The First Step Toward Being an Ally: Empathy
“Ally.” It’s a buzzword you hear frequently. People who are white, heterosexual, male, Christian, etc. want to be allies to those who are in a more marginalized or oppressed group. But how? In this month of June, as we celebrate both Juneteenth and Gay Pride, let’s think about that.
The first steps are listening and learning. Listen to those in the “other” groups to hear what they want from allies (and it will vary from person to person–no group is a monolith; every group consists of individuals who will have some experiences, thoughts and feelings in common, and some pertinent to each person.) Learn about the experiences, thoughts and feelings of those in these “other” groups.
In other words, we start from a base of empathy. If you have empathy for another person unlike yourself, you will want to be their ally and will understand better how to do so in a respectful and helpful way.
There are lots of ways to increase our empathy for others. Learning opportunities abound. Commit to reading books that will help you understand others, including their history. The history of racist oppression/slavery; the history of slaughtering and evicting Native peoples from their land; the history of women being unable to have any legal rights without their husbands’ say so; the history of having to hide who you are (gay) and pretend to be someone you are not; the history of being distrusted and shunned and treated as “less than.” History is what the present is built on, and it has continuing impact on people today.
There are so many excellent choices in non-fiction (for example, Caste: The Origins of our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson); in memoirs, to get a more personal viewpoint (for example, The Yellow House by Sarah Broom); in fiction (for example, A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza). An excellent starting place is Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. As the library description says, “What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden? Between the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s attempt to answer these questions in a letter to his adolescent son. Coates shares the story of his awakening to the truth about his place in the world through a series of revelatory experiences, from Howard University to Civil War battlefields, from the South Side of Chicago to Paris, from his childhood home to the living rooms of mothers whose children’s lives were taken as American plunder.” Mr. Coates is a brilliant and luminous writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and is highly recommended.
Other media opportunities for increasing empathy are readily available. Many streaming series are set in other cultures; many movies feature persons of color, other cultures, LGBTQ people, deaf people, and so on. Basically, exposing ourselves often to people and groups not like ourselves normalizes their experiences and lives for us, humanizes them, and broadens the scope of our understanding.
And of course, getting to know others personally is crucial. Go to human rights meetings in your community. Visit other churches. Choose to live in mixed neighborhoods. Get to know the people you work with. Attend Pride events, and cultural celebrations in your community. Talk to the person sitting next to you at the PTO meeting at your child’s school.
We are an increasingly multi-dimensional society, and the opportunities to expand our empathy are endless.