Walk a mile in their shoes

Before this summer, I had lived 20 years without ever experiencing what it feels like to be the only white person in a room. Because my life experience is that of a southern, middle-class, white American, I did not know what it meant to be in a minority.

I was able to do this during the summer; it was my first step in understanding what it is like to be in a minority group. However, I do realize that my experience does not constitute understanding what it would be like to live my entire life this way.

Walking down the cobblestone streets of small cities in Ethiopia, I would often hear children and adults alike shouting at me about having white skin.

“Tsaeda,” the Tigrinya word for white or “Foringe,” the Tigrinya word for foreigner, would ring down the street, announcing my presence before I could turn a corner.

I felt like I was constantly the center of attention. People stared awkwardly at me all the time. At one point the group I was traveling with were the only seven white people in the city.

Although I was constantly singled out, the locals never made fun of me for my skin color. In fact, they actually celebrated the difference. Children would laugh and squeal in excitement when they saw us. Families would invite us into their homes to roast and serve coffee to us.

At first, being different than the rest of the community was awkward and uncomfortable. However, through living outside of my comfort zone and seeing the acceptance of the people, I learned to live in harmony with the locals.

As we talked with the locals, we got to know one another. They loved to hear our stories and tell us their own.  They embraced our differences and invited us to share cultures together.

Differences of race, religion or gender do not have to divide people. They can allow people to be brought together through the differences.

I am not calling myself a minority in the sense that I believe that I am unprivileged or that I completely understand what it is like to be a member of a minority group. Rather, I am becoming more and more aware of the privileges I have.

The experience of being the only white person in a group is one that I never worried about because my privilege allowed me not to. Through this experience and later discussions, I have learned that there are many things that never even cross my mind but that others may have to worry about regularly.

Granted, I did not have the same kind of experience that most people in a minority group have. Instead, I found that people who were in the majority accepted me with delight, which humbled me.

I saw what life could be like if members of a majority group were more accepting and understanding of others. This summer I lived in peace with the Ethiopians. In fact, a few of them even lived in our home and traveled with us.  Because of their compassion and acceptance, I enjoyed my summer in Ethiopia.

So, what I’m advocating for here is understanding. You don’t always know what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes. That may sound cliché; that’s because it is. However, it is also true. Understanding our differences is the first step towards support and unity.