Verstehen: Meaningful Understanding

Last week I came across a thoughtful article about race and dog ownership. Reading about the Black author's experience with her entitled white neighbor and Corgi owner made me reflect on a conversation Gordon and I had with a young Black woman the other night in the dog park near my home.

The young woman was new to the park and had two small dogs on leashes and wearing dapper coats. The male dog was mellow and checking out my miniature schnauzer, Schnitzel, but the female dog was announcing her presence in the park with an ongoing series of communicative yaps. As our dogs interacted, the young woman apologized repeatedly for her dog's barking, and we assured her it was not a big deal. Terriers are talky, we said, and it's a dog park, so who cares.

The young woman mentioned that her dog would bark less if she let her off the leash, but she wasn't sure she could trust her. We commiserated. Terriers have a high prey drive and we're always dealing with Schnitzel going after skateboarders and squeak-toy-sound-emitting toddlers. I was laughing, on the cusp of telling her about one particular run-in with a cyclist, but I stopped short – there was no comparison between this woman's experience and mine.

Though we both have little, cute dogs, if I rush up apologizing to some white mom whose kid is fleeing from my dog, that woman is likely to laugh and tell me she completely understands. Or, if not, if the white mom is angry and dressing me down, I can even mouth off ("Hey, you're letting your kid run screaming in a dog park, lady – what do you expect?") and huff off self-righteously, not to mention safely, knowing the cops won't be at my door later. But if this young woman's tiny, adorable dog chases down some kid on a scooter in our liberal, ever-whitening dog park, as a Black woman she is unlikely to get the same pleasant response, is more likely to get yelled at, called names, and can anticipate the cops showing up at her door that night. Her sweet dog might even be impounded or destroyed. Her nervousness accounted for that very fact.

In talking with her – and after separating my own feelings and experiences from hers as a young Black woman – I was reminded of a concept I learned in graduate school – verstehen. Verstehen, a method explored by the turn-of-the-century German sociologist Max Weber, refers to the systematic interpretive process by which a researcher relates to her human subject through the subject's own point of view. Verstehen is not just
seeing something through someone else's perspective, but truly understanding it from their perspective in order to account for that person's actions

Many would argue that a researcher's job is to control her subjective thoughts and feelings so as to avoid biased findings, but for others – including me – doing our best to enter into another's meaning-making is crucial to building and evaluating the potential impact of equity-focused work, the only work that really matters to me. In the evaluation field, this process is captured in techniques like Michael Quinn Patton's concept of "empathic neutrality" which he considers to be the middle ground between too much of either of the two terms represented in the phrase. 

The need to engage verstehen (or empathic neutrality) is equally important whether my "subject" is someone with whom I'm already inclined to empathize (like the young woman in the park) or someone with whom it is very difficult for me to empathize. And so it was verstehen that I called upon later in the week when I found myself in the backseat of a cab being driven by an outspoken white nationalist.

I like to say that the price of a cab is worth it to me because I learn so much from cab drivers. I've learned, for instance, about caste-reliant meal preparation and sharing norms for Nepalese Hindus. And I'm increasingly well versed in Azerbaijan's "mugham jazz" movement of the 1960s, particularly in terms of the life and work of Vagif Mustafazade. I've had the most nuanced political discussions of my life with cab drivers, including discussions about voting behavior, political economy, and who's embezzling money from local public coffers. Cabbies know the dirt, and they aren't afraid to share it.

Despite my experience, Wednesday's young cab driver struck me as unusual from the moment I climbed into his backseat, though many of my assumptions proved to be entirely wrong. I thought I recognized local subculture in his punk-mullet, rolled jeans, black boots, and heavily tatted forearms, but his name on the cab app told me he was probably an immigrant from the former Soviet Union. So I asked, eager to hear his story, and he told me he was originally from Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, and that he'd immigrated to the US as a teenager by himself in 2003. 

What I know about Uzbekistan is that life is too complicated and media too unreliable for me to really understand day-to-day life there. The country is known for being ravaged by acts of terrorism and is high on the list of countries with human rights violations. In the time period in which my cab driver must have been contemplating leaving, thousands of Uzbeks were imprisoned for practicing Islam outside of the state-run religious establishment and were routinely and horrifically tortured while incarcerated. 

