Empathy for Racists?

I know you are thinking, “seriously? Empathy for racists? Is she really going there?” I really am.

I abhor racism. My definition of racism is that you treat someone in a substandard way simply because of their race. This could be systematic or individualized, there are many forms. As a woman I am familiar with “women’s issues” and wonder why the topic of the gender that accounts for half of the population on this earth merits a “special interest” kind of label. I’m guessing that is how it can feel to be a person of color;that is being treated like an anomaly when, depending on the location, you might be in the majority demographic. When you deal with the hard and soft realities of prejudice on a daily basis, you are living in a different frame that those not experiencing those realities. This is part of the disconnect when you hear a (usually white) person saying, “why does it always have to be about race?”. It is always about race because a person of color never experiences life in the same frame as a white person does in this country.

It’s undisputed that white people arrived in this country, conquered or killed most of its inhabitants, prospered off of the rich land, enslaved people of color, prospered off of their labor, and as a group have held more powerful positions than any other demographic in the land. That accumulation of power and position has only been shifted slightly by the election of our first black president; you certainly can’t undo hundreds of years of slavery, oppression and domination with 4 years of anything.

I mentioned the tragedy of Trayvon Martin in my post on Monday.  His story deserves more attention, it strikes a sickeningly visceral response. It is the story of a 17 year old African-American walking home to his dad’s house, inside a gated community, and getting shot to death by a self appointed captain of a neighborhood watch program. The second part of the tragedy is that the police on the scene reportedly misconducted themselves and have yet to find a justifiable cause to even arrest the man who admitted to shooting Trayvon.

Words can’t describe how twisted and wrong the facts of this story seem to me. Trayvon was holding candy and a beverage, chatting to a friend on his cell phone, the shooter is claiming self defense. Nothing about the facts on the ground adds up to a closed case.  A young man was murdered and the police are uninterested in the admitted murderer. How can this be possible (still)? What did the man have against the boy?

Part of the crazy making of this case is that we’d like to be discussing details, but the local police won’t even admit there’s a case. Because of the attention and outrage this travesty of justice has brought, he state and federal justice systems are coming in to investigate and to investigate the lack of an investigation. Maybe justice will eventually prevail, hopefully this means that there will be an opportunity for it to.

In reading about this and other stories, it is my habit to peruse the comments area under the article. I like to get a feel for how people are responding – it’s kind of like a self selected focus group transcript. The comments around this story reminds me that our racists roots are deep, alive and well. For a depressingly long list of hate filled quips, there is a collection here.  Racism really exists; some people really do start hating as soon as they see dark skin. Why?

One part of me doesn’t care why, I just want to be as far away from them as I can be, but another part of me knows that the racist pattern our society allows isn’t going to change without dealing with the issue. What must it be like to be that overtly racist? I have no idea but I’ll just pose some questions or suggestions.

What sort of home might you imagine a racist to be raised in? Would the parents be loving and nurturing? Violent? Insular or outspoken? What values were instilled? What was normal? What sort of upbringing does a racist have? What town was his stomping ground? Who did she listen to? What did their God say and do? What experiences does a racist have with the people they hate? Do they have a lot of negative experiences or no experience at all? Are they afraid for their safety or for their jobs? What does a racist do if, for example, their child decides to racially intermarry/reproduce? Who was a racist’s mom? Dad?

Of course there is no single racist prototype, these answers would vary from person to person, but asking them provides evidence that even racists are human too. A hard core racist uses profiling to provide supporting evidence to be judge, jury, and even executioner – we cannot do the same to break this pattern in our country. I am very angry with Trayvon’s shooter, but I can’t convict him yet – he needs to be charged and tried. He has a right to a fair trial which means no more or less consideration than any other.

What constructive discussion can possibly come from this? Well, the story gives us a chance to talk about the danger of racial profiling, about the process of allowing gun permits, about how the idea of self appointed authorities with guns don’t work, about the need for open and friendly neighborhoods instead of neighborhoods living in fear behind gates and strangers to each other. These issue hit core values of fairness, diversity, security, community, autonomy, personal and social responsibility, and a desire for peace. I have heard rumor that perhaps legally, due to Florida’s pro gun owner laws,  Trayvon’s shooter won’t be convicted of anything anyway because they have such a broad interpretation of allowable “self-defense” actions. This in itself is a travesty and if others have suffered death because of a heinous law, I hope this attention might help change it to consider the value of a human life.

