Last Friday, the day before an event in Charlottesville, Virginia, which may soon bring down a President, a total stranger and I experienced a profound moment that made the next day’s clashes that much more horrifying, and yet, gave us an insight into how the country might heal.
It’s not your usual rhetoric from social scientists, as helpful as that might be. Our solution is what you might consider “out there” in terms of its underlying philosophy. But if this stranger and I could see, feel, and understand it—simultaneously—isn’t there hope for others whose lives seem, on the surface, to come from completely different cultures? A divide we have trouble crossing?
What unites us? We are human. As human beings, we all possess … hair. As women … it matters to us. A lot. We think about it every morning. We fret over it and we style it and we curse it and we admire ourselves in mirrors when it does what we want it to. And yet—we have a natural divide. Your hair and my hair and her hair and his hair—they are all unique, right? What you have to do with yours to get it into shape, well, it’s something I might not know about.
If this stranger and I could see, feel, and understand it …
The philosopher/psychologist William James wrote about this in a famous essay titled On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings and it’s one of my favorites. We will never, ever, ever fully understand the “other”—unless we step outside of our insular worlds and ask. Even so, we only have words to tell us and anything we can find in our own experience that relates, roughly, to that description.
I had a need to know something highly personal about an “other,” so that’s exactly what I did. I stopped a total stranger and asked her about her hair. Not so strange you say? It happens in salons? We were shopping in a Target store, completely minding our own business inside the usual silent divide. Still not unheard of? I am white and the woman is black.