Dear My People: It’s Not Always About Us, So Listen Up


All pain is not equal.

Volume II, Chapter II of the Netflix series Dear White People exposes this.

Reggie’s new roommate, Clifton, a white student athlete, equates Reggie’s experience of having a gun pointed at him by campus police to Thane’s death, caused by toxic drinking culture. Clifton says simply, “pain is pain.” He fails to acknowledge what the campus protests articulate because he is busy saying “us too.”

Thane’s death is of course very sad and gestures to toxic masculinity and deadly drinking. However, it is not the same as being held at gunpoint because of your skin color. These things are
drastically different.

Instead of trying to relate your pain to someone else’s, try instead to acknowledge that discrimination exists, and people have different relationships to power structures.

Here we can apply Foucault’s work about power structures. It is not about who has suffered the most. Rather, it is about how certain people suffer in particular ways because of their relationship to power. We must understand these relationships if we want to have productive conversations about pain and oppression.

The next time your friends feel like talking about their unique pain or experiences, do not dismiss what they have been through as normal or equivalent to what you have experienced. Each person’s life is different. Ignoring this fact means ignoring that many people experience the world in ways you could never imagine. Instead of trying to understand this, because you never will, try to understand what exactly causes this.

Most often, it is a bunch of institutions that make individuals feel this pain. Understanding the relationship between people and institutions of power is critical to changing oppressive systems.

Another part of this is listening. Not trying to be the same or to have suffered more or to have had worse experiences, but actually listening. Hear people’s pain and respect it. Then, you can start working towards lessening it. This doesn’t always mean comforting a person and saying it will get better, because it won’t. Not until the system that hurts them changes.

We cannot make progress until we acknowledge that people’s pain and suffering is different, because systems affect people differently. We need to stop saying “I have pain too” and start to listen when people say “I suffer because systems make me.”