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I Am Not You: On the Need for Distance

  • Author(s): Hwang, June J.
  • et al.

One of the main problems in many conversations about race, class, and privilege today is not too much distance, but rather too little. Or to be more precise, too little recognition of the importance distance plays in our interactions with one another. One manifestation of this phenomenon is mistaking empathy for shared experience. This notion that one can truly know someone else’s experience, that complete knowledge and identification is the goal, makes it too easy to assume that one’s own experience can be applied to everyone else’s. An even more insidious manifestation of too little distance is the belief that distance means a failure to understand and that if the gap cannot be closed, one should give up. In other words finding another’s experiences and subject position too other, too foreign, and therefore illegible. Accepting distance as an integral part of understanding other experiences, acknowledging that one can never achieve a full and complete understanding is not the end of the conversation, nor is it an invitation to abandon the attempt. Instead it is the starting point and a call for continual engagement, for constant and ever-changing interactions that create connections and bridges between people without having complete identification as the goal. An exploration of this relationship, and in particular how it shapes our subject identity positions at the intersections of academia, ethnicity, and power, is the focus of this essay.

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