Race in the US: Potholes on Empathy Road

“Core Quality=Tolerance”, I see plastered on the sign of the nearby school as I drive by and my stomach ties in knots as I wonder what our kids are learning from the well-meaning adults in their lives. I hate tolerance! It says that the solution to any problem is to just cram it down and accept it. It means that because I have a moral responsibility to accept it, that I can’t have conversations about anything that might bother me about it. I have to grit my teeth and smile that fake, toothy grin, or even worse—I have to grit my teeth and bear it when someone is DIFFERENT.

Tell me about differences and why they are supposed to inspire me to grind my teeth over them. Perhaps I’d rather pull up a chair and learn from them. Isn’t it obvious that they offer a perspective that I’ve never seen and, therefore, has a greater capacity to teach me something that is life-changing? Why would my mind not be riveted in fascination as I listen to such a perspective?

I don’t get the same knots in my stomach over empathy. In fact, I see it as a beautiful and wonderful thing, but there are so many things we miss. Who gives empathy? Is it a hurting person who gives empathy or the person who seems to have it together? The burden to be empathetic is on the person who isn’t hurting. There is a burden to say the right thing and “be nice” and “be kind” and to care about something that the non-hurting person might not be wired to care about. There is sometimes even the self-imposed burden to make the other person feel better. No pressure. Is there a problem?

I am supposed to care about discrimination. I should, but does “should” do me any good? For me, “shoulds” have a tendency to burden me with guilt before I even begin. When I am “should-ing on myself” and coming from a do-gooder perspective where I am thinking about the horrible plight of those “poor people” under me. Did you catch those words “under me”? Are you gasping at the audacity of those words?…But isn’t that the reality of it? Isn’t there a hierarchy involved where the burden of empathy is placed on the “superior” person? Ugh…Now I truly am sick to my stomach. How is it that even our attempts to do good are twisted so easily into something that is grotesque?

Perhaps this twisting of every good intention is the reason why white people can try to say the right things and can’t seem to ever figure it out. We add extra rules to our “shoulds” and constantly redefine our societal standards as we struggle to learn the latest thing that is PC and hope we can keep up. These standards require an outward perfection that I call composure. Secretly, many of us are freaking out inside because we know that the breaking down of composure means we risk being ostracized. We know that all it takes is one word perceived as ignorant for someone to blame us for being a racist and all our greatest fears will come true. Many of us spend most of our time avoiding black culture because of the danger of being called out yet, when we find ourselves in a situation where we have to interact with black people, we have to try to say the right thing without any opportunities to learn what to say. When I told my friend about this dynamic, she said to me that I didn’t have any interactions with black people because I “had that luxury”. Ugh…here was my best friend, a black woman, calling me out and I cringed inside. Perhaps I needed to squirm a bit and experience that discomfort.

About a year ago, I had a breakdown of my own white composure from PTSD, a broken marriage, isolation, grief, and a last-ditch attempt to fight for my own sense of worth and identity. The response by others to my vocal fight for autonomy was either rejection or silence. The only person who stood by me was a friend I had met only 3 months earlier. I was a mess, yet she would meet my self-loathing programming with, “You need to stop being so hard on yourself and let yourself be. You need to go through this right now; it’s just something you have to go through and you get to be a mess for a hot minute.” She’d give me warm hugs whether I needed them or not and she never tried to rescue me.

That woman is now my best friend. She grew up in Chicago, which is still one of the most segregated places in the country. I’ll never forget the time that I explained to her my own family culture and how I identified with my “white trash” family while having very real struggles over the masks I had to wear around the elite side of my family. She called me out on my use of “white trash”. I didn’t see anything wrong with it because I was directing it toward myself and the grandma that I deeply loved who grew up with 12 siblings living with a single mother in the box car of a train. My friend looked at me like I was crazy for not seeing it and, as she described the meaning of those words and described the hierarchy that decides on the value of people based on their economic status, I started crying because I realized that I had accepted their opinion of me. I was the “trash”. I never questioned; I just conformed to my place in the hierarchical structure. As I cried, my friend didn’t rush to fix me. She looked at me and said, “I’m glad you’re crying. You needed to feel that.”

I still laugh and smile to myself at the beautiful way that my friend walked through all of that with me. She was tough and strong and showed me my strength also. I started off crying a lot when she’d be honest with me and call out my ignorance, but I began to realize that it isn’t the norm for black people to throw us away when they call us out. It is a reflection of their honesty and has nothing to do with social exclusion like it is in white culture. My friend wasn’t socially-ostracizing me; she was showing me where I can grow and she was delivering it with all the love of a best friend who wants the best for me and sees where my programming was hurting me.

Before I was rejected by all in my social circle, I knew there was no space for myself or others to be authentic because my culture wouldn’t allow it. I knew that I had been expected to say “fine” every time they asked how I was. I knew that grief was only allowed for 3 weeks before any of us white people have to regain our composure and “be strong” and put a smile on our face. But composure isn’t strength and I wasn’t alone in the lie I believed or the experience I had. I think we all had the same story. We all had to hide our feelings, put on a smile, say nice things, and it seemed that we were all dying inside from the intense loneliness and the self-hate we had in our own heads from micromanaging every action and every intent we had in order to keep up with the composure. Allegiance to this culture where no place exists to grieve or to have uncomfortable conversations became unbearable for me when life required that I grieve.

