How I Developed Empathy for the Black Community
I have been a member of a large, conservative, primarily white Southern Baptist Church since 1997. I was licensed to preach there in 2002 and ordained to the gospel ministry there in 2013. Since 1999, I have also served as a volunteer chaplain in six regional jails and juvenile detention centers in Virginia, which, of course, housed a disproportionate percentage of Black residents. As a rule, I have done substantially all my ministries without charge and without raising funds. Therefore, to support myself, I’ve also worked in a large urban school system administration which was primarily black. Although not typical of Southern Baptist preachers, I have been a vocal and intentional anti-racist since Trayvon Martin’s death in 2012, and more so since the untimely death in early 2016 of an exemplary young African-American racial justice advocate, whose family I have since become dear friends with. And I have had the good fortune to teach math at an alternative school at a home for boys and girls housing emotionally disturbed children; to have provided direct services to children and adults in one of Richmond, Virginia’s most violent public housing complexes, and to have provided direct services to citizens returning from incarceration and their families. These ministries have allowed me to have literally thousands of one-on-one conversations with young Black males and females since 1999, and to get to deeply appreciate both their common needs, hopes, dreams and humanity and the oft gut-wrenching struggles they and their customarily under-resourced families and communities have to endure. I have loved them all for over two decades, and developed a deep empathy for their plight.
I have been fortunate, as research shows that the process of reducing people’s racism will take one thing — empathy. And both research and personal experience show that what worked for me (development of empathy) can work for you and anyone who is willing to develop empathy for Black and Latino people and other marginalized communities as well.
Anti-Racist Activities That Don’t Work
Now let me tell you what doesn’t work to reduce racist paradigms in people — making people feel like you are saying or implying that they are racist, and the use of Facebook. While most of us heard from our parents that you get more with honey than with vinegar, often times what is heard (rightly or wrongly, and if not stated explicitly) is that the person with whom we are speaking is a racist. That is the vinegar in the eyes approach, and it almost always engenders a cognitive dissonance reduction response in our listener by which they double down on their assertions — just the opposite of the desired effect. In addition, most well-meaning anti-racists also use FACTS, both empirical and from scholarly studies, and (sometimes) Bible verses, to try to make headway with their “racist uncle,” other family members and members of our churches and workplaces — often on Facebook. Although an inexperienced anti-racist might assume that facts and scholarly studies should be unassailable and that Bible verses should appeal to those who have heard them all their lives — what our listeners hear is still “you’re calling me a racist,” and cognitive dissonance reduction (and outright denial of racism) is, once again, the typical response.
In the past seven years as I’ve been trying to change racist paradigms and promote racial justice and equity motivations within my family and church family, do you know how many I’ve had success with? Exactly zero. I have, however, succeeded in being estranged from several dear family members and from my entire conservative white evangelical church. And while this has been true whether I’ve used personal or Facebook diplomacy, I have learned that Facebook is not conducive to nuance or empathy building, and thus never seems to leave a bridge unburned, while personal diplomacy at least can leave the door open for reconciliation and further conversations.
Therefore, if you’re a white anti-racist whose goal is to foster a more racially equitable culture, you should studiously avoid ever calling another person who doesn’t see the world like you do a ‘racist’. Even in Charlottesville when I interacted with violent white supremacists, the one way to ensure a violent argument or fight was to call someone a racist. It just doesn’t work. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew that, and assiduously avoided sinking to the level of violent racists.
To Change Paradigms, You Have to Realize the Psychology At Play, and Think for the Other Person
My principal at the alternative school I served at told me a story about Dr. King riding down a dark road at night with fellow civil rights workers, when a car coming from the opposite direction refused, after signaling, to dim its bright lights. One of the riders was said to have opined “why don’t you just shine your bright lights on him? — to which Dr. King is said to have replied “Sometimes you have to think for the other person.” Somehow we need to find enough common ground for a real conversation about race. Very few people are stupid or irredeemably mean. I have a dear sweet aunt who believes that what she hears nightly on Fox News is unbiased, and votes for conservative candidates religiously. She is neither stupid nor mean, and yes, she loves the Lord. But she doesn’t realize the bias in her chosen news provider, nor the impact of her votes on minority communities. But she will listen to what I have to say because she trusts that I can empathize with her as a loving, well-meaning human (though I disagree with her votes). That is the way to make headway with someone who may hold racially biased paradigms, or who unknowingly promotes racial inequity via their votes.
It is the direct opposite of the kind of “call-out” culture the internet has fostered — which typically focuses on hard facts only, information impartation only, which often shames them in public. This doesn’t work. And as much as it might seem like a lost cause to understand the perspectives of people who may qualify as racist, understanding where they come from — and communicating that to them in a non-offensive way — is a needed step to being able to speak to them in a way that will help reduce the racial biases they hold.
