Fighting the Empathy Dearth: How Do We Feel What Has Not Been Ours To Feel?

Even a blind Republican could see that Brett Kavanaugh was lying last week…about his drinking history, at the very least. The sight so many powerful men choosing to ignore this professedly devout Christian’s breaking of the 9th Commandment filled me, like so many others, with disgust.

Dr. Christine Blasey Ford swearing in (courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

But the root of their hypocrisy and misogyny is something more basic, and more troubling…a dearth of empathy. These men simply cannot see life through a woman’s eyes.

This may sound shocking, but guys–I understand. As a white person, I’ve been struggling for some time now to see our world, country, daily life for goodness’ sake! from the perspective of a person of color.

Empathy is HARD.

Empathy requires humility: “How much in the past have I unwittingly been part of the white supremacist structure?”

Empathy requires focus: “Imagine how Philando Castile’s family is feeling right now, as the President–ooh, shiny! Gotta revise my to-do list. Do I need to get milk?…wait, where was I? Oh yeah, Philando Castile…”

Empathy requires commitment: “I’m going to read this book/listen to this podcast/have this conversation even though it’s going to make me horribly uncomfortable about being white.”

And empathy requires change. What kind of change? Depends. Which means empathy also requires acceptance. Which brings us back to humility.

Not the dominant trait of white male Senators. It hasn’t had to be. What kind of humiliation have they ever experienced? I’m not talking about work performance or being rejected by a girl on the dance floor. When have they ever been humbled, brought low, much less threatened, because of their race and gender?

Individually, it appears possible to infuse empathy by trapping a lone white male Senator in an elevator. But there isn’t a big enough elevator for all the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, and if there were more than one in there at a time, they’d just maintain eye contact with each other.

Out of ideas, out of elevators, I’m back to this: Empathy is hard, and I’m going to stick to my own work in that department. If you’re white and working on your own work, please read on.

I owe these excerpts to several women, who have passed them along: first, author Iris Graville. Second, author Heidi Barr, whose post Listen to Black Women Iris re-blogged. Third, and most importantly, author/teacher Layla F. Saad, whose post I Need to Talk to Spiritual White Women was listed as a resource on Heidi’s blog.

Layla F. Saad, photo by Anter Blackbird on Saad’s blog

This passage from Layla Saad struck me especially as I think about the empathy dearth. Notice how many times she uses the word “imagine.”

…I am a black muslim woman. I carry within me both the experience from my own lifetime of racism and discrimination, and the collective trauma of belonging to a people who were slaves for centuries.

Last year… I remember reading about the witch burnings. And how, as women and modern day witches and priestesses, we carry this trauma of being burned with us even today. And how that fear holds us back from speaking up and being seen in our full wild mystic power. I see many women in the spiritual community who understand just how much of a trauma this is for women, and who are doing the deep work of healing the witch wound and reclaiming their right to be here in their full authentic presence.

But can you imagine how it is for people of colour?

Can you imagine the trauma we carry from centuries of slavery, police brutality, discrimination and racial hatred?

The witch burnings happened at one period of time and yet we still remember. Imagine how it is for black people and people of colour. The hateful treatment against us never ended. It just went underground. And now it is resurfacing, emboldened by leaders like Donald Trump and others like him.

This weekend the KKK marched without their hoods. Do you understand what that means?

Can you imagine if a powerful group rose up in the western country you live in who wanted to burn women as witches, and they were seen as being legitimised by the country’s president? That sounds ridiculous right? And yet an angry mob of KKK white supremacists just marched with burning torches screaming racist and anti-semitic slogans in Charlottesville USA this weekend. And Donald Trump and others have said too little, too late.

Can I imagine how it is for Black folks in this country? Not fully…but it is my responsibility to try. Can men imagine how it is for women in this country? Not fully…but it is their responsibility to try.

Anecdotes, personal stories…those seem to work better. Here’s one from Saad:

The house I grew up in, in Wales, was right next to a children’s park.

My brother and I would go there everyday by ourselves, especially when the weather was good, to play on the swings and slides. We loved that park.

But one day, when I was about 6 or 7 years old, a new boy started coming to play at the park.

And the first time I saw him, he sneered at me and told me that my skin was the colour of poop.

My face still feels red just thinking about it. I felt so ashamed. I couldn’t say a thing. All I felt was the shame of being in the skin that I was in. Of not being white like everyone else. I ran straight home with tears in my eyes.

After that day I refused to go to the park anymore without my mum. I never told her what happened. I felt too ashamed to even say it to her. I believed that everyone must be laughing at me and people who looked like me, because our skin looked like the colour of poop. I took that shame and buried it deep inside myself. I internalised this idea that I was other. That I was in some way, wrong. And that I was less than. And most damaging of all, that I did not deserve to be seen, because you know, my skin was the colour of poop. I recognise how ridiculous that sounds now, but as a 7 year old I took it as total truth.

As I make my way forward into this week, I will continue the work of empathy, creating my own “elevator moments” through reading and listening…and pondering the question, “How can we help someone feel what has not been theirs to feel?”

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