when he/she said that it wouldn’t happen again and that he/she loved me?
    Would I understand the danger of leaving?
  19. What if I were a foster child for a day: would I understand the
    difficulties of the child welfare system and how I can be a perpetual
    victim in the hands of adults? Would I understand disappointment? Would I
    understand the fear of intimacy?
  20. What if I were (Fill in the Blank) for the day: what would I
    understand differently? How would it shape my worldview? What would I
    want people to know, to think, and to advocate on behalf of me?

The list can go on and on, and even the questions can differ based on each person’s experience. The differences form the lens through which we may understand our world and they may restrict us from understanding others experiences fully because of our bias.

Given how complicated and nuanced our lives are, is one day enough to understand someone else’s experience; is it enough time to build empathy? (Or in the case of Starbucks, one afternoon.) If not one day, how long do you need to walk in someone else’s shoes to indeed be able to have and show empathy?

I don’t know the answers, but I am convinced that we need to start the discussion. And, one of the first steps in our understanding of others is to honestly believe in our heart of hearts that it’s okay to be different. It’s okay to look different, it’s okay to think different, and it’s okay to have different experiences. When we can accept and acknowledge that we are all different, then and only then, can we have real conversations and begin to the task of understanding and showing empathy toward others.

This is just the beginning…

Originally published at www.linkedin.com

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