The first time I took my daughter, Amelie, on an international trip, she was six years old. Also joining us on a multi-leg jaunt for me to meet with many of Noonday’s artisan entrepreneurs was my friend Meagan, and while she was excited to meet Noonday’s partners, another meeting was top-of-mind. During the first leg of our journey, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Meagan would visit the orphanage where she would meet her new daughter, Tessa, for the first time. Tessa had the eyes of an angel and the personality of a Hollywood actress, and yet for many people, these weren’t the first things they noticed about Tessa. What they noticed was not what was present, but what was absent: the girl’s two legs and one of her arms.
I will never forget that trip, walking the streets with my daughter. When I asked Amelie to compare and contrast our hometown of Austin, Texas with Addis Ababa, she said offhandedly, “Well, nobody speaks English here.”
“What did you think about meeting Tessa?” I then asked my daughter.
“She’s super sweet, Mom,” Amelie said. And that was the end of that.
I shook my head in admiring wonder. Of course, Amelie had noticed that Tessa looked different from her, and yet there was no meaning in the differences she saw. If only I’d caught that lesson as early in life as Amelie had. How much pain I could have saved myself! How much pain I could have saved others, too.
There’s a concept called person-centered language that sums up this important lesson. Basically, it affirms that language, and how we talk about others, it matters. And since it matters, we should be intentional in how we choose to speak about each other. The person-centered approach means that we call out the personhood of an individual before we label them any other way. What does this look like in practice? Using language like “a person experiencing homelessness” instead of “a homeless person.” Or, saying “she has bipolar disorder” instead of “she’s bipolar.” Basically, the person comes first in the descriptor. And in my Amelie’s eyes, Tessa wasn’t “a handicapped girl”—she was a girl, who happened to look just a little bit different.
During my first week of junior high, I was outside for recess when I heard someone holler my name. I turned to see a girl named Monica, who had been one of my closest friends in elementary school. I remember fondly the scores of days I’d played at Monica’s apartment, giggling as little girls do, but then Monica’s family had moved away, forcing Monica to transfer to a new school. Now her family was back. We were at the same school again. Surely, we could be friends.
Except that’s not exactly how things went. In the time that Monica had been away, everything had changed.
I was white, and Monica was Hispanic, and in the leap from elementary school to junior high, invisible but palpable boundaries had been drawn around us. As I crossed from “my” side of the playground to “her” side to say hi to her, I felt the weight of those lines. The differences I used to delight in now divided her and me. She wasn’t “my friend Monica, who is Hispanic,” and I wasn’t “her friend Jessica, who is white.” Somehow along the way we had become “a Hispanic girl” and “a white girl.”
I wish I could tell you I handled that situation perfectly, back when I was barely twelve years old. What I can tell you is that I learned from that day. I learned to erase every line that I find. We can’t enfold each other in loving community, when we’re busy laying bricks and building walls.
We can’t erase the lines that divide us when we’ve traced over them in permanent ink.
We’re in this fight together, this fight to create the world of our dreams. Less us-versus-them and more just us … that’s what I’m about these days. It’s not that we should pretend that our differences don’t exist. It’s just that we should view them as fluid, man-made, and ultimately, not that important. We are all people before we are anything else. And when we remember that, we come to realize that we are truly more alike than we are different.