The coded language that many white Americans hear
So how do we have a better conversation around these issues, one that can actually reduce people’s irrational racial prejudices and fears?
The first thing to understand is how white Americans hear accusations of racism. Terms like “racist,” “white privilege,” and “implicit bias” intend to point out systemic biases in America. Indeed, to foster understanding of definitions used on this website, we have a ‘Racial Equity Glossary’ here. But for white Americans discussions of such terms, especially on social media, are often seen as coded slurs. These terms don’t signal to them that they’re doing something wrong, but that you believe they are racist (which they deny being at all). They further believe that such terms, when aimed at them, are being used only as a tool of “the left” or by lawmakers and other elites to ignore their problems.
Imagine, for example, a white man who lost a factory job due to globalization or a job in a coal mine due to the increasing use of alternative, non-polluting energy sources, and perhaps had a son die from a drug overdose, after getting hooked on pain killers due to an injury in Iraq. Such situations are not uncommon today, but are endemic. But when he tries to explain his vote (which he perceives as a vote for change), his concerns are downplayed by a politician or a racial justice advocate, who (rather than empathizing) points out that at least he’s doing better than black and brown people if you look at broad socioeconomic measures (facts). And since politicians and conservative commentators have repeatedly told him that “Mexican rapists” are “flooding over our southern border” and “taking his jobs,” he believes them.
This is how many white Americans, particularly in the blue-collar work force and that predominates in rural areas, view the world today. Accordingly, when they “hear” politicians, pundits and well-meaning Facebook anti-racists call them racist or remind them about their white privilege, they feel (as they’ve been told by their politicians and pundits) that elites are trying to ignore the serious problems affecting their families and communities and grant advantages to other groups of people. In short, this gives rise to the “fear of replacement” that has fueled the rise of alt-right militias and groups such as those seen in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017.
As quoted in a recent Vox.com article, “Telling people they’re racist, sexist, and xenophobic is going to get you exactly nowhere,” said Alana Conner, executive director of Stanford University’s Social Psychological Answers to Real-World Questions Center. “It’s such a threatening message. One of the things we know from social psychology is when people feel threatened, they can’t change, they can’t listen.”
In the same Vox article, sociologist Arlie Hochschild provided an apt analogy for white rural Americans’ feeling of neglect: As they see it, they are all in this line toward a hill with prosperity at the top. But over the past few years, globalization and income stagnation have caused the line to stop moving. And from their perspective (engendered by their political candidates and pundits), people — black and brown Americans, women — are now cutting in the line. Actually, these demographic segments are finally getting new (and more equal) opportunities through new anti-discrimination laws and policies like affirmative action. — but that is not the way the phenomena were “sold” to them.
Accordingly, when well-meaning attempts are made to discuss racial equity issues with them, they believe that the “real” issues — the ones that affect them — are being brushed aside. This makes it very difficult to raise issues of race at all with these large segments of the white population, because they are suspicious of the motives.
What’s more, feelings that they are being called racists often cause white Americans to become very defensive — to the extent that they might actually reinforce white supremacy. Robin DiAngelo, who studies race at Westfield State University, coined the term “white fragility” to describe this phenomenon, in her groundbreaking 2011 study:
White people in North America live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress. This insulated environment of racial protection builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to what I refer to as White Fragility. White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation. These behaviors, in turn, function to reinstate white racial equilibrium.
“Most of us live in racial segregation,” DiAngelo said. “Our teachers are white. Our role models are white. Our heroes and heroines are white. That insulation is very rarely challenged.” She added, “So when that reality is questioned, we don’t tend to handle it very well.”
DiAngelo offered a telling example, from an anti-racism training session she facilitated:
One of the white participants left the session and went back to her desk, upset at receiving (what appeared to the training team as) sensitive and diplomatic feedback on how some of her statements had impacted several people of color in the room. At break, several other white participants approached us (the trainers) and reported that they had talked to the woman at her desk, and she was very upset that her statements had been challenged. They wanted to alert us to the fact that she literally “might be having a heart-attack.” Upon questioning from us, they clarified that they meant this literally. These co-workers were sincere in their fear that the young woman might actually physically die as a result of the feedback. Of course, when news of the woman’s potentially fatal condition reached the rest of the participant group, all attention was immediately focused back onto her and away from the impact she had had on the people of color.
We need to develop a way to have this conversation that doesn’t make some people feel condemned
The innate resistance and defensiveness to conversations about bigotry don’t mean that you should never talk about racism or other kinds of hate. But those conversations may have to be held more tactfully — positioning people into a more receptive position to hear what these problems are all about.
One key issue is that people want to feel heard before they can open their minds to other people’s points of view. Therefore, to have any hope of surmounting certain resistance, we need to go out of our way to reassure these groups that they are being respected, that they are being listened to.