We talked about the various US cities and towns he had lived in over the last twelve years, his impressions of them, and my thoughts about how San Francisco is changing, and then our conversation turned to the current presidential administration. I talked about the impact on my students, whose parents are mostly immigrants, and I expressed disgust for our president's anti-immigrant stance, assuming that we'd be on the same page. But when I asked him what he thought of our current POTUS, I could see him stiffen and then study me in the rear-view mirror. 

"I tried to vote," he told me, "but I was turned away at the polling place." When I raised my eyebrows, he continued, "But it didn't matter, Trump still won. It turned out okay." 

I bit my lip. For all of the arguing that my friends and I have engaged in over Trump voters really are – the white working class, poor Southerners, college-educated white women – not once have we thought to consider young immigrants of the former Soviet Union as a potentially contributive group. 

But I thought also about something one of my students had told me – that her recently immigrated Nicaraguan in-laws had embraced Trump because to them he was the fastest route to immigrant incorporation for "good" immigrants, i.e., immigrants who went through the long process of immigrating to the US within the established legal process. They voted for Trump and they supported the wall – the wall that separated my student from her extended family in Mexico. I was curious – was this the reason my cab driver wanted to vote for Trump as well?

And so that is how I came to ask him why he likes Trump. And how he came to look at me hard in the rear-view mirror and declare, "Because Trump is pro-white." This is how I learned that my cab driver did not identify as white, but as racially Turkic, and that he classified Latinos as "one-half-step away from whites," and that he sympathized with African Americans. With each answer he gave me to each question of position I asked, another of my assumptions was turned on its head. 

And so I began asking other kinds of questions – questions that might support verstehen. Have you always felt this way? When you did you start feeling this way? What led you to hate Jewish people and Asian immigrants? Do your friends feel the same way? Each answer unsettled me, but only by employing verstehen could I find the next question that I needed to ask to learn what I wanted to know about his ideology of hate. 

Why would I want to practice verstehen with a white supremacist? Maybe the easiest answer is that his hands were on the wheel of a car in which I was the passenger, but it was more than that.


Since our forty-fifth president took office, each day brings more and more demonstrations of white supremacy to light. I say "to light" because, of course, it was there all along and is not to be merely conflated with Trump support. But what is different now is that we are seeing ongoing public displays of organized white nationalism in places where groups like the Proud Boys would not have dared to show their faces before, and using tactics that would have been so distasteful to even normal everyday covert racists that even hate groups wouldn’t have so publicly gone there. Just this morning, we woke to news that two men were stabbed to death in Portland after they tried to intervene when another passenger began shouting anti-Muslim hate speech at two young women, one of whom was wearing a hijab.

 © Noah Berger, Special To The Chronicle

© Noah Berger, Special To The Chronicle

And this is the first time in all of my years of riding in taxis in San Francisco that a cab driver has felt emboldened enough to share his white nationalist rhetoric with me. 

Liberals have been lulled into complacency by covert racism for decades, but now (again) overt, often organized, racists are out in the open, emboldened by an administration that not only allows for them, but includes them (again). Out on the streets, there are different, equally justifiable ways to deal with white nationalists. Learning about them is one. And so I did – because entering into another's meaning-making is crucial to building and evaluating work that has the possibility of changing the direction of the future, including future elections – of reaching those voters whose experiences provide them with a logic that is so different from mine that it allows them to vote for a misogynistic, imperialistic, white supremacist to hold the highest office in the United States. 

We can forget about solidarity with the likes of my cab driver, but finding out where his hatred was born could help us disrupt the conditions that are creating more like him. 

And this is how I came to remind myself: the need to engage verstehen is equally important whether my "subject" is someone with whom I'm already inclined to empathize (a young Black woman in the dog park) or someone with whom it is very difficult for me to empathize (a young white nationalist spewing hate).

Back in my neighborhood, talking with the young woman with her two adorable dogs in their jaunty little jackets, the girl dog continuing her nonstop barking, all I could come up with in response to her fear was an ineffectual, "It will get better
– she'll get more used to the park." She asked me, really, if I thought that was true, and, if so, how long I thought it would take. I studied her worried face and realized again how different it is for her to manage her little barky dog, how much is at stake, and not even just with this. With everything in the world right now. 

"Don't let people pressure you into taking her off leash if you're not ready," Gordon told her before we walked away, and I wondered if we'd ever see her again in the park. 

 

 
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Laurie Jones Neighbors is an independent consultant and educator who specializes in developing, implementing, and assessing programs and educational experiences in support of equitable political representation and local, regional, and national decision making by low-income communities and communities of color.