They say that you can’t truly understand someone’s life until you’ve walked a mile in her shoes. This particular saying is especially popular in social justice-oriented communities where people want to underscore the idea that while you can learn a lot about a given group of people, you can never fully comprehend their experiences as an outsider. You can only hope to learn, keep learning, and work with members of that group in solidarity if you’re concerned about their treatment in society; and, as an outsider, you can examine your own complicity in their oppression and ask what you can do as an individual to change the status quo.
Yet, people seem to be remarkably fond of doing ‘simulations’ to show people ‘what it feels like’ to belong to a given group. Wear a fat suit for a day. Strap on some goggles to simulate low vision, blindness, or other visual impairments. Go around in a wheelchair to experience disability. Sit in a classroom divided into blue eyes/brown eyes so you can understand the arbitrary and ridiculous nature of racial divisions, Jim Crow laws, and the ruthless eradication of members of society who didn’t fit within rigid social norms.
These simulations, participants are told, give them a taste of what it’s like. Of course, the organisers assure participants, this isn’t an authentic or real experience, but they can get an idea. Such simulations are widely used in locations like college campuses as part of awareness campaigns, in a misguided attempt to get college students interested in and engaged with social justice issues, the idea being that they will promptly run out and become advocates as soon as they understand the suffering in society that they will suddenly comprehend now that they’ve used a clunky hospital wheelchair for a day.
I call them misguided because that’s what they are. At best, simulations just don’t work, and are kind of pointless and ridiculous, no matter how much the participants claim they changed their worldviews. In the debriefing sessions afterwards where everyone gets so emotional and says they had ‘no idea of what they go through’ they don’t seem to understand that they still have no idea; simulations create a false sense of confidence and empathy when it comes to thinking you know what life is like for people who aren’t like you. And, of course, some of them are actively offensive, with organisers who sometimes become hotly defensive when this issue is pointed out.
All that a simulation teaches you is what it’s like to walk around for a day in a fat suit (hot, annoying, uncomfortable) or fight with a hospital wheelchair (clumsy, unresponsive, hard to get around because wow there are a lot of stairs) or struggle with obnoxious goggles on your face or any number of other things. You’re not walking anywhere in anybody’s shoes. You’re putting on a visual trapping of identity and parading it around for a day, and you’re expecting that to give you some kind of insight into a complex lived experience.
Such simulations reduce marginalised people to mere visual markers, suggesting that by adopting one of these markers for a day, you’ll suddenly know what a lifetime of marginalisation is like. You might think it’s unfair when the browneyed people automatically get a higher grade on all their quizzes for the day, but that doesn’t tell you what it’s like to be Black. It tells you what it’s like to be a college student doing a cute class exercise. That’s it. Wearing a fat suit doesn’t give you any information about what it is like to live your entire life as a fat person, to live in a fat body, to interact with people as a fat person.
Because here is the thing about shoes: You can take them off at the end of the day. When you’re doing a simulation, not only are you just picking one aspect of an identity and wearing it like a costume (which is offensive), you’re also doing it in the awareness that at the end of the day, it ends. You can get out of that wheelchair any time you want, and when the day is over, you will. That is not the case for someone with a spinal cord injury who can’t walk, or can only do so for very short distances and at great personal cost. Her existence as a wheelchair user is not at all comparable to yours as someone using a wheelchair for a day.
If anything, such simulations can accomplish the exact opposite of what they’re intended to do. Because in addition to making people think they understand something they don’t, they’re also centred around the experiences of people who want to label themselves ‘allies,’ and not around the experiences of those they claim to want to work in solidarity with. The issue here isn’t whether you personally understand something you can never understand because it’s based in lived experience, but whether you can learn from people and work with them as individuals you respect and honour.
And when people are doing simulations, they’re usually not interacting directly with members of the communities who actually experience the things being simulated. If people genuinely want to gain a deeper understanding of marginalised lives, they should start by looking within those communities. Reading books, essays, and other works by people who can teach about their own experiences. Looking at art. Holding workshops, teach-ins, and lectures where invited (and compensated) guests can provide information in a structured educational environment to people who want to learn more.
This is far better than a simulation, putting actual information front and centre rather than following the bumblings of people who want to convince themselves that playing dressup for a day gives them some kind of insight into the complex and involved lives of others.