I have a bad habit. I have been known to engage social justice listservs, blogs, tweets, etc. for my daily dose of self-righteous anger. Oh sure, I definitely think that we need to share information about the ways our society is oppressing people. The word needs to get out, and I believe that sharing information makes a difference. My bad habit isn’t really about that. Rather, it’s about those times when I sit down to a really juicy blog or Facebook post that expresses something visceral that I feel. You know… a really good rant. In those moments, I sometimes nod approvingly and don’t really think about what it means to silently stand in solidarity with a rant. What am I doing to myself? What have I just joined?
Not long ago, I was reading a blog post that was forwarded to me by a friend who also works in social justice education. It was by a favorite of mine, Mia McKenzie (host and author of the frank and honest website “Black Girl Dangerous”). The article I was reading is called “Hey, White Liberals: A Word on the Boston Bombings, the Suffering of White Children, and the Erosion of Empathy” (April 22, 2013). You can read this blog here: http://blackgirldangerous.org/new-blog/2013/4/22/hey-white-liberals.
In this post, McKenzie explores the recent bombings in Boston and her own curious numbness to what was going on there. She checked in with others and found that others felt disconnected, too. Thus, she coins this new affliction “DSWP: desensitization to the suffering of white people.” Honestly, I could have written the content of her blog myself. I’ve certainly had conversations with people of color, LGBT folks, and others in my circle of friends who have said things akin to what McKenzie has said: “I thought about how white people I know weren’t posting links to stories about those children [of color] and what happened to them.” I have had many conversations at home and at work about the lack of national outcries of concern for the experiences of people of color, women, LGBT people, people with disabilities, etc. McKenzie’s concern about this imbalance, this lack of reciprocity, seems real to me. I can feel it.
And therein lies my concern. Because I have accepted the premise of a lack of serious attention to, and coverage of, the lives of people with subordinated identities, I quietly accepted everything that follows in the blog as true. Because I read her words as though I wrote them myself, I don’t stop to really think about what is written next. Let me explain…
Towards the end of the article, McKenzie suggests that “something important, something essential to my humanity, is being drained away every time you ignore the suffering and death of people who look like me and my family and my community, while devoting endless hours of attention to the suffering of people who look like you.” Yup. I feel that. I agree with that… right?
In the last paragraph, I found myself hooked into this sentence: “The only way to stop this [DSWP] is for you [white liberals] to stop ignoring our lives and our deaths and our stories… It’s not enough to say, when confronted, that you care. You need to act like it.” I walked around with this conclusion for several days. Something bothered me about it. In essence, McKenzie was suggesting that our inability to feel again and have empathy for the pain of others was contingent on the behavior of people with dominant identities. Let’s stop and really think about that. If white people cause people of color to “feel less,” then I suppose it would make sense that only they could “fix” us. But what if they don’t choose to correct their behavior? Am I as a gay Latino man forever doomed to a deepening sense of numbness if others (straight people, white people) don’t deliver some empathy in my direction?
And most importantly, is that connection even true? Do white people cause my numbness for them as a Latino? Do straight people cause my lack of empathy for them as a gay man? On some level, I have to own the fact that I am a participant in this process. Who actually has control over how I feel? Who actually owns my emotional capacity for love and empathy… someone else? Or me?
I think the answer is definitive. We own our emotions and can choose to redevelop empathy if we want to do so. Recently, I read the book “Buddha’s Brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, love, and wisdom” by Rich Hanson and Richard Mendius, a great book that I highly recommend. They make a very compelling case about the following: Pain in the world is inevitable, but suffering is entirely optional. Essentially, bad things happen, but we can always choose our reactions. Hanson and Mendius contest the idea that our emotional life is dependent upon the behavior of others, even those others who may hurt or oppress us. Further, they suggest that when we stop caring about other people, that’s a sign that we are choosing to suffer. Using accessible terms and ideas, Hanson and Mendius illustrate that our health and well-being is entirely tied to whether we choose to become more fully human in our emotional engagement with others, including callous or clueless people with dominant identities. Thus, jump-starting our emotional connection to others is about saving ourselves instead of waiting for elusive behavior change on the part of other people.
If you believe, as I do, that having compassion and empathy for other people, regardless of who they are, is the ultimate act of being a full human, then why would we participate in our own dehumanization by choosing to turn ourselves “off?” And to be clear, I am not suggesting that we silence the necessary dialogues about oppression and inequity. Nor am I suggesting that I do this with perfection… because I am still very much a work in progress. Instead, I don’t want to wait for our healing to begin only when white or straight or male or Christian or able-bodied people feel good and ready to do right by us. Let’s do this for ourselves AND them.
Mark Brimhall-Vargas, Ph.D. (@markbrimhall and <firstname.lastname@example.org>) is the Deputy Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Maryland and provides leadership throughout the campus community with respect to equity, diversity, and inclusion. Mark works with various constituents, including faculty, staff, administrators, and students, to implement aspects of the Strategic Plan for Diversity and serves as a key resource, consultant, and collaborator in considering policies and in developing and evaluating programs and initiatives that advance the Plan. He received his doctorate in the Sociocultural Foundations of Education at the University of Maryland and originally hails from Albuquerque, New Mexico.