My best friend is a white Roman Catholic Republican (or rather, Libertarian, which, let's be honest, is basically a Republican that's cool with gay marriage and/or smokes weed) who lives in Texas and works the most corporate job that corporate America has to offer (Human Resources! THE HORROR!).
If you made a list of everything that is the opposite of me, you'd arrive somewhere in the vicinity of this person. We've been friends for over 20 years and we consider ourselves brothers.
The reason why we have remained best friends is because when we talk about politics or religion or, ahem, Texas, we approach it from a respectful place; one that acknowledges and understands the other's personal history.
When we disagree, we disagree big. Disagreements lead to a discussion. And every discussion inevitably boils down to the same thing: we grew up differently.
When I disagree with a stranger, however, that history or level of understanding doesn't exist. Instead, we form two opposing sides that tend not to listen or understand the other simply because it's far more difficult to accept and acknowledge the way the other grew up.
In my last blog post, I wrote about my personal history with the phrase "You Talk White" (You can read it here). It prompted a very spirited discussion where people shared their own personal stories. However, there were moments of disagreements between some, and those disagreement always seemed to ignore the opposing side's history in order to justify their own. This led me to think about how we have come upon a critical divide in this country.
And I blame the internet.
Blog posts (including, admittedly, this one), memes, Facebook rants, and weird twitter handles all seem to be founded on a simple idea: I know something you don't know. I learned it through real experience. Everyone in the world should learn this same thing that I learned. It's super important... now here's a video of a cat snuggling with a baby.
Don't get me wrong - it is human nature for us to judge the world based upon our own background. It's how we make sense of a complex, impossibly vast universe. And to discount our own experiences and impressions basically says that the years of hard work and growing pains were meaningless.
But being rigidly stuck in the ideals we have learned from our youth without examining or acknowledging that other people have a different set of ideals is the very reason we get stuck in the racial/political/religious quagmires that threaten to define us.
Put simply, we can't insist our personal history onto other people. Even if they're family. Even if they're friends. Even if they're co-workers. Or from the same state. Or drink at the same Starbucks. Every single person has an entirely different set of tools with which they grew up.
At one point, my best friend and I got stuck in those very same internet arguments and strange meme circles people so often get into when on social media. One of us would share a divisive story, the other would chime in, there would be a fight - first between us and then between our respective friends - and then it would take a phone call from one of us to say "Hey! This is me actually talking to you. Is that thing you wrote really what you mean?"
It worked for a while, but it became a losing battle. There'd be a NEW Facebook fight to wage war over, and a new way to ignore each other's personal history.
We are no longer friends on social media. It is the best thing that has happened to our real life friendship since Prom 1996 when we mistakenly showed up wearing the same tuxedo (I looked better in it though. It glowed against my skin). When we disagree, we talk it through. When we reach a stalemate, we acknowledge the thought and care that came with it. No one wins, no one loses. We both just learn a little more about the other person.
I'm not saying that there aren't valid sides to an argument or that we shouldn't continue to debate and hold strongly to what we believe. I'm merely suggesting that in our arguments FOR something, we should not invalidate or belittle the personal history of the person fighting against.
Discussions about race and cultural identity is a very delicate, but very necessary, matter. We MUST have these discussions, but we must do it with respect. Can I suggest we go about it by starting from a place of trying to understand someone's truth before stating our own? Begin with an acknowledgement that not everyone grew up in the same fashion and, therefore, not everyone will see the world in the same way (No matter how great your GIF of Kim Davis is). Only then are we able to have a real conversation and be heard.
In episode 5 of my webseries Keith Broke His Leg, my character is tasked with interpreting a friend's dream. His belief structure deems dreams silly and dream interpretation patently unnecessary (sorry Freud). But he tries anyway... and he ends up seeing the world from a completely different perspective. Take a look:
New episodes coming November 12th. One of them will be discussing the Black Lives Matter movement. I hope you stick around for that.
Also, for more episodes and insights, check out my other blog posts: www.huffingtonpost.com/keith-powell
And don't forget to talk to me below or on Twitter: @KeithPowell.
Keith Powell is an actor, writer, and director. He is most known for his role as Toofer on 30 Rock. He has had recurring roles on About A Boy and The Newsroom, and created, wrote, and directed the original web series Keith Broke His Leg (www.GetBroken.com).