You know that saying about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes?
I am not a fan.
Of the saying – in both literal and figurative sense.
Literally putting on someone else’s shoes to walk a mile in them just sounds like an invitation for blisters, conjures up images of Cinderella’s stepsisters lopping off their toes or heels and shoving their bloody feet into tiny glass slippers, and, frankly, grosses me out – feet are definitely not on my fetish list.
Well-meaning people want to be filled with empathy. And it’s a well-meaning notion to suggest that people try to figuratively walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. But I am a cynic– not from my natural tendency to question and unpack everything to see what’s inside (my mother tells me I used to enjoy prying open watches to see the moving pieces and figure out how they are connected to the moving pieces outside), but from my learned tendency to prefer seeing the glass half-empty just so that I am not disappointed when I never get a full glass. Because I am a cynic, I want that saying to come with a caveat: Do not assume that a mile in someone else’s shoes compares to a lifetime of walking that someone did in those shoes.
Speaking of shoes, I used to own these knee-high boots with chunky heels, and I used to refer to them as my Nazi boots because, every time I rushed back and forth on the hard floors of the hallways between offices at the research center where I worked, the hard klop-klip-klops of my heels hitting the marble-like flooring would echo and bounce around as though I were a small army coming down the hall.
One of the scientists overheard me refer to them as Nazi boots. She came up to my desk and asked if I would refrain from calling them Nazi boots as she found it offensive because she is Jewish.
I stopped in mid-sentence, more embarrassed that I was getting called out for saying something that offended a co-worker than apologetic, and considered her request. I then asked, “In what way…?”
She replied, “It’s offensive to refer to Nazis so casually and jokingly.”
I asked, rather cheekily, “But Jerry Seinfeld has a character named the Soup Nazi on his show.”
She replied, “I don’t think that’s funny at all. He shouldn’t be doing that.”
I triumphantly declared, “Jerry Seinfeld is Jewish, too, and he doesn’t think it’s offensive.”
Long story short, we went back and forth a little, but she took a fairly hard line, and I made a point to let her know that I thought she was wrong, all the Jewish comedians who make Nazi jokes would back me up on this, before acquiescing to withdraw my boots from the National Socialist German Workers’ Party temporarily whenever she was within earshot.
We will get back to this story later.
Another time, not too long after that conversation. I was lamenting how I was tired of subtle yet not-so-subtle racially motivated daily microaggressions that I had to deal with every day. A lab tech piped up, “Oh, come on, Jung Mi. I think you exaggerate some of these stories. I can’t believe there are that many times that people have been racist around you. I was born and raised here, lived here all my life, and I’ve never experienced racism.”
I shot back, “How many minority friends do you have?” (Yes, this story goes all the way back to when we used to lump all people of color as “minorities.”)
The lab tech thought for a few seconds. “Well, okay, but that doesn’t make me a racist. We live in [midwest state known for being ultra super white when it comes to population].”
I shook my head. “No, that wasn’t my point. If you are not hanging out with a bunch of minorities, and you are– well– obviously a white person, how often do you think people are going to be racist toward or around you?”
Bless him, it took him only a couple of seconds before he let out a deflated “Oh.”
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Over the years, I have lived, worked, and moved amongst mostly well-meaning white people. Because of where I lived before my marriage, and then my husband’s field of work, we have tended to land in places that lack diversity. but where most of these white people are well-educated, tend to be “socially liberal,” and have good intentions without truly understanding their privilege or what true equity and inclusion look like.
They are the kind of people who will volunteer to walk a mile in your shoes because they really really mean well, but if you hint that the mile is not long enough to notice the deep scars and calluses from a lifetime of walking in your shoes, they will tell you that you must have extra sensitive feet.
Teen Vogue will tell you that microinvalidations are real. I vouch for that article. Take my word for it. I will bring the receipts in another post.
So, it’s unsurprising that, last year, I was excited when the institution where I work hired a couple of women of color: one black woman and one Asian. I proceeded to reach out to both, hopeful and eager that, while we did not work in same departments, we could be allies and support each other in a place that desperately needed diverse perspectives.
The Asian woman declined my invitation, citing low level of interest in working in “the Asian space,” because her husband is black and she’d prefer to work in “the black space.” Even though she grew up in an Asian household, in a town that has a fairly large population of people of her ethnic background, she claimed “lack of familiarity” with her Asian identity.
She self-labels as a diversity practitioner, and yet she saw social justice work in the Asian space and the black space as mutually exclusive.
If that isn’t a logical fallacy, I don’t know what is.
I scraped my pride and my jaw off the floor and took comfort in the fact that I still had the black woman to happily befriend.
The black woman said she had no time for any shit that didn’t involve putting black women first. Yes, I agreed, in the outside world, outside of our insulated community and institution, we need to all push to promote and support our black sisters. I tentatively, because she asked what diversity looked like in our community, shared some stories of microaggressions and bad practices in the way we do things that don’t promote a healthy equitable and inclusive community– and that, while there is eagerness and a tendency from the white allies as well as white feminists to seek black voices in the community, the Asian, Latinx, and LGBTQ+ folks, especially the WOC and LGBTQ+ employees, tend to be dismissed and often invalidated. She reiterated that, for her, black women always come first, no matter what– and then backhandedly commented that she also doesn’t do bitter, angry, and exhausting social justice– she will do self-care before using her energy on advocating for any group other than black women.