Did I come from a place of empathy when I met my best friend? Was I the “superior” person trying to meet her in some perceived brokenness while I mustered my kindness to endure with her? NO!!! I was the broken one! I was the mess!! She was the kind one! I wasn’t interested in hearing about prejudice, but I was interested in analyzing how my culture had messed us both over. We processed together. We grew together. I would say that I know I needed her more than she needed me, but I think that maybe we both needed each other. The funny thing was is that I didn’t get tired of talking about these things and neither did she. We could do nothing but talk constantly and we never got in conversation ruts. I could give her insights into why white people behave the way they do while she showed me a way out of the culture that had mentally-trapped me. We’d talk about life and people and spiritual things. No topic was off-limits and that is because of who we are when we grow from each other.

There is something addicting about self-growth journeys that we take with another person. They serve to clean up our hurts and dysfunction and leave us feeling full, overflowing, light and free. They leave us powerful and limitless.

There was a day that I started a new semester at school and I found myself calling my best friend and bemoaning the fact that the teacher was “too white”. I saw this woman as those same people who had rejected me before. I felt that the expectation on me was to be “composed” and “perfect” and I was cringing inside. It was my friend who asked me questions and I realized that I was being prejudiced against this poor woman without even giving her a chance. As the semester progressed, she never did anything wrong and I even found her to be open to correction in a way that others in my life hadn’t been yet I kept asking my friend questions and wondering how this woman could stay so composed and how it must be to have to force perfection all the time. I wondered how she could constantly have that smile on her face with no authentic joy behind it. My friend said, “Oh, we call that GLEE; we know all about that already.” These things were new to me and rather than tolerating this teacher, I found myself gaining empathy for her and feeling sad that her programming ran so deep that she had to be so perfect and I wondered how she managed to teach black students without saying the wrong thing.

Why did I expect her to say the wrong thing? It was because I don’t believe that the composure of white culture can coexist with the honesty of black culture. Black culture hates the “glee” and white culture hates being called out because it removes the composure that they have to have. Would we call that racism? It’s been called that, but I’m not sure that is accurate.

What I do know is that white people who are operating out of composure are trying to memorize the rules of Black Culture and are trying not to make a wrong step yet the composure is a mask and offers a fake persona to a culture that values authenticity. They have taken a “wrong step” before they have started and they don’t even realize it.

I soon realized that the black kids saw this woman in the same way. They’d talk about how racist this woman was yet they never had a story of what she’d done wrong. The thing is that they sensed what I did. The kids knew that teachers like this woman only know how to operate with white rules. The students concluded that they were not going to be able to be themselves. They knew what I knew yet they didn’t have words to express the dynamic because they didn’t really understand the nuances of white culture. What these kids also didn’t know was that the more composed a person was, the more of a perfectionist they are and the more they are burdened by “shoulds” and the more they have a self-hate dialog constantly going on in their heads. I found myself feeling sorry for this woman, this woman stuck in her perfection with no knowledge of a way out of it because she would never seek out a culture other than her own with the power to help free her from her own mental prison. Was the person who was a racist this woman or those of us who wanted her to stop being so white? Perhaps neither. To me, race is about skin color, but this was struggle about cultural-disconnect from a social structure that none of us created and maybe none of us wanted.

So, back to empathy: I empathize with this woman yet the idea of hanging out with someone who represents my oppressors and is likely only to offer superficial conversation makes me feel tired before I have started. I may feel that I “should” because I want to be a good and kind person, but there is no inner-drive that makes me want to interact with anybody on a superficial level. Any action I could take to help her would only be because of my pity and my do-gooder ways. I would tire quickly.

But I don’t tire of talking about race and culture and integration and equity. I know my privilege and I’ll talk about it. I don’t worry about saying the wrong thing when having honest conversations because I’m okay with being called out because people haven’t ever tried to throw me away within black culture for it. Does White Fragility exist among people of color? Maybe, but that isn’t my experience. As far as I can see, I am in a place where I am allowed authenticity and that is as freeing as composure was imprisoning.

After walking through this experience as I have, I fully-believe that empathy and “shoulds” will never bring us where we want to be. When I talk to Black Americans, I hear many bemoan how slowly the whole “race for equality” is moving. Perhaps it is because we believe that progress is reliant upon kind and empathetic white people who can only step out of our shiny world long enough to see oppression for a limited time before we tire and move on to something else. Is that wrong of white people? No, it isn’t. It is just what is. It is as good as empathy can give us. It is that we’re on a gravel road riddled with potholes instead of a freeway. If we want a freeway, we need a little selfishness. I’m not talking about the kind of selfishness that will step on others to get ahead or the kind that thinks we are better than others. I am talking about having our own internal drive with our own built-in reward system.

We need to see what is in it for us:

  • See where our culture has hurt us and how it continues to hold us to a standard of perfection while killing every opportunity for authenticity.
  • See where authentic relationships can give us richness in life that we’ve never had.
  • Be able to “selfishly” see how having the freedom to walk through grief and not having to say we’re fine is something we will all need at some point and time.
  • See how all of the hate-talk we replay for ourselves is something we can never heal from as long as the tyrant of composure micromanages every action and word that comes out of us by pushing the play button on that self-hate tape over and over again.
  • We need the freedom to make a few mistakes and get some warmth and genuine love without the side hug and accompanying awkward pat going on.
  • We need the freedom to stop playing the game of pushing and pulling people around us to a comfortable distance by vacillating between connecting and then playing it cool so as not to appear too needy.

White people, we’re in a prison that we don’t realize we’re in and maybe we can only get out of that with some exposure to Black Culture to show us ourselves a bit. Scary? Of course, but. I find that courage grows exponentially when we are operating out of a sense of our true selves and being full-on authentic without the prisons that the tyrant of composure requires that we live in.

As for me, I’m one white person who is picking and choosing what social norms I want to live by now. I grew up upper-class, white, and a private school girl. That culture shaped me, but I don’t have to play by the rules anymore. I can see things that I could never see before and now I get to redefine white culture and be what I SHOULD BE.

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