The Power of Empathy

As a school counselor, it wasn’t unusual for me to sit face-to-face with a student (or parent, or teacher) who came to me complaining about the way they were being treated by another student or teacher.  Our conversations might go something like this:

 

Michael:  Mrs. Anderson doesn’t like me.  Today, she pointed me out in front of my friends and told me to shut my mouth. I’m telling my mom to call the Principal.

Me:  I can see that upset you a lot.

Michael:  Hell yeah!  I wasn’t even talking that much– Jordan was the one mouthing off.  She embarrassed me in front of everybody in the class.

Me:  Well, I agree it wasn’t appropriate for her to tell you to shut your mouth.  Now, let’s look at it from her point of view.

Michael:  Huh?!

Me:  What was she doing at the time?

Michael:  She was lecturing on photosynthesis or some stupid thing.  Boring.

Me:  What’s her job?

Michael:  Well, to be a teacher of course.

Me:  So, she was trying to teach the class – her job.  But people were talking over her, making it hard for the others to hear the lesson.  Right?

Michael:  Yeah…

Me:  So, imagine you’re the teacher in that situation.  How do you feel?

Michael: Pissed off.  But I wasn’t the only one talking.

Me:  Oh, I agree she shouldn’t have singled you out, and I’ll tell her if you want me to that you were upset at that.  She may not have even realized she upset you. 

Michael:  No, you don’t have to do that.  I admit, I was being a jerk too.  It’s no big deal.

 

To me, empathy is a personal quality we should all strive to use every day.  If you have the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes, you have a gift from God.  As Jesus said, “He that is without sin among you, let him cast a stone…” (John 8:7). It’s so very easy for us to “cast stones.”  There are so many things in our society to complain about, and so little empathy for those who don’t look and act like we do.  As a white person, born into the privilege established by our white, European forefathers, it is impossible for me to fully understand the systemic racism that exists in what we all believe is the greatest country in the world. But it is possible for me to try to intellectually attempt to put myself in the place of its victims. To be considered a threat when I’m just enjoying a jog down the street; to be told not to wear my hood up, no matter the weather, because it will be assumed I am up to no good; to be watched with an eagle eye as I browse through the garments on the rack; to be pulled over in my car for little or no reason and then threatened with arrest if I question the authority who stopped me; to be wrongfully incarcerated because to the white witness “all black people look alike”;  to be told I only got a promotion because of reverse discrimination…the list goes on and on because it happens over and over again.

 

A few days ago, I watched the movie Detroit, a true story which takes place during the 1967 Detroit race riots. An innocent group of young people partying in a motel room are lined up against the wall and held hostage for hours by Detroit law enforcement -intimidated, tortured, beaten, and three even murdered – victims of the interrogation tactics used by officers to rout out a gun mistakenly thought to have been shot out the window at police patrolling the area.  The central issue of this interrogation is an assumption about race – that the group of kids are criminals – even more particularly because there are two white girls in the group. I could palpably feel the terror of those young people, not knowing what would happen next, fearing they would not leave the building alive, angry at the disgusting racial epithets and accusations with which they were bombarded.  And then I was indignant that the perpetrators of this travesty weren’t convicted by the white jury despite overwhelming evidence against them. If only one officer had been brave enough to put a stop to the terrorism, lives would have been saved, but, just as today, the blue wall of silence prevailed.

 

My first thought after the movie and comment to my husband, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, was, “Fifty-three years and not a damn thing has changed.” It has been fifty-six years since the most sweeping civil rights legislation of all time was passed in our country, and yet people of color still have the highest poverty rate, the highest mortality rate, the greatest incarceration rate, the highest unemployment rate, the greatest health issues, and the poorest educational opportunities.  Fifty-six years! How can that be?  In 1964, computers were as big as a room – now we hold them in the palm of our hands.  Men have walked on the moon and live in giant space stations.  Enormous flat screen TVs with numerous viewing options have taken the place of small black and white sets with grainy pictures and only three channels to choose from. Writing letters has given way to the far more expedient Facetime and email. The library’s unwieldy card catalog has been replaced by the touch of a finger on a keyboard. Why have we made so little progress on racial equality and justice?

 

Perhaps the greatest advance of all, the Internet, has shined a bright light on racial injustice. It’s there for everyone to witness. We white people have a choice – we can be defensive with all our “yes buts,” like our outrage over the horrific riots, deflecting the focus away from systemic racism.  Or we can be empathetic. I was appalled at an acquaintance's comment on Facebook that George Floyd started it all by trying to pass a fake $20 bill, as if the natural result of this egregious crime would be for police to slowly asphyxiate the perpetrator.  Yet, who among us has never run a red light or driven over the speed limit – far more dangerous ways of breaking the law?  We have choices when racial tensions boil over like they have in recent days.  We can complain vociferously without truly trying to understand why people of color are angry, we can remain silent, we can deny that institutional racism exists, we can make excuses and become defensive, or we can empathize. We can sincerely put ourselves in their place and ask ourselves what racist attitudes we still harbor within ourselves.

 

We all have prejudices.  It’s human nature to be mistrustful of those who are different from us.  I’m the first to admit that I’m ashamed of the insensitive comments and actions I have made and taken, even though no malice was intended. I am not casting blame and claiming to be woke, though I think we all have a responsibility to fight against injustice.  But above all I think we all need to practice empathy – to look at things through the other person’s eyes without jumping to conclusions immediately.  If everyone would do that with an open mind, the world would, without doubt, be a better place.

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