Experience & Context

Some years ago, when I was still doing theater work in Chicago, I had gotten off a job late one night and found myself craving a pint of ice cream. So I stopped by a corner market on my way home. Another gentleman—a complete stranger to me—arrived at the same time I did. We approached the door just in time to see the proprietor throw the lock and change the sign to “Closed”. He shrugged at us, pointed to the sign listing the store’s hours, and walked off.

I was disappointed and somewhat miffed. The other guy proceeded to throw a spectacular tantrum.

I stood there nonplussed, unsure what to do. Once this strange man had stopped yelling and stomping around, I asked him, “Are you OK?” (Inane question, I know—clearly he wasn’t—but it was late and I was tired and hungry.)

He proceeded to tell me a Tale of Woe for the Ages. All about his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, very bad week, very bad month. Everything that could go wrong in this guy’s life had gone wrong. All he wanted now was some potato chips—crunchy bites of salty comfort. Is that too much to ask?

So I took him to a local bar and bought him a beer.

He apologized for making such a scene. He knew it was a ridiculous overreaction. I assured him I totally understood. And I did understand: for me, having the door locked in my face was annoying. For him, it was ONE MORE THING in a long line of crappy things that had happened to him lately.

For him, it was the one thing too many.

This experience taught me something important:

Context matters.

Objectively, he and I experienced the same thing—a convenience store closed in our faces. Subjectively, our experiences were worlds apart.

I try to keep this in mind whenever I see someone react to something in a way that doesn’t make sense to me:

Just because it doesn’t make sense to me, doesn’t mean it doesn’t make sense. It means I’m probably missing context for it.

I saw a very different example of this play out on Twitter recently. *

A woman of color tweeted a complaint that the complimentary haircare products provided by hotels in the United States are never formulated for black hair. As a woman of color who travels frequently, she finds this very frustrating. It’s discriminatory (perhaps not intentionally but in practice).

A white woman responded to point out that complimentary hotel shampoo is just crappy in general, even for white hair. So it’s not about race.

Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America by Ayana D. Byrd & Lori L. Tharps
Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America (revised & updated)
by Ayana D. Byrd & Lori L. Tharps
St. Martin’s Griffin, 2014

I recently read the book Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America by Ayana D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps, so I’m newly aware of just how fraught the subject of black hair culture is in the United States. It’s political, it’s historical, it’s systemic, and black hair culture still carries the legacy of slavery. Black hair is still, even today, a flashpoint for racism and discrimination and unfair judgement—natural black hairstyles get kids suspended from school and prevent qualified applicants from getting jobs. Natural black hairstyles get black people profiled by law enforcement and security.

The haircare industry in this country is geared almost entirely around the needs of white, European descended hair. White, European descended hair has long been upheld as the ideal hair type in American culture, and people of color have spent generations trying to change their natural hair to fit. They’ve spent generations being taught their natural hair is bad and ugly and something to be ashamed of.

Crappy hotel shampoo is representative of this whole problem—it may be crappy shampoo in general, but it’s always crappy shampoo formulated and marketed for white people, never for black folk. White is always the unquestioned default.

For white people, it’s just crappy shampoo. For black people, it’s yet another irritant in a long history of aggravation and denigration and having their needs ignored.

It’s one thing for a white person to point out that hotel shampoo sucks for white people, too. But to argue that means this isn’t about race entirely erases the historical and cultural context in which people of color experience it. That context is absolutely about race.

When you deny someone’s context, you de facto deny the legitimacy of their lived experience. That’s never a useful way to approach things.

Context matters.

I especially try to keep all this in mind when I’m dealing with patrons at the library: we have a lot of homeless patrons, patrons experiencing poverty, patrons dealing with un- and under-employment, patrons of color and ethnic minorities, refugee and immigrant patrons who struggle with language and cultural barriers, gender nonconforming patrons, patrons struggling with their mental and physical health.

These are all people who face challenges, aggravations, aggressions, and discrimination in their daily lives which I have never—and most likely will never—face. Their context of experience is very different than mine.

It’s inevitable these people will sometimes react to things in ways that make no sense to me, reactions that appear to me to be overwrought.

So, sometimes we have patrons in the library who react to objectively minor things in ways that seem out of proportion. But just because their reactions don’t always make sense to me, it doesn’t mean they don’t make sense.

It could mean I’m missing context. Maybe this minor thing isn’t just an annoyance to them. Maybe it’s their one thing too many—the last straw in long line of crap they have to deal with.

Or maybe they really are overreacting and being unreasonable. But if I assume that from the outset, it shuts down any possibility of a more meaningful exchange, of any deeper understanding. If I leave myself open to the possibility that their subjective context makes sense of their reactions, then I leave open the possibility of productive conversation.


* I’m not going to quote or embed any of the tweets in question in this post, nor will I name any names. I don’t have permission and I don’t want to expose anyone.

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