These conversations will be incredibly difficult and time-consuming
Of course, there is a balance that must be struck. As any mention of racism will trigger a backlash among some people, that may be an unavoidable result of a too-long-neglected conversation. After all, we can’t just ignore the real racial disparities in policing, the criminal justice system, health, wealth, housing, and almost every other area of American society until everyone is ready to have an honest and meaningful discussion of these issues. If we were holding our breath, we would have turned blue a long time ago if we did that.
And the work of reducing racial bias cannot fall solely on people of color. To be effective in a reasonable period of time, white Americans must work within our own communities to combat prejudice, and to legislate for racial equity.
In the face of resistance, then, actually reducing people’s racial anxieties — rather than glossing over them — is necessary.
Interpersonal Anti-Racism & Changing Paradigms – What Works
This will require conversations. Some of these will be one-on-one personal conversations. Churches should lead in public education and empathy-building campaigns, as should schools. Churches, schools and other civic groups can facilitate moderated public panel discussions in which people can learn and then openly discuss these issues.
In The Science of Equality, Rachel Godsil and her co-authors proposed several tactics that seem, based on the research, promising: presenting people with examples that break stereotypes, asking them to think about people of color as individuals rather than as a group, tasking them with taking on first-person perspectives of people of color, and increasing contact between people of different races. All of these interventions appear to reduce subconscious racial biases through empathy building, while interracial contact appears most promising for reducing racial anxiety more broadly. Churches in may parts of the U.S. are well-positioned to do this through inter-church services, social events, Bible studies and the like, and they are encouraged to actively promote such activities.
The Development of Empathy is the Key; and Participants Must Want to Develop It
The research suggests these ideas have potential, but to be effective, they require that participants are genuinely willing to develop empathy. That’s why Jesus always said “He who has an ear to hear (i.e., he who is willing to empathize), let him hear.” The good news is that many people are, if provided opportunities and coached through the process.
The key to success in reducing racial fears and bias, then, is empathy. Many people seem to be naturally empathetic. Others are not. The good news is that research shows that empathy can be learned. Developing empathy requires being respectful, sincere and caring. It requires having an interest in other people’s lives and being open-minded to the differences that make each person unique. These are all virtues that we can practice and nurture over time. In addition, developing empathy requires setting aside your own personal biases, opinions, agenda, and beliefs, and choosing instead to accept people without reservation for who they are. Lawyers have a saying that you have to “accept your client as you find him,” not how you wish he was. The same thing applies to developing empathy for other people – we must be willing to accept them as we find them, and sincerely try to understand them, while being genuinely caring. Empathy doesn’t judge, ridicule or demean. It doesn’t dehumanize the other person, but seeks to understand. As the scriptures say, empathy suffers long and is kind; it does not parade itself, is not puffed up, and does not seek its own, but seeks to understand. It is not easily provoked, it resists assuming evil; it bears a great deal, receives all information and emotions, shares in hope and is willing to endure different values without judging from one’s own perspective. As a result, you will be better able to sense people’s aspirations, goals, dreams, needs and humanity. You will begin to see a common humanity, common needs, common fears, common emotions and common hopes and dreams. You will no longer dehumanize a person or group, but will actively humanize them. You will begin to connect and relate to people at a deeper level (perhaps even at the lowest common denominator of humanity).
One of the first steps in developing empathy is to imagine yourself in the other person’s shoes. What if you were him, living his life (instead of yours) through his unique experiences? How would you then feel? How would your perspective change? Your actions?
In the case of trying to develop empathy for another racial group, what if your family had to attend crumbling schools? Live in public housing? Couldn’t get in to a university? Couldn’t get a home loan in an appreciating area of town? Couldn’t pass on wealth from one generation to another due to home appreciation? Had a father who was incarcerated, and a great many other fathers in your community were incarcerated? Only qualified for unskilled labor positions? Didn’t earn a living wage? Didn’t own a car? Had to rely on public transportation? Didn’t have health insurance and couldn’t go to doctors? Couldn’t afford diapers for your baby? Can you now see better why he does what he does?
It is critical to take all these factors into consideration. Use them to help shift how you read another person in the context of the situation they find themselves in, through no fault of their own.
You may, of course, not always be able to relate to another person’s experiences. However, you can still imagine yourself living through those experiences and the accompanying feelings and emotions. Or, you may possibly have similar experiences that you can relate back to the circumstances they are currently going through.
And it will take a lot of empathy — not just for one conversation but many conversations in several settings, and maybe over many years. I am not promising a quick fix or an easy solution. But if we want to address some people’s deeply entrenched racial fears and attitudes, working to develop empathy has been shown to be more effective than just providing facts, studies or Bible verses, and is definitely more effective than conversations that will be interpreted as casting racist motivations or ignoring real-life problems that have become endemic in parts of the white community.