Thursday, August 4, 2016

On Empathy and Race

In a previous post, I discussed the importance of empathy in communication, especially when it comes to issues of sexuality. But there’s another hot-button issue where empathy is just as important, or more so: race.

I grew up in a white family, where my parents almost never mentioned race. I had Black, Hispanic and Asian friends, and I don’t think I reacted differently to them because of their race. I just thought of them as friends. But what I didn’t understand was that my friends of different races have very different life experiences than I did.

Race is not a biological category. There is no “gene” for race. It’s a social construct based on certain physical characteristics that are common in people whose ancestors lived in certain parts of the world. But the fact that it’s a social construct doesn’t mean it’s not real. It’s real enough to be one of the first things people notice when they look at someone. It’s real enough to have been the source of tremendous amounts of conflict in history and today. It’s real enough to affect people’s lives profoundly and even to cut those lives short.

I attended a celebration for a mime group’s anniversary at a mostly Black church in South Bend. One of the men who led the group stood up and talked about how miming had affected his life. He announced with pride that of the young men who started the mime group with him years before, all of them were still alive, except for one who had died of a disease. There was a murmur of surprise and a few shouts of “Amen!” It took me a minute to realize what he was talking about. This man was amazed that none of the teenage boys who started the group had been shot! I’ve never had to worry about one of my friends being killed. He was living in a whole different world than I was. 

Of course, that's not to say that all African-Americans have the same experiences either. It just means that we should be cautious  in thinking we know what life in America is like. Life for us can be very  different from what life is like for others.

I’m really not qualified to write about anyone’s experiences other than my own. I did get a taste of what being a racial minority was like when I lived in Taiwan. But that doesn’t tell me much about what it’s like to be an African American, for example. The only way to understand others’ experiences is to listen to them. Ask questions. Resist the urge to interrupt and change the subject to your own experiences. Recent events have shown just how much racial tension is present in America. There’s a lot that needs to be done to fix it. But the first, most basic step is to listen and empathize.

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