Some of my most humbling experiences came from traveling to Spain and realizing, for the first time, how much of the language I had to learn. Spanish classes can teach you how the tools of the language function, but they cannot teach your mind to flow like a Spaniard’s. I only began to experience that months after I arrived in Spain (on top of years of studying it) and even now, I must listen to it every day if I wish to maintain it and I often find myself reading Spanish
The most obvious indicator that I did not grow up speaking Spanish, however, is that I speak with an accent. While it has a much more Spanish sound to it than when I began, no Spanish speaker has ever made the mistake of asking me if I was from their country. There are times in which my accent provides a more immediate reminder that I still have work to do to become a perfect Spanish speaker, and it is possible that it may never leave.
Most Hispanic speakers, however, love the accent and are more interested in what I have to say because I first learned their language. I´ve found that some of the easiest friendships I´ve created were with Spanish speakers. They´ve invited me to see their homes and have given me the ability to know a world that I never would have experienced had I not taken those first few steps to properly pronounce “hola, cómo estás?”. My accent, if anything, has always provided a good starting point of conversation for me to become better acquainted with the Spanish speakers that I´ve met.
In many ways, I believe that most of our social issues can be traced back to our willingness to speak with an accent and be humbled by what we still have to learn.
Although there are many different subjects that this could be applied to, I always tend to think of the cultural divide that often occurs between African Americans and White Americans. The thing that I find most striking is the difference in reactions to both national and more local events. When Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old African American child, was shot dead by a police officer, I was horrified, yet curious as to how everyone would react. Many of my Caucasian friends defended the police by saying that because it was dark and Tamir Rice was carrying a gun, the police officer could be forgiven for reacting quickly and shooting him because it was more important that the police officer not allow any delay in case the fake gun turned out to be dangerous. My African American friends, on the other hand, almost uniformly condemned the shooting and wanted justice for Tamir Rice.
In addition, statistics tend to help show us how different the worlds we live in are. If a job applicant has an African American sounding name, he or she is less likely to be hired than someone with a white sounding name who has a criminal record. African Americans are much more likely to be arrested for pot offenses even though both African Americans and Caucasians smoke at similar rates. In my medical school, less than 10% of all students are African American even though African Americans make up 30% of our state´s population. As depicted above, our reaction to the news and even presidential candidates could not be more different at times. My Spanish friends, having no personal stake in any of this, would simply ask me “Why does America kill its African Americans”?
If we honestly believe that all men are created equal, then it´s about time we fixed these divides. While we can debate the best course of action for remedying these divides, it would be irresponsible for us to forgo learning about each other´s world views and what forms them. If we honestly believe that all men are created equal, then I don´t believe it´s possible to look at these statistics and these stories and say that people of all races and origins have the exact, same opportunity as everyone else. We should not ignore each other. We must begin by learning each other´s language
I believe that this begins with both of us learning about each other´s culture and spending time in each other´s community. This can be done on an individual basis by intentionally meeting people who are different from ourselves and learning about where we came from. Our first words will probably not be right or contain the right phrasing, but I believe that it will take the same time and patience to bridge the divides between us that it takes for someone to learn another language, provided that we have the willingness to try.
On a more national scale, this will only ever end when the worlds we live in are truly the same and an African American´s chances of success is equal to that of a Caucasians. When that day comes, I hope that I can answer my Spanish friend with a firm “no” and tell him that the United States has put those days behind them for good. I hope you help me have the ability to give this answer to my Spanish friend one day.
Written by Seth Thomas