Radical empathy (Part 1)

Dear President Trump,

I suppose it doesn’t matter too, too much where I start, no matter what angle one approaches it from, it’s sad, infuriating, and overwhelming. But it does feel important to get the story straight and to tell it reasonably well since it’s one that so many of us white people have a terrifically hard time grasping and holding onto. Actually, it’s not really a story at all, or certainly not a work of fiction – it’s a very real thing that plays out hundreds of thousands of times a day in this strange country of ours. What I’m taking about is most white people’s failure of empathy for black people, our (speaking as a white person) inability to take their point of view, to truly see them.

I think the best place to start is with some history since it helps make clear that we’ve all been living with this for a long, long time. Susan Lanzoni, a white-appearing Harvard historian who studies empathy, wrote a relevant WP opinion piece the other day. She draws a straight line between Gov. Northam’s current lack of empathy regarding his medical school yearbook blackface picture and how in 1964 in response to a group of white, self-ascribed liberal men who persisted in making obtuse, disrespectful assertions, James Baldwin told them that the white liberal’s unconscious biases “blind him to the fact that in talking to a black man, he is talking to another man like himself.”

Lanzoni informs us that professor Kenneth B. Clark was the only other African American in the room and that he stood up and concurred with Baldwin. She goes on to give us a sense of Clark’s life’s work, telling us that he and his wife Mamie Phipps Clark were instrumental in amassing scientific evidence showing how destructive the “separate but equal” education system was for black children. Clark argued that many a white liberal lacks empathy for blacks and that cultivating empathy takes real work. Essentially, white people have to be willing to acknowledge our biases and willing to allow that true empathy and true equality will mean letting go of our privileged status. Lanzoni puts it thusly: “’Empathic reason,’ as Clark called it, was more than a feeling: it was a political intervention.” She closes with “To understand someone different from us, we have to change ourselves.”

I also think it’s critical that we (and yes, I’m still talking to you) are clear that many among us have to understand people who are different from them to survive and to just make it through the day. And, lots of us have had the luxury of not even knowing we are clueless, blithely going about our business as though our point of view is pretty much universally shared. This has to stop. It must. For all our sakes.

May we all be safe to be seen.
May those of us who need to check ourselves be willing to do so.
May we see that loving, radical empathy is healthy for us all.
May we make peace with our shortcomings so we can overcome them.

Tracy Simpson

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