Let Others See Themselves in You

dance theater of harlem white bird

Last night, I went to see the Dance Theater of Harlem at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Allow me to preface what I am about to say by telling you that 76% of Portland’s population is Caucasian and 6% of it is African American. Added to which, there is a significant (and painful) cultural and geographic divide between these two groups.

I have been to that concert hall a dozen times over the years and, in all of those times, one could have easily been under the impression that the 6% was closer to .6%. Last night was a new experience. Seeing so many African American couples and families show up in force made me think about how important it is for all of us to see ourselves represented in art and culture, to see people on the screen and on the stage and in the pages of magazines who look like we do. Caucasians don’t have to try very hard to accomplish this; we simply buy tickets to something, turn on the TV, or flip through the pages of whatever’s closest to our latte.

In that way, it’s hard for me to imagine what it would be like to have so few representations of myself and my community, and what effect that might have on my sense of self. What I do understand, though, is that the need for affiliation goes beyond our physical, racial, socio-economic, and gender identities.

Each one of us has hidden parts that are looking for representation in society and culture. Each of us has emotional and constitutional facets of ourselves that we dislike, parts that we are ashamed of, parts that can make us feel as though we are on the outside looking in. For me, being a highly sensitive person falls into this category. Though research shows that it is, in fact, a neurological phenomenon–and not simply being a “wuss” as it is so delightfully described by many–this information does not, on a bad day when I am curled up under the covers, prevent me from feeling like an alien, unfit for terrestrial life.

Last week I started reading a blog by the actor Mayim Bialik. She is a beautiful writer and a fellow highly sensitive person. She writes mostly about parenting and modern Orthodox judaism, neither of which are a part of my direct experience, but I find a kinship in her words, a recognition, because she writes lovingly and acceptingly about the part of herself that mirrors the part of myself that I most want to hide from other people.

This is the power of art: to provide honest mirrors for others in which to see themselves. This is why it is essential for people of all genders, races, orientations, ethnicities, and physicalities as well as people with a wide array of challenges, neuroses, ideologies, wounds, and qualities that our culture considers “defects,” to share these things about themselves. This is how we make each other feel less alone.

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