I’m thinking about a friend of mine this week: Kelly. Kelly, I have known since we were in middle school. She is the blondest, bubbliest, biggest-hearted human being on earth. She’s great at making jokes about herself, she is an excellent Game Night player (don’t play her in word games; she will dominate), and she’s a fantastic mother to Donovan, Jonathan, and Kaiya, who have graciously let Aunt Ceason practice her aunt skills on them and do not seem traumatized by me almost tossing them into ceiling fans and being terrible at fixing doll hair.

I’m thinking about Kelly because she and I grew up in basically the same way. Middle class families, one sibling, living at the end of hollers where its perfect for late-night bonfires and talking. We ran in a circle of friends with the same basic cultural make up as well, a bunch of Appalachian kids who took full advantage of what Jackson County had to offer us, and went out into the world with similar values in tact: kindness, thoughtfulness, honesty, and the belief that the worth of people is measured in how they treat others and nothing else. The human embodiments of “We don’t see color.”

Then we all went out into the world and realized we “didn’t see color” because we’d never actually seen color.

I did not make my first real friend of color until college. Not just a person I had a class with, not someone I made small talk with at a summer job; a real friend. Someone who sat around with you talking about nothing until late at night. Someone who you bonded with over 90s dance jams, commiserating about professors, and having the kind of experiences that set up a million inside jokes that you still have twenty years later. Someone who made you miss your old friends a little less because the things you loved about your high school friends you’d found in them.

I think about my friends of color now, after the weeks we’ve had, and realize that the best I will ever be able to offer these friends that mean so much to me is my sympathy. Not empathy; empathy means I know what it to be marginalized, to be singled for something I have no control over. And while in other columns I will make the argument that Appalachians are a marginalized group, this column isn’t about that. It’s certainly not any attempt to try and explain or question or inspire or rationalize, because it’s not my place to do any of that either. What’s happening now isn’t my stage, and one of the most important things you learn as you progress through life is to recognize the times where your place is in the audience, listening, watching, and learning.

I’ve learned a lot in the twenty years since I went to off to college, and the most useful of that knowledge has been about people. I will always be endlessly fascinated by people, by their stories, by their choices, and by their personal codes. Because every time I meet a person who has grown up differently than I have (and that can be anything from being from a foreign country to people who live on the Roane/ Jackson line of Aplin Ridge. In all seriousness, how do y’all make it to work on time?!? Are you just that good at taking turns on two wheels?), their stories have helped inform my personal code about what is important, what should be important, and what I’m willing to do to make known what’s really important to me.

I think I’m like almost all of you: I learn best when what I’m learning comes from a personal place, a personal testimony. When the person who’s teaching me is like me in the ways that really matter, but what they’re teaching me is something only they’ve experienced, and that only they can really explain what it’s like, because they are different. And still, the best I can offer to the people I’ve met outside of my JCO crew is sympathy for their experiences. Sympathy, and a willing audience for their story, with all its color.

I’m grateful for every person who ever took the time to help me see color. I’m grateful for every person who shared their stories with me so I could better write my own. I’m grateful for every friend who is just like me where it counts, and take the time to teach me things I’ll never know on my own because we are different. The Laurens and Linwoods and Matts and Kellys; all the people who teach me by their experiences, and who listen just as sympathetically when I tell them mine.

Because if there is something that brings people together, that makes us all feel like we’re being heard, it’s finding our common ground through learning about each other, through really sympathizing when you can’t empathize, through sharing experiences and finding the similarities, and talking through the differences. Through learning when to be an audience instead of trying to be on stage, and bringing people to the theatre to hear what’s being said.

So don’t miss your opportunity to really learn and grow by being content with “not seeing color.” Instead, take every chance you have to go out and find it.