With our nation’s current turmoil and deepening racial divide, who else is there to turn to but the famous Joey Tribbiani?
The ever-confused character sheds surprising light to an American issue in season two episode nine of the widely popular 90’s sitcom “Friends.” In the episode, Phoebe Buffay-Hannigan realizes the man in a photo she thought was her father was really just a model posing for a photo in a picture frame at Macy’s. Tribbiani later quips that he “knows exactly what she’s going through” because “she just told us”—cue loud laugh track.
His failure to recognize the distinction between relating and understanding is not only the basis of this scene’s comedy, it’s the main basis of America’s racial tension today.
I know that I will never know exactly what it’s like to grow up a black man in America, a Muslim woman in France or anything other than a straight, white, American young woman. I will never know the discrimination these people face. I will never have felt the exact same emotions they feel for the exact same reasons. I will never relate to them on that level.
However, that absolutely does not mean I can’t understand their experiences. I may not know the emotions behind their experiences, but I can expand my knowledge through facts. I can’t know, as Tribbiani put it, “exactly what she’s going through,” but I can know and acknowledge that she’s going through it. Not only can I understand, but I should.
It’s a distinction that needs to be recognized because it comes from lack of understanding that hate is born. We fear what we don’t understand, and we combat this fear in one of two ways.
The first instance is what our nation is doing currently: we run from it. We put ourselves as far away from our fears as possible. This option is probably easier, at least for the moment, but it creates segregation and utterly unequal opportunities — which, of course, far outweigh the seemingly beneficial ease of turning the other way.
If the white supremacist protesters in Charlottesville could understand what a confederate statue means to the black population, they might not feel so inclined to protect it.
The second response to fear is what we need to do: confront it.
Even if you think you don’t have anything to confront, take a look at your friend group, the news organizations you support or the people you follow on social media. How many parts of your life introduce you to something you can’t relate to?
Instead of running from what you don’t relate to, confront it. Stand literally face to face with people and concepts you aren’t familiar with. Take some time to expand your horizons with the simple act of opening your ears to listen. Listening is the first step to understanding, understanding is the first step to acting and action is the first step to change.
Don’t be intimidated or feel guilty because you can’t relate. It’s a byproduct of the differences that make the human race thrive.
Put a human face to the controversial issues you hear about, know how your words affect your fellow classmates and take the step to understand, because, let’s be honest, who wants to live in a world full of Joey Tribbianis?