Up and Down
Nineteenth century Swedish playwright, August Strindberg, corresponded with Helena Nyblom, a Danish-born author who married a Swede and achieved her literary fame living and writing in Sweden. A 24 January 1882 letter from Strindberg included these words:
If you, who dwell upon the heights of society, knew what a false conception you had of things
down below, if you only knew what things look like to someone down there, how they really are;
but this is something you can never understand, and were someone to try and enlighten you, you
wouldn’t believe them; therefore there must always be a lack of understanding between up there
and down below.”
While this excerpt is taken out of context, the truth therein is applicable to a multitude of situations. The old adjuration to walk a mile in my shoes is oftentimes impossible.
A white person can never know what it is like to be black . . . can never experience the racism, past and present, that is part of contextual living for non-whites.
The same can be said of Native Americans, their ancestral lands wrested from them at gunpoint with many still bottled up on dirt-poor reservations. A high school student from St. Paul’s School, Concord, NH (annual tuition $62,000) can visit South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation (annual per capita income of $1,500) and pick up a few clues. But one simply cannot know, to use Strindberg’s words, what things look like to someone down there. Because you or I cannot become Black or Native American.
So where does that leave those of us who dwell upon the heights of society?
Those of us up there need to be ardent, passionate, compassionate listeners . . . to strive to think outside the box of our conditioned preconceptions. This involves actual conversations with one another, forcing our minds open to really hear, really learn. For white people it also means to acknowledge our white privilege. It cannot be escaped, but it can be seen for what it is and work for a society that grants people of all colors the same respect and opportunities white people take for granted.
Strindberg’s statement that there must always be a lack of understanding between up there and down below might hold some water . . . but can also be challenged. At the very least, we can fervently endeavor to understand. And then follow ever-increasing comprehension with actions that promote a society where justice and dignity for ALL become reality.