There was the following passage in New Yorker’s January 23rd issue that came under the title, “Parting words.”:

“The key word of the speech was “citizen,” which Obama called “the most important office in a democracy,” one that he’ll embrace in his post-Presidency. His exhortations and implications of blame were nonpartisan: conservatives might have heard their denial of science called out, while liberals might have been stung by the allusion to fair-weather activism. Whites and non-whites alike were urged to imagine inhabiting a different person’s skin.”

I know the expression, “comfortable in one’s own skin,” but I don’t know the idiom, “inhabit different person’s skin.”

To me, to live different person’s skin is felt like to live wearing a mask of somebody else. What does “inhabit a different person’s skin” mean? Is it a popular idiom or turn of phrase?

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    That's basically what it means. Imagining you're a different skin colour than you are—if you're white, imagine what it's like to be black or Asian or Mexican, etc. Jan 16, 2017 at 7:52
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    An expression with related meaning is "Walk a mile in someone else's shoes." In both instances the idea being expressed is that we learn what life is like for someone else (who is very different from us) by imagining ourselves in his or her circumstances—an especially difficult task across barriers of physical, cultural, and economic difference.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jan 16, 2017 at 7:54

1 Answer 1


The more common form of the idiom in the United States (to judge from Google Books search results) is "inhabit someone else's skin." An article in Elementary English, volume 50, issue 1 (1973) [combined snippets] mentions the phrase as part of a description of a creative writer:


The creative writer is involved with what he learns about life. He is concerned. Life makes him bitter, happy, cynical, hopeful, believing, skeptical, amused, and angry. He has sympathy, and that special kind of sympathy we call empathy. He can imagine what it is like to inhabit someone else's skin, what are the implications of an event. He wonders what if...and he cares.

Even earlier is this example from The New York Times Biographical Service, volume 1 (1970):

"In truth, when I entered the theater it was in order to understand myself more profoundly. When I inhabit someone else's skin, it enables me to discover my own secrets—and this is the great point of departure in the theater. And it is that which makes us become actors. Of course one can take up the acting profession in order to withdraw from the true problems of life. One chooses the dream because it is not real—or one chooses the dream because it is more than real. But when an actor embraces the theater in order to run from life, the results show a narcissism and exhibitionism that do not really belong to the theater."

As both of these instances suggest the sense of the expression is to imagine oneself so thoroughly in the place of someone else that one feels that other person's unhappiness, happiness, and day-to-day concerns so thoroughly that one's focus and reference points align with the other person's temporarily. This is essentially the second meaning of empathy as defined by Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003):

empathy n (1850) 1 : the imaginative projection of a subjective state into an object so that the object appears to be infused with it 2 : the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this

It's interesting that the notion of "inhabiting someone else's skin" doesn't necessarily imply a skin of a different color. Any skin (that is, any other person) is different enough from our own that imagining inhabiting it is a challenge to one's comprehension, awareness, and sympathy for others.

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