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April 10, 2014 7:03 PM Seeing Our Race and Class Differences, Seeing Past These Differences, Too

By Harold Pollack

The internets are filled with recent reminders of the many ways we fail to recognize our own parochial and privileged perspectives in both intellectual life and in our institutional roles.  The #CancelColbert dustup and the extended debate between Jonathan Chait and Ta-Nehisi Coates provide two examples of the current state of play.

As these debates remind us, we are all to some extent rendered parochial by our race and our class positions, and by other things, too. Age and family responsibilities provide obvious sources of difference. Disability status does, as well. I hate blunderbuss labels such as “black activist” or “white liberal,” which flatten out so much human granularity.

Not long ago, I took my family on a tour of the Woodlawn neighborhood immediately south of UC. Our young and fit tour guide got so excited lambasting the university for its historic insensitivity towards the community he neglected to notice that he was walking far too fast for Vincent to keep up. Vinnie and I ended up a few hundred yards behind, accompanied by a nervous publicity flack from the local alderman’s office. I think the guy was worried that we would be accosted or something.

These same distinctive experiences create unexpected connections, too. I spoke last Saturday at my school to admitted students and their parents. A Pakistani-American young woman in a head-scarf sat across from me at our big lunch table. Her father accompanied her. Maybe sixty years old, he sat rather awkwardly looking somewhat out of place in his traditional pakul hat.

I mentioned at some point how many students have caregiving experience with a relative or a sibling. The man suddenly lit up. He pointed to his daughter and said: “That’s her little brother.” This person, whom I had regarded as a forbidding stranger, turned out to be quite smart and funny, and someone with whom I share more than a few powerful personal experiences.

We had a wonderful conversation about the realities of caring at home for a young adult with cerebral palsy and cognitive disabilities in our area. It was the kind of intimate conversation I couldn’t have conducted with many of my young friends in journalism or academia, with whom I otherwise share so many cultural and professional affinities.

Group identities matter—none mattering more than those connected with our national history of white supremacy. We must view these differences without claiming that we have transcended them. We need to see past these differences, too, to recognize human particularity across the obvious divides. These are so much more interesting and more profound.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Harold Pollack is the Helen Ross Professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago.

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