Learning to appreciate the “out” group

A few weekends ago, my wife and I had some friends over for brunch. We had an entirely delightful time. We made breakfast together, swapped stories, joked around, and had a completely wonderful morning. As it turns out, my wife and I are white, and our friends are black. And, as much as I enjoy their company and admire their many accomplishments, I’ve realized I probably don’t appreciate them as much as they deserve.

I grew up in a very white community, and knew only one black person all the way through high school. She was my co-captain of the debate team, and, while we argued some (it was the debate team, after all), I thought very highly of her. But, in retrospect, I also don’t think I appreciated her as much as she deserved either.

However, in both cases, it wasn’t for being too sensitive of my friends’ skin color, but rather for being a little too color-blind.

It’s only been as an adult that the diversity of my group of friends has increased. Over the years, I’ve heard them talk about growing up, their school experiences, their professional experiences, and their adult lives. And only after hearing their stories that I’ve begun to really understand how to appreciate my friends fully. What you don’t really learn when you’ve always been part of the “in” group, is what it’s actually like to be part of the “out” group.

I’ll stop here a moment to say that while I’ve been part of enough “out” groups (e.g., nerdy, Jewish, bisexual) to have some inkling what it’s like, my experiences as part of those groups is far, far more mild than what I’ve heard from my black friends. So much so as to basically not be the same experience at all. I’ll also pause to say that I think the same applies to anyone who isn’t with the “in” group for whatever other reason (e.g., recent immigrants in an English-speaking business, women in engineering, men in nursing, or gay people in a conservative community).

Every company I’ve worked at has been overwhelmingly homogeneous on many axes. And, not all of the people I’ve worked with have much sensitivity toward “out” groups in general. So, when I start to imagine the sense of isolation it must engender being part of a small “out” group, I start to have an appreciation for the determination and self-confidence it must require to show up, and keep coming back: despite not fitting in with the larger group in some way.

And then, there are all the stories of people in an “out” group being passed over because they just don’t seem like management / leadership / whatever material. Or because they “don’t quite click as well” with the rest of the team, or whatever other squishy, hard-to-refute, but nevertheless-bullshit reason. One has to admire the grit and resolve it takes to decide to persevere through such an experience. And then you realize that every person you meet in such an “out” group may well have had to deal with that kind of thing personally.

Or maybe not. Perhaps they were lucky, and didn’t have those negative experiences. As always, making blanket assumptions about an individual based upon some inessential characteristic is dangerous. However, we all do it all the time: at least at first. You can only learn so much about a person in a first meeting, and it takes time to learn their actual history, struggles, and accomplishments. So, in the interval between meeting a person and deeply getting to know them, we all make lots of inferences from what little we do know.

My takeaway, then, is that in early stage of building a friendship with someone, it’s actually not fair to be as perfectly egalitarian as I’d like the world to become. For someone in an “out” group, the accomplishments I see and admire may very well have come at higher cost or effort than I would have expected. As a consequence, a person in that situation most likely deserves some extra credit for the extra friction they’ve had to overcome.

Of course, I fully expect this is all super obvious to anyone who isn’t part of one of the important “in” groups in their life. However, we of the “in” group are mostly so uncomfortable talking about this kind of thing, that it’s not at all obvious to us. I know I’m uncomfortable writing about it now. I feel more than a little blind that it’s taken me so long to become sensitive to it. It’s only after having enough conversations with my friends who are: black in a mostly white environment, female in a mostly male environment, gay in a mostly straight environment, etc. that the broader understanding has come to me.

So, in addition to the earlier takeaway, I’m left with an even more important lesson. It’s admirable to desire and work towards a world which has left racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. behind. However, until we get there, it’s not right to let the vision of that better world make us fail to give due recognition to people whose success comes a little (or a lot) harder because of the world we’re actually in.