Since the mainstream media picked up the coverage of Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2012, we have seen stories involving race move from the margins to the mainstream. Words such as “white privilege” that were once uttered only in academic and racial justice spaces have become normalized. It is no longer uncommon for white people to recognize that they exist in a bubble with privileges bestowed upon them simply because their skin is white.
When I first started writing about race in Maine back in 2003, hardly anyone wanted to touch the topic; now the level of people reaching out and thanking me for my words has started to outweigh the number of people telling me to go back to where I came from. Trust me, after years of death threats and hate mail, I welcome the shift but it is only the beginning.
We are starting to reach a tipping point when it comes to understanding racism in America, but before we put on our party hats and break out the bubbly, we need to stop and reflect. Because while we most certainly have seen a racial shift, that knowledge alone isn’t going to turn the tide and create an accepting and welcoming society that supports all regardless of race. No, we are only at the beginning of the journey.
What is missing far too often is racial empathy. Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Racial empathy requires more than understanding the mechanics of racism, especially because too often a basic understanding of racism and the mechanism of white privilege is used to still excuse often atrocious behavior in an era where far too many of us are living in racialized silos.
Even with the explicit understanding of racism becoming normalized, we still must unearth the implicit biases that we hold that are often key to keeping us in racialized silos. When you unearth the implicit, you realize that the choices you make have a far greater meaning than you once understood them to be. You understand that when you seek the “good schools” and the “good neighborhoods,” often that “good” that you seek is a deep-seated way of avoiding the uncomfortable. And that discomfort often arises from too many people with tan or brown skin tones.
When you have racial empathy, words such as but rarely come up in the context of discussing race, and you start to connect the dots and strive for change that affects all. Racial empathy gives us the courage to speak up and speak out because, when we have empathy and not merely sympathy, we don’t see ourselves as wholly separate from those whom we stand in solidarity with. We aren’t merely being better or good people when our racial praxis comes from a place of empathy.
In the past several weeks, two almost freak occurrences in the media (in terms not only of the circumstances but how closely both occurred to each other chronologically) have brought home to me how important racial empathy is and how lacking it still is. One family is at a zoo enjoying the day when a scamp of a toddler suddenly finds himself in the gorilla encasement…in order to ensure the safety of the child, the gorilla is put down. Media frenzy ensues with the child’s mother being publicly dragged and investigated for possibly being negligent. The authorities ultimately decided that there was no wrongdoing but not before using racially coded language to describe the mother.
Another family is enjoying a vacation at Disney World when a child is snatched up by an alligator in a wading lagoon; unfortunately in this case the child doesn’t survive, in what has to be every parent’s nightmare. Disney is seen as a magical and safe place; no one goes to Disney expecting the unthinkable. And while a handful of vocal miscreants have blamed the parents, for the most part the general public mourns with this second family and their privacy is respected.
In both instances, the families were going about their lives doing what families do. Yet the overall public response to each incident reveals a lot about who we see and empathize with without question. The zoo family was Black and the Disney family was white, and for those saying that race is irrelevant, I would say to look larger. The media framing of a story itself is very often an example of how racial empathy matters. The fact that when tragedy or misfortune strikes a Black family, they are subject to intense scrutiny and there is so often almost a need to prove themselves worthy of empathy and human kindness…and that speaks volumes. Typically racial empathy is only extended to non-white people who closely mirror white norms. Rarely is white misfortune pathologized and scrutinized and deemed unworthy of humanity and empathy, except in the most extreme and heinous of situations. And even in heinous situations sometimes; we’ve seen white mass killers and other equally atrocious wrongdoers get media examinations exploring their victimization or marginalization to evoke some level of empathy for them.
While one could say that I am getting into the weeds, I believe these differences matter because they hold the key to how we are going to navigate from the head space of grasping racism to the heart space of actively dismantling racism and being agents of change within our own sphere.
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