I had five roommates during college. One I lived with for only a day, deciding early that I would be incompatible with the house’s party culture. A second had the single in our triple suite and I remember only two things about her: her propensity for taking our phone into the bathroom and the way she had claimed the common room by the time I arrived with my stuff. I remember talking about it with my roommate and deciding that it wasn’t worth it to make waves. We lived quietly in our shared room for our semester and then parted ways. I reconnected with her recently on Facebook after more than twenty years apart.
My closest roommate lived with me sophomore year. We couldn’t have been more different, but we had an easy way of coexistence and connection that has endured. I was in her wedding when my daughter was a toddler and we visited her again last year. Our low-stress friendship is characterized by our mutual acceptance of someone for the person they are, even when that person confuses the crap out of you. It’s simple: she knows and loves my crazy and I feel the same about her.
Each of them played a role in my life, but it was my first roommate who taught me the power of learning from someone else’s experience.
When I went off to college I had a vague understanding that meeting people unlike me was important. I felt the limitation of my insulated life and was eager to see what I had missed. That natural curiosity burbled below the surface, popping out in late night conversations with the close friends I made over my first year. My growth was subtle, tucked inside and passive. I learned quietly bit-by-bit without intentionality or drawing any attention to my efforts.
My roommate, on the other hand, telegraphed her intent. She was outspoken about her desire to learn from the diversity and experiences of others. Sitting down with someone she would boldly ask, “What is it like to be __________?” She had grown up in Cambridge, Massachusetts and had lived her whole life in the city, so she found my very different rural Midwestern upbringing interesting. She didn’t have a driver’s license and asked me about the persistence of the car culture in my home state. Didn’t we realize how problematic the fascination with driving was and that we should walk and utilize public transportation? I told her, amused, that it wasn’t an option. We lived miles away from anything and there was no public transportation beyond the yellow school buses that took kids to and from our consolidated school district.
Her sincere interest often came before any deep friendship had been formed. Her questions were sometimes taken as an intrusion into people’s privacy, or worse as a kind of oblivious entitlement. As an 18-year old eager to fit in and find my place in the world, even I failed to see her intent clearly. It is only recently that I can see it for what it was and wonder, in retrospect, whether I would have grown more had I been bold enough to try her approach.
The simple truth is that I have only learned so much from my own experience. Casting a wide net out into the world and keeping my eyes and heart open to the experiences of others has helped me grow more. I feel empathy and understanding building every time I read a book, listen to a podcast or watch a film and wonder, “What was that like?” Even so, those moments pale in comparison to the impact of a close friend sharing their experiences. Those are the stories I tell others, the ones that cause me to reframe every future interaction through their words and the look on their faces. They are burned in my memory, especially when I find myself shaken by something I had never considered.
That’s why I can recall the moment I realized how little I understood about being a black woman in the United States.
I was having lunch with a good friend, an African American woman about ten years my senior. The weather had been pleasant and we had walked companionably the mile or so to the local pizza place down the street from our offices. Sitting down we ordered and then started talking about our children. Mom talk was easy for us, even though her son was in graduate school and mine was still just a little boy. In the wake of the Treyvon Martin shooting, she was sharing what it was like to fear for son’s safety in the world and the feeling of being constantly on guard. The conversation went through a number of twists and turns and then she calmly made a statement that I will never forget. “Mel,” she said, “I regularly get followed by security guards when I’m shopping at the mall.”
My first instinct was dismay. Sitting in front of me was one of the most sophisticated, stylish women I have ever known. The idea that anyone could see her as a shoplifting threat was ludicrous. Frankly, it was easier to believe that someone might look at me skeptically, but I had never given a thought to being a target of store security. And here was my friend, the wife of a police detective, sharing that it was a regular part of her lived experience. I stared. I stammered. I tried to rationalize away her experience as misguided or overly sensitive. Maybe she only thought she was being followed? Maybe she was remembering things wrong? Maybe it was a one time thing and not something that regularly happened? My brain tried to reject the truth of her statement and the calm look on her face and when it couldn’t I did the only thing I could do as her friend.
I believed her.
It may seem like a very small thing, believing that your well-dressed friend could be shadowed by plainclothes security at the mall, but to me it was transformative. Once my brain accepted that she had been profiled, I opened myself up to all kinds of other possibilities outside of my own lived experience. I was able to read articles and listen to stories without filtering it through my truth. If she could be profiled, I thought, certainly that was possible.
Now, more than ever, we need to understand that no one has cornered the market on experience. There are more than 7.4 billion lived experiences on this planet, from an elderly person who has lived their entire life in the same earthen home to the toddler of privilege who has already filled a passport. In a world where my own experience feels too narrow to understand and appreciate the questions of my generation, I find myself channeling that roommate of mine from long ago. No, I don’t go up to people and say, “Tell me what it’s like to be…” but I listen to people tell their story and no matter how hard it is to fit within my experience of how the world works, I try to do one thing.
I try to believe them.