Empathy in Action – The start of a Conversation

Note: I wrote this essay at the end of May shortly after George Floyd was murdered.  Since then, I have immersed myself in as much anti-racist thinking as I can.  I’m raising two young children so it is challenging to find time to think and write and learn.  But really, it is my children that remind me every day how important it is to do this work.  My partner, my kids, my family inspires me to go deeper.  I am privileged to be able to do this work.  I believe my thinking on Race is maturing and my drive to do better is more solid since I wrote this piece.  It was my starting point back in May.  It is still relevant.  I’m ready to share it.  And I’m ready to have more conversations about the actions needed for us ALL to prosper in this diverse and complicated and beautiful world.  

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i was running through the elementary school parking lot near my house and i noticed a parked police car. the white male officer sitting in the car was concentrating on his phone.  i thought of Ahmaud Arbery, shot down while he was jogging through a neighborhood.  i tried to imagine how i would feel in that moment if i was a black man and not a white woman.  i wondered if the officer might look harder at me. i picked up my pace, wanting to get away from the whole ugly truth: that i am more safe because i am white.

i fear there is something terribly broken in the white race right now.  something missing.  a hollowness.  like an empty shell tumbling along the ocean bottom.  there is an apathy.  like we missed a turn, got ourselves lost but have just given up finding the way back. there is a defensiveness.  we are masters at carving out the center of our face to spite it. a callousness. no longer able to feel our frozen skin or the creeping frostbite.

where is our empathy? replaced by fear?

is it a fear of being wrong? fear of losing?  are we now equating compassion with weakness?  we indulge our obsession with power then define it as brute strength because we lack the nuance of grace. we blind ourselves to the mirror, rather than seeking a thoughtful self-reflection.  we water down the content of our character hoping to wash ourselves of reality. we are convinced that speaking the truth is somehow about seeing both sides.  when, in the world that suffers, there is only one side. that of the bodies that suffer.

i lived in houston for a time when i was younger. while i lived there i got pulled over for speeding a few times.  one of the times i was smoking a cigarette when the police officer (a white male) approached my window.  as he arrived at the driver door i dropped my cigarette out the window, stupidly, so that i could have my hands free to get my driver’s license.  the cigarette fell at his feet, embers and ashes blowing onto his boots.  “young lady,” he scolded, “disposing of a combustible material on an interstate is a federal crime.  that’s a $3,000 fine.”  apologizing, probably with attitude, i jerked on the door handle, swung open my door, snatched up the smoldering cigarette butt and tossed it in my cup holder.  he proceeded to write me a speeding ticket.  he did not cite me for “disposing of a combustible material.”  if i had been black, that story would likely have ended differently.  i think of Sandra Bland.

i understand the urge to disown our ugliness.  the urge to pivot away from a painfully obvious truth, in order to avoid the possibility of blame.  i understand the urge to refuse owning mistakes. many of us white folks talk a big game about personal responsibility.  we preach about the meritocracy so much that we have turned it into a religion. where meritocracy is the religion and what-about-ism is the gospel, real conversations do not happen and thus, true equality can never thrive. because in this country, the so-called ‘merits’ are defined by white people. in this country ‘merit’ has always been defined by white people. 

but where is our personal responsibility here?  why are we (white people) so afraid to own these awful parts of our history?  why are we so intent to retell the story? or forget it? or cover it up?  does taking responsibility mean we will cease to exist?  does it mean we will be punished?  does it dishonor us so much to acknowledge the pain we’ve caused?  does it mean we will have to help clean up the mess we made? and make no mistake, it is our (white people’s) mess.  the sooner we (white people) own this fact, the faster we can begin to heal.

how do we own it?  we can start with empathy.

empathy is hard.  true empathy does not have sides.  it does not ask about right or wrong.  empathy sees suffering and feels it alongside.  empathy takes pain and sorrow, anger and resentment and does not try to explain them away. it holds them close.  it only wants to stand with humans. it meets human bodies where they are rather than seeking a halfway point. It becomes The Other. empathy for one does not exclude empathy for another.  it is all encompassing.  it extends to both oppressor and oppressed.  it is the heart that breaks for both the wicked and the worthy.

becoming a mother has taught me much about empathy.  i work hard every day to validate the feelings of my babies, even when i don’t want to. even when i disagree.  even when i am too busy.  and i fail at this sometimes. maybe more than i care to admit.  but i keep trying.  i can’t sit in my failure. i can’t wallow in the ways i might have messed up.  i can only keep trying.  i can only continue reaching for my empathy.

we (white people) are broken and we (white people) have broken things. and our personal and public systems of privilege continue to make such messes.  it is time for empathy.  it is time to leave the fear of being labeled racist behind for it is our truth, no matter how many ways we try to tell the story.  we cannot wallow, or wait until we feel better about ourselves.  we have to keep trying.  keep reaching for our empathy.  in this country, where generations were classified and punished and murdered, are still being classified, punished and murdered for the color of their skin, we are privileged. and we are racist.  i am racist. i am the racist institutions from which i have benefited and about which i have remained willfully ignorant.

but we can change.

were the color of my skin something other than white, my life would be harder in this country.  if George Floyd were white, he would not be dead.  this is the plain and simple truth.  i will own this truth.  and i will weep for it.  grieve for it.  i mourn for the suffering whiteness has caused. and i cry for those whose hearts are hardened to that suffering.  hardened by fear.  by shame.

But, there is no time for self-flagellation.  the time for grief is over.  we must move beyond our shame. we must be brave.  it is time for empathy in action.  it is time to clean up our mess.  to see the suffering and work to make it stop.   i will start by consciously choosing to spend my dollars at businesses owned by people of color. i will actively work to diversify my job.  i will continue to talk to white people about our racism and how to be anti-racist.  i will donate to organizations working for social justice.  i will volunteer to help disenfranchised people to vote. i will listen and learn. and change. listen and learn and change again.

empathy is the cleansing fire with which we will consume the hatred. it will clear the path to the hearts and minds that need love. that need our understanding.  our courage.  our unconditional support.  i weep with the Mothers who bury their babies. the Mothers who fear for their babies. the Mothers that fight for their babies.  but from those tears, action must bloom. within our white bodies and minds, we must grow.

and we can. and we will. together.

be brave.  be resilient.  be open.  be love.

peace and strength to you, my friends.

One thought on “Empathy in Action – The start of a Conversation

  1. Incredible piece, Amye. I am moved beyond words at your raw and truthful look at our lives, your soul and the world we have and need to shape. Such a blessing to read and share. 🤎

    Liked by 1 person

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