Do I have empathy for racists? Maybe. If I were in a conversation with someone who is hostile to the pleas of Trayvon’s family – to at least arrest the killer – I would try to find out specifically why they felt the way they did. Since they did not know Trayvon (or fill in the name in another racially charged incident), the attitude is coming from somewhere else, and that would be the key to being able to empathize with them. Dig in if they will engage, and for a moment, try to reserve moral judgement.  If they or their tradition has been wronged by certain individuals or groups, that wrong must be acknowledged. Helping them find the roots of their aggression in a semi-public way might just help them realize that the additional aggression – no matter their past experience – is misplaced. In true empathetic fashion, a racist person would have to feel some sort of authentic engagement, some sort of trust or respect to be able to open up at all.  Since that is a distasteful and maybe impossible endeavor for the rest of us, perhaps no one has ever engaged them in that way. If someone were able to, it might have a profound impact on their thinking.

It is a very brave quest to wade into the waters of racism to truly try and connect with the racist point of view. To be honest, the return might not be worth the investment because the investment is significant. There is a racist pattern in our country and we need to face it. Historically, systematically, individually, institutionally – in ways subtle and overt – as a country, we need to admit this. Once we come to terms with our past, we can build on that a national culture that makes racism even more unfashionable than it is now. Changing hearts and minds cannot be legislated or enforced, it is the work of the People. The People is us.

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3 thoughts on “Empathy for Racists?

  1. lokywoky says:

    In order for us to admit that racism exists, all of us white folks must first admit that white privilege exists. And that may be a road that is far harder to walk down.

    That indeed the color of ones skin makes all the difference – in this case in a positive way. That we white folks get the goods – because of the color of OUR skin. We get the jobs. The loans. The nice houses. We don’t get pulled over for being in the wrong neighborhoods. We don’t get hassled by the cops for ‘walking too slow’. Or for just standing on a street corner. We don’t get eyed by the store security guards. We aren’t profiled as welfare queens, or drug addicts, or food stamp leeches – even though there are far more of us using all those programs than folks of color.

    We’re first in line for the college admissions, for the good slots in all the work incentive programs, for lower sentences when we commit crimes, and even zero sentences at all as this case is showing us.

    White privilege is what has led the average white family to have an average net worth of over $100,000. And a black family to have an average net worth of around $6,000. Not because the black family doesn’t work just as hard – but because of white privilege and its equally insidious counterpart – institutionalized racism.

    But like I said – we white folks have to first admit to the white privilege. And then maybe, just maybe, we can begin to have this discussion about racism.

  2. dano says:

    Acknowledging white privilege is a start, but the chief ramification of that privilege is *collective separation* — in the extreme, it is formal segregation, but it remains informally in a strong self-selection bias of individuals on all sides to hang with people of their own tribe, however the tribe(s) may be defined.

    Whites and blacks simply don’t hang out together, for the most part (the exceptions prove the rule). We don’t know each other, and thus we find it natural to view each other as The Other, especially when separation of populations leads to the endurance of cultural differences that enhance the Otherness. Racism has momentum, because of this.

    We distrust Others simply because they are not like us, and we don’t entirely understand them — we certainly don’t understand them as we understand ourselves. In order to forge a bond with individuals who are Other, we have to reach *across a cultural (or tribal) boundary* and while this is not impossible, it takes extra conscious effort which is in relatively short supply in a world and species where we save energy by allowing our minds to operate based on habits and heuristics. Re-thinking habits is hard — it’s harder to unlearn and relearn something than to learn it for the first time. (Like, when kids “peg” you and won’t let you grow — sometimes you have to run away from them and find new friends who will let you be who you want to be).

    Even when our conscious selves want to discard racism, habits from the past may lead us to avoid each other, and that will make it harder to acknowledge the remaining barriers, especially because we want to think well of ourselves. To admit that we still harbor racist habits would erode our positive self-image, so we push back at it forcefully.

    So, one thing we have to overcome is the guilt that arises if and when we might acknowledge latent racist habits of thought. So once white privilege is admitted, the next step is to make it safe to admit the habits that we want to break.

    You may not be entirely responsible for the habits of thought you have — they may have come from elsewhere. We first need to forgive ourselves for these habits, and to forgive these habits in other well-meaning people, and affirm that this doesn’t mean we are “bad people” — it means we are human and that our conscious will is not in full control of our thoughts and actions. The very desire we have to expunge such habits is a reflection of our good nature.

    The goal is, like all progressive goals: empathy. To view someone of the Other tribe and to see ourselves in their shoes, to identify with them, to see the fundamental humanity in them that we see in ourselves.

    The first step toward that goal is to get together with Others and look for the humanity in them, and slowly, gradually start to build trust based on the idea that the things that bind us together are stronger and more important than the things that distinguish us.

    Once that is a firm foundation, then the “rainbow society” becomes something to celebrate instead of something to make us fear each other.

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