By: Roy Chebaclo
Today in class, my classmates and I had a large group discussion where we shared our writing from the weekend. The writing was from an assignment where we had the opportunity to engage with a character from Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, the novel we are currently reading, on a personal/first-person basis. This could be done either by writing a letter to the specific character or creating a dialogue with the character.
During the discussion there was a recurring theme of discomfort. Many of my classmates said that they had a very difficult time writing to characters who had faced extreme hardships in their life compared to the mere challenges they personally have faced. This is obviously a very typical emotion to feel, as trying to connect to people with extremely different life experiences is a very hard thing to do especially when it is with someone who has gone through the atrocities of slavery.
I myself choose to write a letter for the assignment. In accordance with the group, I tried to find a character who I could relate to the most. For me this wasn’t as difficult. It was obviously Marjorie. Marjorie is a native born Ghanian girl, who grew up in Alabama. She faced many hardships in the United States as she had difficulty connecting with both white and black students at her school. They didn’t respect her unique heritage and they fired many clear cut microaggressions at her. As a second generation immigrant to the United States from the Middle East, I faced similar attacks as a young student. I was called a terrorist, my family names were made fun of, and my religion was disrespected. That is why in my letter I decided to write in the position of a mentor for Marjorie. I urged her to avoid feelings of anger towards the students who bullied her because their ignorance was taught to them and instead focus on coming to love the person she was.
Much to my surprise, when sharing a summary of my letter I felt a very questioning and invalidating aura in the room. I didn’t go much into the detail of how exactly I personally connected with Marjorie as what I experienced was obviously very personal, but gave a brief overview of what I wrote. I said something along the lines of: “I wrote about Marjorie and how I personally connected with her due to my life experiences which led me to write in the lens of a mentor who was trying to help her through her hardship”. During and after sharing I heard murmurs and snickering and received sharp glances. I thought to myself, “Did I mumble or say something dumb”.
Shortly after the end of the discussion, one of my classmates who knows me well came up to me and said, “They think you’re racist because they don’t know who you are”. It all made sense to me at that moment. They didn’t know my background and believed that I was minimizing the characters’ struggle ignorantly.
This incident shows the danger of making assumptions. I am by no means trying to blame any of my classmates as I am at fault too. If someone who was troubled by what I said would have simply asked me a clarifying question, I would have happily explained in more detail why my connection was valid and there would have been no misunderstanding.
Making assumptions removes opportunities for people to learn new perspectives and come to new understandings as a result. They kill discussion as they create misconceptions that pin people against each other for usually false preconceived notions. That is why I will end with some advice that will hopefully help you avoid making assumptions in the future: The next time you are having a conversation with someone you might not know well or someone completely new, set aside any prior thoughts or judgement you may have and seek to begin to get to know them by asking respectful and relevant questions.