I recently dreamt of a strange scenario wherein I encountered a teenaged Black boy in my neighborhood. After some discourse, he opened up to me about how difficult his life had been growing up Black. He told me I couldn’t possibly understand what he’d been through because I’m white. And we fell into this emotional conversation about our life experiences.
When I woke up, I felt this urge to keep the conversation going. So I decided I must write it down.
Growing up White, I’ve faced the accusation I received in my dream quite often. Today, with the numerous issues throughout the country between police officers and African-Americans, I have heard the phrase “You just don’t understand” from Black people all the more frequently.
The truth is that I cannot — and will never be able to — fully understand the suffering of my Black brothers and sisters in this country. Also true is the fact that they will never be able to fully understand mine.
Let me give you some background.
I was in the fourth grade the first time a boy choked me for sitting in front of him on the bus.I grew up between two cities — well, a city and a town. The town was small — less than 1,000 people — and it’s where I attended elementary school. Those formative years were, unfortunately, some of the most difficult I would ever experience.
I have clear memories of fearing the school bus as a child. That’s where most of my terror occurred. It was isolated from adults who could and might actually protect me, and it was full of children who frequently fed off of each others’ brutality. I was in the fourth grade the first time a boy choked me for sitting in front of him on the bus. He was Black, I was White, and he told me matter-of-factly that he didn’t want a White kid sitting in front of him.
When I changed schools in the seventh grade, I was fortunate enough to see the physical abuse stop. But something else arrived in its place. It was a message repeated to me even to this day that I don’t understand a Black person’s suffering because I’m White.
Friends, I have to tell you that hearing that message has truly hurt me. Of course I can’t imagine what it’s like to be Black in this country because I’m not. Even if I were Black, my life experience wouldn’t necessarily be the same as that of another Black person. Being of the same racial group doesn’t mean you can actually comprehend how another has suffered.
Hearing that message, even from people I call friends, hurts because it says to me, “You don’t know suffering because you’re White.” In fact, I do. We all do. Each of us, regardless of any racial or other descriptor, suffers in some way in life. Our suffering is not a contest but rather a communal experience.
When we accuse others of not understanding our pain, we do two things that only exacerbate that suffering: we ignore the struggles they’ve endured, victimizing them further by our own lack of compassion; and we discard the opportunity God has placed before us to learn from one another and grow together.
Our suffering is not a contest but rather a communal experience.When we think about our suffering and share it with others, we should instead connect that pain back to our Lord Jesus Christ. Who knows suffering better than He? If suffering were, in fact, a contest, would He not win rather than any of us? Take a look at the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ suffering in Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. Can any one of us even begin to understand the agony Christ suffered in His Passion and Crucifixion? Of course, we cannot. Yet He doesn’t resent us for it. He doesn’t shake his head at us and proclaim, “You just don’t understand!” He knows our suffering is not a contest to be won, a victory to be claimed. He took ours sins on His shoulders as His suffering and won the real victory in His Resurrection.
Why then do we demand of our brothers and sisters the impossible? Why do we assume that anyone has no history of suffering because of the color of his or her skin? Could we not make the same dangerous assumption about others based on their religion, nationality, or even gender?
My friends, I tell you as a devout Christian that our Lord Jesus Christ calls us to abandon our arrogance and pride, our lack of compassion for and unfairness to those who are different from us, and to embrace the reality that we have all suffered at the hands of sinners and that, as we are sinners also, each of us is in desperate need of His love and mercy.
I pray that you’ll recall our Lord the next time He gives you the opportunity to share your suffering with a willing and compassionate ear.