The sound of boisterous conversation and hair dryers filled a dimly-lit Hyde Park hair salon on a sunny spring afternoon. During one of my more unique interviews, I was getting a haircut by a man known on a first name basis throughout Chicago: Zariff. Many recognize him as “Obama’s barber.”
I was working a story on President Obama’s Hyde Park roots for my journalism class. As Zariff finished my sideburns, I knew my time with him was ending. Over the buzzing of the razor, I asked him one last question: what quality did he admire most about the man he has known for over two decades?
“Barack always spent time with people who were different from him,” Zariff said. “He tried to understand their perspectives. He thought this would help him make better decisions.”
Zariff’s words serve as a reminder about the power of perspective, one that reminds me of the many different experiences and viewpoints that each of us brings. However, because of our differing experiences, many of us have implicit biases within our viewpoints. And while every human being is entitled to their opinions, two qualities in particular allow us to learn from others more effectively: tolerance and openness.
I am most reminded of the effects of practicing these character traits through my grandfather, who my family refers to in Hindi as Nana. Nana served in the Indian Air Force from its birth in 1947 until he retired in 1989. In those 42 years, he fought in three wars against Pakistan. The religious conflict between India and Pakistan, which continues to this day largely as a result of the arbitrary borders drawn by the British, has led to millions of lost lives and tense conflict in the border regions. One would believe that a man with such military dedication would remain nationlistic at heart. Yet, just three years after Nana retired, he had no reservations with his daughter (my aunt) marrying her husband (my uncle) from Karachi, Pakistan. He put his differences aside and decided to learn from his son-in-law, an extremely taboo act at the time considering the political rivalry and intense patriarchy in South Asian society. Actions like those of Nana’s are essential to not only broaden our willingness to accept people who are different from us but also to embrace them as a part of our family and friends. Though Nana recently passed away at the age of 90, the prayers he bestowed on me as well as his teachings of tolerance and openness to others remain critical aspects of the memories I have of him.
My own search to understand perspectives different than mine motivated me to study journalism. Journalism's core skills involve the ability to both listen to and express these perspectives. These include interacting with people of different backgrounds, asking them thorough questions, respecting their viewpoints and prioritizing their concerns. From speaking with residents in Chicago’s South Side about their neighborhood food desserts to discussing the mental health effects of the Yugoslavian War with former soldiers in Bosnia, I constantly find that the quest for perspective provides me with an understanding of my privilege and the need for me to actively use it to improve the lives of others.
Now even if you understand the importance of perspective, how do you go about expanding them? Much of that stems from how you spend your most valuable resource: your time. Expanding your perspectives requires spending time with people who challenge you and bring different backgrounds. Though this may seem more intimidating than ever with the advent of information bubbles through the news and social media, this concept of speaking and listening to different viewpoints is more important than ever. This means becoming an active part of your community - physically or digitally - while learning about topics that you may subconsciously have chosen to ignore. This means going past the surface level conversations and asking why someone may be feeling anxious or stressed. This means using the power of human connection to comfort others while learning about why they approach topics with different viewpoints. This means simply making time to listen to people who are different than you.
The process of expanding your perspectives is a continuous one, a process that continues throughout your life. The core qualities of this action require listening to others and understanding their concerns, providing you with a greater sense of wisdom. These qualities are entrenched in our leaders, such as President Obama, to personal visionaries including my grandfather. For me, my desire to not only expand my perspectives but also make a tangible impact on the lives of those who are different than me has motivated my career path. With a desire to provide others the fundamental human right of healthcare, I am currently applying to medical school.
In the meantime, I will continue to educate myself on topics that may make me uncomfortable, volunteer in underfunded communities and be open to expanding my perspectives. I am counting on you to join me.
- Ashwin Kulkarni
Northwestern University Class of 2019