Teaching Empathy

“I’m not an empathetic person,” my brother said.

I saw my brother for the first time in nearly a year at Thanksgiving. We were discussing the Syrian refugees coming to America and he said he would not let any of them into this country because it’s their problem not ours. He shrugged and said, “I’m not an empathetic person.”

I do not understand.

How is it possible to be a human being and not be able to put yourself in the position of another human being? I’m wondering if empathy can be taught. For myself, I did not grow up empathetic and my world view was limited and circling around myself. I’m working on becoming a better person.

As an educator, I’ve learned to ask questions because a student should learn an idea on their own and not be fed my opinion (which can be wrong or misleading). But I’m not a teacher all the time and don’t want to be. I don’t always have students and the power that puts me in charge just because I’m out of college and the students are in high school does not make me qualified to teach empathy.

I think writing helps create empathy. I think that if you can imagine yourself as a character born out of your head, you can understand another human being, or at least know a few steps in the right direction.

I think reading helps create empathy. I can only hope to read more broadly about the experiences of those who I am not, whether through gender, sexuality, religion, class, ability or nationality. There is much to learn and billions of lives with stories which may or may not ever be told.

Please send me any thoughts on how best to become more empathetic. How do you teach empathy? Thank you for your thoughts.

Queer and Going Home

While Thanksgiving is an incredible way to connect families around a shared meal, it can also be a means of stress, especially if you are queer and have not yet come out to your family (or extended family, friends at home, etc). It feels like you’re stepping back into the closet and closing the door.

Though I am not out to most of my family, I am deeply privileged for having an incredible mother who supports me. I recognize that this is not the case for every queer individual.

Here are some tips for passing the potatoes without feeling threatened to spill the beans.

  1. If you have an ally, use this person. Tell them you’re feeling uncomfortable and they can be a means of support to redirect awkward conversations about who you’re dating, your gender, etc.
  2. Reroute a conversation. Remind your aunt about how great her apple pie is. Ask your uncle about how his new job is going.
  3. Don’t be afraid to stop a conversation directly. If possible say that a question or a comment was hurtful or uncalled for.
  4. Keep your cool. Breathe deep. Know your limits. Excuse yourself for a moment in the restroom to collect yourself when it feels safe to do so.

This is not an exhaustive list and I know I cannot speak to all manners of experience.

Your health, mental and physical is a top priority. Happy Thanksgiving.

Public Spaces as White Christian Spaces

I was at a public library this evening when two security guards walked in and disrupted the quiet to speak with a man in a corner. This man was praying and the security guards interrupted his prayer because he was in violation of library rules which say shoes must be worn at all times.

The man said there were no available study rooms where he could be by himself and therefore, not a distraction to others. The security guards, though calm in their speech, told the praying man that shoes must be worn, and that someone had issued a noise complaint against him, meaning they had to act.

This is Islamophobia.

I spoke with a head librarian with¬† my own complaint, asking her if their policies on shoes are so rigid that it does not account for religious observance. She assured me the library would handle the matter tomorrow and that this was a distressing situation for everyone involved. She said she mentioned to the praying man that as a public library, the establishment cannot have a bias toward one religion or another. As if allowing a man to pray would be favoring Islam. It’s a classic excuse for not being inclusive: to give even a little is to show favoritism. And that just wouldn’t be fair, now would it?

I told her the library is a Christian space because the town is predominantly Christian! You’re showing favor by not taking a stance for inclusivity¬† It’s the same way spaces are White Spaces unless specifically designated otherwise. The racism and exclusion that took place at this town library is a microcosm for the racism that’s happening at Mizzou, where black students are unwelcome due to verbal threats, as well as millions of verbal and non-verbal micro-aggressions each day. Unless we are purposeful in making all spaces open and inviting to people of all backgrounds, the world we walk through and inhabit will remain under the thumb of white, straight, cis male privilege. It takes effort to change ourselves into anti-racist people, why should it take any less effort to change the places we inhabit?

#Mizzou #ConcernedStudent1950

Books By Women: The Terrorists of Irustan

The Terrorists of Irustan has literally everything I’m interested in. It’s feminist science fiction. It has Middle Eastern influences. The central conflict questions the difference between terrorism and activism.

It was difficult to accept how this novel disappointed at every turn.Written in 1999, the novel can, at best, be described, as a knock-off version of The Handmaid’s Tale, but set in space. And unfortunately,, the novel simplifies Islamic and Arab culture.

577258On the planet Irustan, due to pervasive religious structures women cover themselves from head to toe and have no power or presence in the public space. Men cannot speak to them and they cannot speak to men. Our hero, Zara, is a doctor (on this planet, the profession of women) who begins to use her medicinal knowledge to poison men who harm women, specifically women she knows and loves. I was expecting nuance and cultural critique from this premise. I was expecting a massive underground uprising of female resistance fighters who pledged their lives to activism (or terrorism) to demand their rights.

Though the novel draws on Islamic culture, the author, Louise Marley, becomes entangled in the singular narrative that women who cover themselves are oppressed, look at how this other culture (read Islam, but in space) oppresses their women! Female characters who claim the veil as a symbol of their power do not have a voice in this story. The singular reading of women who cover themselves for religious reasons alienated me from any feminist message. It did not offer a plurality of voices in the text. Furthermore, I felt the structure of those women over there lifted the blame off Western misogyny and gave Western culture a free pass on our own sexism. If we’re not as sexist as these other guys, then we’re doing alright, no problems here. The one character who’s background offered push back, is a Chinese person working on Irustan, who describes the plight of future women in China, which was a fascinating cultural comparison and pretty well explored.

Yet, I wish this book were stronger and lived up to my expectations because it’s one of the few books I can think of where there are no (or almost no) white characters. Everyone is a person of color and regardless of any issues I have with the narrative, I have to give Marley credit for her diversity in this regard.

It’s a shame that the characters are pretty one–dimensional and the narrative does not grip you emotionally. I appreciate what Marley tried to do with this novel, and I know she’s won awards for her science fiction before, but for me, this novel fell pretty flat. If I decide to give another of her novels a try, I will let you know.