When you form opinions about other people, what do you take into consideration? Until recently, I felt that I was doing the right thing by disregarding external appearances and prioritizing the inner self: personality, character, words and actions, how one treats oneself and others, etc. I took pride in connecting with people in this fashion because I was able to focus on what I believe matters most about an individual. Today, I think differently. Race has become an external attribute I can no longer afford to look past. The murder of George Floyd, increased violence towards Asian Americans, the capitol insurrection, and the passing of restrictive voting laws which will disproportionately affect minority communities’ access to the ballot are but a few of the many events which have moved me towards this change of heart.
The emotions I felt when I picked up my collegiate alma mater’s alumni magazine and read stories, recollections and reflections on racial injustice in America as experienced by many Black individuals in our college community ultimately compelled me to give greater consideration to race when relating to the people of color I already know, who I find out about through the media and who I am yet to meet. These stories resonated with me in ways that I could not have anticipated. They urged me to place myself in the shoes of the storytellers who were either experiencing or observing sometimes gut-wrenching discrimination. They called on me to empathize.
A white teacher makes her Black student feel as though he is little more than a disruption, telling him “you need to stay out of my way.” A group of Black basketball players is cursed at and told by a police officer to leave a public basketball court after a group of white kids, not with a basketball but with skateboards, comes along and tells the officer that the basketball players are in their way. A young Black girl having to witness police officers “in my father’s face” as he was mowing his own lawn, then was asked to show identification even after the officers had been told that he lived there, her mother running to get his ID to give to the officers, and the officers nonchalantly walking away without apologizing. Three Black kids’ trip to the movies, ending with a man driving at them in his car and then following them out of town. A Black girl narrowly beating a white girl at a swimming competition and is given a ribbon instead of the 1st place medal she deserves, arguably because she didn’t win convincingly enough such that the judges were able to get away with this.
It is very understandable, once these and other stories like them come to light, why too many Black individuals, including these storytellers, feel targeted, hunted and/or traumatized. Why one of the storytellers views being Black as a test of how much distress one is able to tolerate on a daily basis. Why another looks at a white protester’s social media post or appearance at a protest as not being enough. Why another feels that equity and justice would have happened a long time ago if a majority believed in them and if government enforced them, and another’s longing for white individuals to listen to and believe the experiences of Blacks.
Clearly, race matters, but often for the wrong reasons, as these and a multitude of other stories told by people of color make clear. Martin Luther King, Jr. was spot on when he asserted that the content of one’s character matters more. When I relate to a person of color whose community has historically been unfairly marginalized, I have my eyes wide open to skin color, but not because I am looking for a reason to judge or to discriminate. Because acknowledging a person of color’s race reminds me to step inside her shoes and imagine what she has probably been through and the kinds of adversity with which she may very well be struggling. I am reminded to empathize.
One day when I was in 5th grade, I was bullied by a Black schoolmate during recess. Everything went dark and the next thing I knew, I found myself lying on the blacktop with him standing over me and a bunch of other kids circled around me. Back then, I knew that I was vulnerable because I knew that I was different. A learning disability, and as of yet undiagnosed autism spectrum disorder, quirky, idiosyncratic, often socially awkward behaviors and inadequate adult supervision on the playground essentially rendered me a sitting duck. I also knew that the bully came from a rough neighborhood which had also been one of the more impoverished neighborhoods in town.
Not that these kinds of circumstances justify one person bullying another (nothing does), but I felt inclined to connect what I believed he was up against to his aggressive behavior toward me. He may have previously been bullied, as is true of many bullies, or had been subjected to other forms of adversity, quite possibly as a result of the color of his skin. He probably did not have access to the kind of help he likely needed in order to effectively cope with his challenges. Consequently, and regrettably, targeting others may have become a coping strategy for him. Both victims and bullies need and deserve help, but the proper help is often out of reach.
I make several assumptions here about the bully, any number of which may not have been true when we were 5th graders. My assumptions stem from what I knew to be true about him at the time (his race, his character and the kind of neighborhood in which he was growing up) and from efforts to better understand his situation. By placing myself in his shoes, a plausible, and broader, explanation surfaces as to why he went after me. Now I can reflect back on the incident not only from my own perspective but from his as well. Most importantly, by empathizing, I find a way to forgive, and he has been forgiven, even though he never apologized to me. Anger is an emotion that is best jettisoned and not bottled up inside. Forgiveness allowed me to do just that.
Empathy truly does work wonders. By exercising it, we become smarter as we endeavor to live in another person’s world. When practiced at a societal level, empathy has the potential to build bridges across cultural divides, and not just with respect to race. It encourages us to share our own stories about challenge and adversity which often leads to others empathizing with us and understanding us better than would otherwise be the case. We end up relating to each other on more positive terms which brings us closer together. Empathy can even inspire a victim of bullying to forgive his unapologetic aggressor and move on.
Let’s make the world a better place by working on re-connecting with each other. Whenever the opportunity presents itself, let’s lead with empathy!
Originally posted on TheHill.com.