Again, this felt like a logical fallacy to compartmentalize intersectional work as mutually exclusive pieces.
The thing that stung most though was hearing about her asking others in the community whether I am trustworthy and for other people’s opinions of me. Instead of befriending me directly to find out more about me, she chose gossip to see if I have any social credit in this community.
This did not feel like allyship.
And trying to walk a mile in her shoes filled me with not so much empathy but more questions. If she understands, as she said she does, what it feels like not having allies and people who support you and your perspective, why would she ask me to support her and advocate for her and provide intel on the culture of our community and yet explicitly tell me that she will not reciprocate?
My husband who works professionally in diversity and inclusion tells me this may be because she’s never been empowered to support others, that perhaps she’s always had to look for others to support her but never had, or felt that she had, enough power leftover to lend a hand.
Clearly, the lifetime in her shoes is not readily, and probably will never be, available to me to poke, judge, or assess.
While I still firmly believe that we can and should advocate for each other, that intersectional justice work should and can happen in the same space time continuum, I am unable to say that she is wrong to feel and firmly believe in her own corner just because that is not my reality in my corner.
*** . *** . *** . ***
That brings us back to the Soup Nazi and Nazi boots. My friends Google and Wikipedia helped me find this little tidbit about “jackboots” or Nazi boots.
For those of you who don’t like clicking on links, here’s the most relevant excerpt:
When goose-stepping on pavement, the large columns of German soldiers in Marschstiefel (“marching boots”) created a distinct rock-crushing sound which came to symbolize German conquest and occupation.
Well, given that symbolism… I suppose I see that scientist’s point. I’m still not 100% convinced that Soup Nazi was NOT funny, but I do see her point and agree that a Jewish person might find my casually nicknaming my boots “Nazi boots” (self-deprecatingly but also endearingly) off-putting and even offensive.
It was almost 15 years ago, and I am now finally getting it – it’s not about whether I can walk a mile in someone’s shoes, but it’s about acknowledging that there is no way for me to imagine a whole lifetime in their shoes and accepting that their perspective is their truth; it is not my place for me to invalidate that perspective.
I have not experienced anti-semitism. Who am I to tell a Jewish person what feels like anti-semitism is not anti-semitism through my Asian lens?
Of course, it’s also not my place to tell a Jewish person that their perspective must be wrong because the few other Jewish people happened to tell me that they don’t share the same perspective.
Remember that the one POC whom you know does not speak for all other POC groups. We are not a generic group of automatons that operate under one single idea of diversity.
All of which is to say that, if a POC says, “The solution to racism is to be colorblind and stop talking about race,” their statement does not negate the data from years of research and studies conducted to dispute that notion. However, if a POC says, “I find the way we talk about Donald Trump’s orange skin problematic because it is parallel to the way we use skin color to gauge the level of one’s social acceptability,” it might be worth walking more than just one mile in their shoes in order to conclude, “I don’t see it… but I can see how someone who spent a lifetime of being scrutinized and valued based on their skin color can make that connection – and perhaps I am subconsciously doing that.”
You don’t have to be convinced by everything a POC says about race – but you do have to understand and acknowledge that there is a good possibility that the reason you will never be fully convinced might be because those weren’t your shoes you had on for a mere mile.
Granted, just because we are WOC does not mean that we are all doing intersectional feminism better than white feminists. Just because someone identifies as LGBTQ+ does not mean they give a shit about race or feminism.
Case in point: Women’s March co-president Tamika Mallory. She defended her admiration of Louis Farrakhan whose anti-semitic, anti-feminist, and anti-LGBTQ+ views and rhetoric are well documented. And I get what she saying when she insists that “her attendance was not a reflection of her personal values, but her own version of intersectional work within the black community” and says, “Other people are obsessed with my relationship with Minister Farrakhan. I am obsessed with empowerment in the black community.”
Yes, to the last part. However, as the article points out, “[b]ut clearly, the intersectionality of feminist work at a nationally visible level demands different considerations.”
Another of the Women’s March leaders, Linda Sarsour, appeared on CBS for an interview (video below). And, when asked why the organizers do not ask Mallory to take a stance and condemn Farrakhan, she said that they cannot ask a black woman who was saved by Islam to condemn Farrakhan nor do they ask anyone from their organization to denounce their family members or other affiliated people even for saying “things that are abhorrent.”
Wait. What? No one is asking Mallory to denounce Islam. But, if she wants to lead this group, she does not get to enjoy the comfort of complacency and complicity without backlash. I mean, if we wanted Ivanka to lead the Women’s March, we would have asked her. Mallory’s close relationship with and refusal to denounce Farrakhan create a hostile environment within the organization which alienates and excludes many subgroups.
I get that many WOC tend to come from more traditional, conservative, and even overtly patriarchal upbringings. However, Farrakhan is not her family. And she can choose to either take a stance, in order to be the leader who embraces intersectional feminism and inclusion, and publicly condemn Farrakhan’s rhetoric OR step down. It is okay to tell a WOC that, while the route she takes on her own personal racial and cultural journey is not for others to direct, we need leaders who champion intersectionality, and that her failure to listen to Jewish women is a problem.
Complicity has no place in our revolution’s leadership. No number of miles of walking in her shoes will convince me that she is doing the right thing.
Even if you walk a while in them, they’re not your shoes
You know that saying about walking a mile in someone else’s shoes?