Radical empathy and more lack thereofs (Part 3)

Dear President Trump,

Even though I’d rather fuss at you about any number of things, it feels important to instead tell you about a couple of concrete examples where I’ve caught myself behaving in ways that lacked empathy for black people since there’s little point in just focusing on these issues in the abstract.

The first one has to do with the faces in pain study I told you about yesterday. The article includes reproductions of the face pictures the participants were shown where the rows of 11 white and 11 black faces are stacked so that you can look and see whether the two respective #6 faces, for example, look comparably pained. As I was looking at the two sets of stimuli, I started picking apart minute details, focusing on how this or that made the white faces look especially pained and I caught myself spending far more time looking at and studying the white faces and mentally breezing by the black faces. I feel somewhat ill typing this, but it also feels important to own up to it as a first (or maybe second) step in trying to correct it.

The second example is from church. Our pastor, who I’ve told you before is African American, sat in on the end of our rehearsal of Bob Marley’s Redemption Song. She asked us what we think the song is about and a few of us ventured thoughts, but it was clear we were missing the mark. She explained that Marley was describing things that most dominant ears miss, that he meant very literally that all he and other blacks coming out of a legacy of bondage had to keep their spirits up were redemption songs. She also said the line “have no fear for atomic energy” means that it’s absurd to worry about the dangers of atomic energy when people are in bondage, when people are starving; definitely not something about the wonders of a powerfully free mind like we’d come up with last week.

Obviously there can be multiple interpretations of songs or art. Where I got queasy was in noticing my mental response to our pastor’s interpretations. Basically, I got quite huffy and tried to argue with her in my head because I felt uncomfortable and defensive about how very far apart our takes were and having this attributed to our perspectives being limited by our privilege. When I have the luxury of distance, I’m all good with allowing that one’s perspective is informed by one’s life circumstance and we all have lots of need to work to overcome our implicit biases, but it’s an entirely different thing to be called out, however lovingly, for them.

May those of us who need to, be willing to speak up and teach.
May those of us who need to, be willing to step back and listen.
May those of us who need to, be willing to check our egos.
May we all recognize our need to make peace with ourselves and one another.

Sincerely,
Tracy Simpson

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