Monday, February 22, 2016

On empathy.

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.
-Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird 

Harper Lee died last week. I was trying to think of what my next post would be, and when she came to mind, I thought, "Well, you can't write about her just because she died." And then I was reminded of this quote, and I thought I'd write a post about racism, because who better to school you on racism than a white girl who was raised in a middle class family?

Bear with me here.

The thing about empathy is that it requires you to see a whole world outside of yourself. It requires you to examine the "why" behind things. It almost demands that you leave some things unanswered, because there are some things you will just never understand, and you have to trust that one person's experience is just different than yours. Once you're able to do this, injustice and unfairness become so much clearer.

We're fed a version of history in US schools that isn't entirely true. Here is the truth: this country was built on a notion that white men are the best people. That is just a fact. Racism is in our foundation. A lot of people have fought against that, and we have come a long way, but the idea lingers and the smell of it is hard to eradicate. White privilege (and really, white MALE privilege) is real and pervasive. Some people think white privilege is the idea that life is easy for all white people, and all white people are privileged in the sense that they all have a ton of money and yachts and belong to country clubs. White privilege is something that is hard to understand for many white people because they've never lived without it, so they can't see it.

The Atticus quote made me immediately think of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Which also made me think of people posting on social media using the hashtags #AllLivesMatter and #PoliceLivesMatter, as if all of these things are mutually exclusive. They aren't. What bugs me about this is a lot of these people are people I know and love, and I know they just are not seeing the whole picture, and I don't know how to show them that without coming off as judgmental or preachy. And they rarely asking my opinion. 

I was in Ohio when the news came that there would be no charges filed in Michael Brown's death. One of my cousins, who I assume is pretty conservative, asked me what I thought about it. I was in reality furious and dismayed. But I wanted him to understand how I was thinking about it, as opposed to how I was FEELING about it, because I felt like he'd be able to relate to that better. So I said something like, "I do think charges should've been filed, but the more important thing is that whether or not the cops did anything wrong, the fact that the black community FEELS the way it feels is a real issue, and the fact that some cops treat minorities the way they do is something that needs to be addressed. I don't know how that gets fixed. But I feel bad that in America, where we are all supposed to be equal, there is a whole community that feels less-than, and they are not making it up." And he looked like he hadn't thought of it that way before. I don't know if I changed his mind about anything in that minute, but I know I made him think of it in a way he hadn't before, and that to me is a win.

Empathy is way better than anger when it comes to changing minds. I mean, I could even go into how you have to be empathetic toward terrorists before you can defeat them, but I'm not going to do that in this moment. I just wish everyone would ask why, and I wish everyone would be open to hearing the answers.

No comments: