” A wise old owl lived in an oak; the more she saw the less she spoke. The less she spoke, the more she heard. Why can’t we all be like that bird?” *
In a spirited conversation about diversity and inclusion with a younger African-American male pal, he playful dubbed me an OWL (a.k.a. Old White Lady). Given our antithetical life experiences, he opined, I could never completely understand his worldview nor could he understand mine. While I agree we can never know 100% what it is like to be other than who and what we are, I do believe we can empathize though other analogous experiences.
For example, I had a ‘minority’ experience on a fishing boat. While I have gone fishing before alone with my husband, I am not a fisherman. I know nothing about lures, hooks, bait, casting, etc. My goal when fishing is simply to spend time with my husband doing something he enjoys. I was clearly out of my element as we embarked on the boat at the crack of dawn with a dozen or so seasoned fishermen. I was mindful to follow the observable social norms and not ask too many questions (or complain about the ridiculously early hour!) I was consciously trying very hard to fit in, or more accurately, to not stand out.
As the morning progressed, I thought I was holding my own, mimicking what others were doing, until my line got tangled for the third time. I could see the eye roll of the seaman next to me and virtually hear the commentary in is head: “what makes this broad think she can fish?” Feeling self-conscious, inept and insecure, I unnecessarily snapped at the deckhand trying to untangle my line when he instructed me to give him “more slack.” I cried, “I don’t know what that means!” I was sure everyone on the boat was judging me harshly and I become more and more flustered.
The deckhand gently spoke to me about his love of fishing as he patiently untangled my line. He fished alongside me, offering tips and suggestions without judgment, until I got the hang of it. I caught enough fish to feel competent and accomplished my goal of enjoying time with my husband. Captain Eye Roll, who did not achieve his goal of catching a specific type of fish, left the boat in a huff. Ironically, my trip was successful; his was not.
What I learned from this experience is that when you are different, it is ok to “stand out” by being authentically you and simply asking questions in pursuit of your specific goal which may or may not be the same as everyone else’s’. Pretending to fit in or trying to be invisible does not serve well. You ultimately end up standing out anyway, but in a negative way. I also learned that in life, sometimes you are the outsider like I was and sometimes you need to be the deckhand, patiently sharing information and decoding social norms, without judging others in order to help them be successful.
As I continuously ponder the notion of diversity and inclusion from my OWL perch I encourage other OWLs and OWM (a.k.a. Old White Men) to occasionally put yourself in uncomfortable situations where you are different and struggling to fit in. Such experiences will enable you to empathize more easily with others who feel that way on a regular basis. Equally important is for each of us to assume the role of deckhand as needed and patiently guide someone who needs help, without judgment. After all, different from is not the same thing as less than.
*Poem by Edward Hersey Richards