I never realized how much of an unforgettable impact a four-word sentence could have on my life.
“That’s not my experience.”
The first time I heard it, I felt as if all the racism, sexism, prejudice, and hatred I was experiencing weren’t things I could openly address and speak candidly about. That four-word sentence felt dismissive. Cold. Detached. And for a moment, it made me feel powerless.
I’m black and I’m a woman, so as a minority I probably should have known better. Maybe I’d been naive. Was I wrong to be vocal when I was an undergraduate student writing fictional stories about racial prejudice, often based on my own real-life experiences, and remained silent during peer reviews when a number of my peers and different professors thought my characters and stories about race were exaggerated? Was I being too emotional when I attended a youth group meeting and got quiet in embarrassment when a handful of other young adults in the room who didn’t look like me told race jokes? How about all the other times someone casually said the term nigga when quoting a rap song or during a greeting or in the caption under a social media photo by people I knew or interacted with who weren’t black? Was it messed up that I didn’t call them on their behavior? And did I make the right decision when I addressed the microaggressions I’d endured in different workplaces that didn’t sit well with me? Instead of receiving support, I was infantilized and reprimanded about concerns regarding my work performance after I addressed these issues and later advised that I probably shouldn’t have said anything at all. If I spoke up, I became a problem and was informed I’d just be making things difficult for myself.
These are just a handful of experiences I’ve had. Each one left invisible cuts to my self-esteem, battle wounds to my spirit, and at different times has been emotionally draining. And when I have reached out for support and help, there’s often been little to no empathy. But there has been, “Well, that’s not my experience.”
The problem with that kind of response is that not only does it isolate those who are opening up about their experiences, but it can easily be interpreted as, “I don’t want to understand your experience.” “Your experience does not matter.” “You don’t matter.” But my experiences do matter. And so do the experiences of others who have experienced any kind of racism, sexism, prejudice, or hatred. How dare you dismiss someone else’s experiences. Do the voices of those who have a different race, gender, or belief system no longer matter?
Who do you think you are?
Before responding with “That’s not my experience,” try putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. Listen to what they have to say. Try to understand where they’re coming from. And think before you speak. We all have different experiences, but those of us who are minorities have ones that are not always pleasant and at times feel isolating and suffocating. We need allies. We need support. We need safe spaces to share our stories and challenges. And we especially need others to know about our experiences without having our voices silenced, being brushed off, or being told we’re taking things too personally, are overacting, or that what we have to say doesn’t matter.
Because our experiences do matter, even if the experience isn’t yours.