Sunday, December 9, 2012

Empathy in 6 words

Michele Norris of NPR has created an elegant, brilliant way to get the conversation on race kick-started again. It's called The Race Card Project. It started out simply, when she was on a book tour for her new book about race, The Grace of Silence: A Memoir. She handed out 200 postcards and asked people to write their thoughts on race in six words. The response floored her. To date, two years later, she has gotten back over 12,000 postcards! Clearly, people are aching to be heard, and to be heard clearly. That's the beauty of the six words. They succinctly sum up what a person most wants to say about race.

Here are some examples: "You know my race. NOT ME!" "Chinese or American? Does it matter." One that has ignited a firestorm of response lately is "We aren't all Strong Black Women." This really hit a nerve for a lot of people, particularly black women, of course. Some of the responses were eye-opening for white people, since many would assume "Strong Black Woman" is a compliment. Not necessarily so. There is much more to it than that. Read the article, and the responses, and see for yourself.

Now that this has taken on a life of its own, Ms. Norris has created a website devoted to it, where people can post their six-word thoughts on race, and respond to others. What a brilliant way to open up the conversation on race--a conversation that is not nearly finished yet, despite what some may think. Check out the website here.

So what six words would I write? Maybe, "I take for granted white benefits."

Saturday, October 20, 2012

empathy for one, empathy for all

A devoted reader sent me a link to an interesting article in the New York Times about the science of compassion:

The article reported on a study that found that inducing a compassionate feeling for someone leads the person to feel compassion for others as well, even when they might not "deserve it." Another study found that creating a feeling of commonality between people, even an artificially-created meaningless commonality (tapping in rhythm with another person) led people to feel more compassion and more of a desire to help the other person.

The author of the article, David DeSteno, who was also a researcher on the second study, concluded: "Simply learning to mentally recategorize one another in terms of commonalities would generate greater empathy among all of us — and foster social harmony in a fairly effortless way."


So the question is, how do we foster more of a feeling of commonality among people in general, and people who specifically don't feel that commonality with people of other groups?

One way would be to make it easier for people to discover commonalities. I think Facebook is useful in this way. When people become "friends" with people whom they really don't know well, such as through a neighborhood page (my neighborhood has one on Facebook), they will easily discover commonalities. When they view profiles of people who are friends of their friends, but who seem quite different from themselves, they will likely discover commonalities.

Actual physical proximity helps. When you shop at a grocery store, and you see people of various cultures and ethnic groups, and you notice them reaching for the same cereal box you do, or you see them dealing with the same issues with their children (you can recognize a child whining for a treat in any language), you feel the commonality. Your empathy level increases.

Media helps. When you see Cam and Mitchell, the popular gay couple on the TV show "Modern Family", squabbling about little things, just like you do with your spouse, your feeling of commonality increases. Your empathy level increases.

I think it's interesting that the study found that even trivial commonalities increase compassion. This leads me to believe that humans are innately driven to seek and find what they have in common with each other--not just people of their own group, but all people. The drive to empathize is inherent in our make-up. Empathizing with one another is good for human survival.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Blogs: The 21st Century Empathy Tool

Social media offers an amazing opportunity for the growth of empathy. In particular, blogs give people the chance to connect with and understand others' experiences and feelings on a vastly larger scale than ever before.

When I was growing up in the mid-20th Century, there were 2 avenues for increasing empathy: personal experience, or the media: TV, books, newspapers, magazines. Growing up in a small, nearly 100% white town in Minnesota, I didn't even meet a black person until I moved to a larger suburb in 11th grade. We had one Asian at our school. I made my first Jewish friend when I went to grad school. For anyone in such a situation today (and fortunately, the country, and even my small Minnesota hometown, are far more diverse now), they can connect with a person different from themselves on the Internet.

Let's say you have a relative in their 20's who tells you he has cancer. You are stunned, even though he tells you that it is the highly curable kind. Clearly, this is a life-changing event for your relative. How do you relate? How do you begin to understand what he is going through? Of course, you can talk directly with him. But you can also read the blog of a person who is going through a similar situation. A follower of this empathy blog, Roger Lumpp, commented recently that he has a blog that chronicles his journey as he dealt with a cancer diagnosis as a young adult. You can find it at .

Do you want to know what it's like to be a young stay-at-home mother of a newborn, or a lawyer mother of 3 children, or a father of a teenager, or the parent of a special needs child? There are blogs for all of these, and any other parenting situation you, or someone you know, may find yourself in. A great part of empathy is just understanding--learning about and understanding someone else's life, feelings, culture, situation, etc. Blogs are perfect for this! Do you have a nephew who has just come out as gay? Do you have a niece who's getting married to someone outside of your faith? Is your best friend getting divorced after 40 years of marriage? Find a blog, and increase your empathy!

I have a niece who is teaching in Indonesia. Reading her blog has increased my understanding of Indonesian culture. Tell us--what blogs do you read, and how have they increased your empathy?

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Line Between

The empathy symbol is defined by the line between the two halves of the symbol, portraying two groups who would benefit by reaching out to each other and opening up to understand one another. The reaching-out and opening-up aspects of empathy are defined by the two Y's in the symbol, lines that pass through the divide and then open up.

Two recent events, one in Duluth and one in Florida, highlight the tendency of some to reinforce the barrier between the two halves of a group--in this case, the racial groups White and Black. The Florida event was the killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black youth, by an armed self-appointed neighborhood watch man, George Zimmerman. This has spurred many articles by black people relating how they have to have "the talk" with their sons when they are as young as 5 or 6 years old. "The talk" has nothing to do with sex--it is about how to more safely "walk while black", because many people will assume a young black man is hostile and dangerous, and will react to him accordingly. This is not something most white people have ever thought about discussing with their sons, nor are most white people aware of the need for such a talk in black families. This is a perfect opportunity for white people to expand their empathy toward black people, to better understand what it is like to be black in America, even in 2012.

And yet, the reaction to this has been hostility from some white readers, rather than increased empathy. Which brings me to the other event. the one in Duluth. A group called The Unfair Campaign put up billboards in Duluth, as well as elsewhere, that said, "It's hard to see racism when you're white." This produced a surprising amount of backlash from whites, who claimed it was reverse racism. The comments on an MPR story about this campaign were pretty shocking, with many equating anti-racism with being anti-white. The article does say that follow-up discussion groups have been organized. Perhaps this face-to-face discussion will help--if people can open up the barrier between each other, rather than clinging tightly to it while trying to reinforce it.

It is a fact that being white can still be an advantage in 2012 America--an advantage that most white people don't have to think about. It just is. Perhaps the white people who react defensively to this don't feel advantaged. Perhaps they feel that life is against them, and that many people, including those of other races, unfairly have it better than them.

50 years ago, John Howard Griffin wrote a book about his experiences when he chemically darkened his white skin, and traveled through the deep South as a black man in the 1950's. The book, Black Like Me, shook up American society. Talk about the ultimate exercise in empathy! Of course, if a black person had written the same account about his experiences in segregated America, it would have dropped like a stone in a pond, without a ripple. It took a white man being shocked by the experience, and sharing it with his fellow white people, to create a splash.

Maybe it's time for white people to finally let down the barriers, put away the defenses, and actually listen to and understand it when black people tell them that yes, being black in America can still have an impact on one's life in unfair, and even sometimes deadly, ways.