I cannot remember the conference city or the name of the hotel lobby bar where I joined my friend for a late afternoon glass of wine but, even after all these decades, my memory of our discussion is clear. My friend Estelle arrived agitated and ready to resign from a prestigious committee. As I tried to discover what had caused her distress, she kept telling me I would not understand. I, of course, argued I would. Finally, she said “I am tired of being responsible for representing an entire race of people.” And she had been right, I didn’t understand.
Even when serving as the sole female on an otherwise all male committee, no one thought I spoke for all women. But Estelle was constantly expected to speak for all people of color. As a talented black woman, often the only person of color in a sea of white, she was put in that untenable situation; expected to know of the needs of an entire community as if the rich, complexity of life was a simple monolith and she held the key.
There is a challenge within every cultural exploration; to learn and celebrate the beauty of that which is different without inadvertently co-opting a tradition not our own. To not to fall into that misguided complacency that created such stress for my friend. While I can revel in the lyrical quality of an Amanda Gorman poem; agonize over the brutal reality of black life in white America as portrayed in a cinematic adaptation of an August Wilson play; even get caught up in a who-dun-it following Walter Mosley’s infamous detective Easy Rawlins through the grime and glitter of LA, I must remember – whether fiction or fact – that those descriptions are just a brief glimpse into lives different from my own.
The challenge is to appreciate the uniqueness of each person’s life, to recognize that each difference in upbringing, family food tradition, or the myriad of diverse life choices that make a whole person, is to recognize that the opportunities for personal growth are endless. That with each book I read, movie I see, or story that I hear, I only hold a very small thread in a rich tapestry of another’s experience.