I’m glad people like the empathy symbol. But to be perfectly honest, perhaps sometimes it should be drawn with the line dividing the two sides, not down the middle, but over to the side. Maybe 1/4, 3/4. Because quite often, while we say that two sides should “reach out and open up to understand each other’s feelings and experiences”, it is true that one of those sides–the majority side–is more well-known to the other than vice versa. Black people already pretty much know what the white experience is, because it’s what they see in the media all the time. Disabled people can see what life is like for able-bodied people, because it’s all around them. Gay people know what it’s like to be straight, because that’s all they see in romantic comedies. Jews know what it’s like to experience everyday life as a Christian–it surrounds them every December for an entire month.
And so, truthfully, it is often mostly incumbent on those in the majority to try to understand the experiences and feelings of those in the minority.
It’s been very interesting, following the Ferguson, MO shooting (and previously, the Trayvon Martin shooting) to see the media cover what it is actually like to be black in America in the 2000’s. The “post-racial” society. Only, clearly, not so much. It’s important to hear this from a general viewpoint, and from a personal viewpoint.
In the Star Tribune of Sept. 5th, Sara Adams writes from the very personal vantage point of a mother of two sons–one white, one black. How heart-wrenching for her to see her black son stopped at the end of their driveway by the police, and forced to put his key in the door to prove he lived there. How awful to fear for her black son, as she does not have to for her white son, that as he has gotten to be a young man, he will be stopped and harassed, possibly seriously, possible lethally. For good reason. She’s already experienced having her black 17-year-old son detained by the police for curfew violation, while they let his white friends go home. She says, “My white son has never been exposed to this kind of treatment. When he gets in trouble, he is gently reprimanded, reminded that he’s a role model, and told to go home and think about it.” She called her experience raising a black son and a white son “eye-opening.” You should read her story. It will open your eyes.
Jon Stewart described, on a recent Daily Show, how a producer and a correspondent for his show went into a New York City building, the white producer dressed like a “homeless elf”, as he humorously put it, and the black correspondent dressed “resplendently” in a tailored suit. As he said, “Guess who was stopped?” He ended this powerful 9-minute segment on race in America by saying, “You’re tired of hearing about it? Imagine how f**king exhausting it is living it.”
That’s what empathy asks us to do. Imagine life as someone else. Someone of a different culture, a different skin color, a different sexual orientation. Imagine it, and see it as a fully human experience. Just different, in some ways. And of course, similar in many other ways, since we are all human beings, after all.
The media has been very remiss in presenting life in all its variations. Apparently, there will be some new TV shows on ABC this fall about racial minorities. “Black-ish”, a sitcom about an African-American family, based on the writer’s own family. And it will dare to mention things like racial profiling and Ferguson, because that is actually the reality of the African-American experience. Hopefully, white American audiences will see this not as a black sitcom for black viewers, but as a sitcom about an interesting, truthful and funny portrayal of a black family. Same goes for the comedies that ABC will be putting on this year about a Latino family, and an Asian immigrant family.
So here is my plea: people in the 3/4 group, please acknowledge: empathy and understanding are not always a 50/50 deal.