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.

Books By Women: The New Jim Crow

For anyone interested in racial justice, this nonfiction book is a must read. Michelle Alexander writes an academic and accessible text on how the American prison system is the new form of racial segregation and control, targeting mainly black and brown men. She argues that the prison industrial complex is the new Jim Crow.

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I first read this book last December and with every page I was floored by own ignorance. Of course, I was vaguely aware of NYC’s “stop and frisk” laws and racial profiling, but from my privileged position as a white-passing young woman from suburban Connecticut, the experiences of those convicted as felons (often for petty drug crimes) was an alternate reality. The brutality of dystopian governments and police was happening in the neighborhood bordering mine, not just within the pages of fiction I read. That’s the thing about this book: it puts together the dots in a way that is instantly clear and leaves you wondering, How was I ever so blind? I know there is still so much more for to learn.

The second time I read this book, was in the past few months, reading the text with junior and seniors in high school. This is probably what makes Alexander’s text even more of a game changer in how we talk about race and racial justice: it’s accessible. She breaks down the complexities of the legal system without dumbing them down. She explains the history of SWAT teams, the War on Drugs and how police make their arrests and receive their funding. She digs into the root causes of the imprisonment of young men of color and you learn something with ever page. People who have a greater background in racial justice can still benefit from the clarity and precision of her argument.

I wish this book were written today. It would have been a very different book, or at least a book that included information on the murders of Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown and Sandra Bland to name a few. She might have included information on die-ins and Black Lives Matter. But maybe not. It may have been outside the scope of her research at the time. Hopefully in subsequent editions of the text, she will include a forward or an additional chapter.

One aspect of her work I appreciate the most is her acknowledgment of the areas she does not cover. She tells the reader right from the start that this book focuses on the incarceration of men of color, though she knows women of color are also suffering.

The book is (obviously) heavy material, but I would recommend it. It’s a necessary read for necessary conversations Americans need to start having about race, segregation and incarceration.

Keep reading. Even when it’s hard and even when you’re challenged and floored by ideas, keep reading. Next up The Terrorists of Irustan. 

Books By Women: The Poisonwood Bible

There was no way I was going to read The Poisonwood Bible. I wasn’t going to read it. And if I read it, I wasn’t going to enjoy it. My friend who recommended it to me, read it in high school. Why would I read this book after I graduated from college?

I knew all I needed to know about the book from the title and the premise: a white Christian family of missionaries goes to the Congo in the 1960s. It would be a book of searingly blatant themes that THE WEST SHOULDN’T INTERFERE WITH AFRICA, and CONGOLESE TRADITIONS DON’T NEED CHRISTIANITY and LOOK AT THIS SYMPATHETIC WHITE FAMILY BLUNDER IN AFRICA BUT STILL BE SYMPATHETIC.

I was mainly right. The book was blatant about its themes. Yet, I enjoyed it when I promised I wouldn’t. I finished it when I thought I would hand it back to my friend with a shake of my head.

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The novel had its strengths, far more than I wanted to give it credit for. To start, the writing was very poetic and I kept a growing list of lines and quotes in a notebook to remember how Barbara Kingsolver molded language. Her writing is emotionally gripping and her details on Congolese culture and language highlight expertise I had not been expecting when the story appeared so simple and moralistic. The historical details of Patrice Lumumba’s  assassination and the ensuing struggle for Congolese independence under the meddling fist of the United States provides great background for readers unfamiliar with modern African history. Kingsolver even appeased the history major in me by including a works cited page at the back of the book. It also helps that Kingsolver grew up in a missionary family who went to the Congo.

I cared about the characters though I promised I would just read this book to make my friend happy (she had loaned it to me for over a year before I finally picked it up). As it turns out, I am a sucker for a well characterized first person point of view. I am a special sucker for stories with multiple first person point of views (Doctrine of Labyrinths). And The Poisonwood Bible fulfills my need to read books by women, but the story is also narrated by women. Five women to be precise. Orelanna Price and her four daughters: Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May. Orelanna brings her four daughters with her when she follows her Minister husband into the Congo to bring Jesus into the lives of the natives. Despite a blatant hit you over the head anti-colonial message which knows no subtlety, this is a novel which does what not many other books think to do: give voice to a whole cast of female characters. 

Thank you Barbara Kingsolver for understanding that women do not need to be likeable but they need to be real and complicated which (for the most part) Kingsolver accomplished.

If it wasn’t readily apparent, I still flip-flop on this book. The writing is strong but overbearing, especially when Kingsolver tries to use extended metaphors. I would recommend the novel to high schoolers as well as readers who have no background in colonial history or African history. It’s not something I would reread, but if nothing else, I’m glad I read it because of the sheer number and expression of plurality of female characters.

Next up: The Lady Matador’s Hotel by Cristina Garcia.

Keep reading!

You’re Either First Second or Dead

To be blunt, I hate competitions. I stopped watching The Food Network when nearly every show became a contest over who could be better than the guy next to them. Cut Throat Kitchen. Guy’s Grocery Grab. The Next Food Network Star. Can’t you just show me how to cook?

I hate how I am in competitions, knowing that if I let myself, I whoop and holler on the frisbee field, shouting and exclaiming sounds of adrenaline when an opponent drops the catch or misjudges their throw. Whenever possible I avoid these moments because I don’t recognize that person on the field who can cheer for someone else’s misfortune and who believes that scoring a point ahead of your opponent is worth fighting for. On a smaller level, I avoid games like Monopoly, Uno or Scrabble.

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What if I win and feel great about beating someone else? What if I lose and have to acknowledge that I am imperfect?

Competition is patriarchy. The competitive capitalist culture tells us that the goal is to win and you win by beating everyone else. There is no way to share resources or wealth. You win or you lose. You take or what you have is taken. The logic here is not logic at all, but pervades our understanding of the world. If women have equal rights, men must lose rights. Except, this is not the case at all. Men will lose privilege, but we will all have equal rights. You don’t have to knock your opponent down to get up.

At the restaurant where I work, a co-worker approached me to test my knowledge about superheroes. He heard I know about superheroes and here he was ready to challenge my knowledge and put me in my place. He asked me questions about Jean Grey and Cyclops and Emma Frost. He asked me questions about Wolverine. This wasn’t a friendly conversation or a way to initiate an exchange of ideas on a topic we both enjoy: this was meant to shame me and make him a winner. A few servers stopped to listen and throw in their knowledge, but I didn’t want them there. I didn’t want to be a spectacle to increase someone’s self esteem at the expense of my own. I stumbled through some answers (many of which were wrong or incomplete) and went away from the conversation feeling like an idiot.

I spoke with my co-worker a few minutes later and told him that the conversation made me uncomfortable. And though he said he didn’t mean to put me on the spot, that was exactly what he was doing. He needed to assert dominance over me and be the winner. I didn’t even want to compete.

When we foster and allow competitive patriarchal culture to flourish everyone loses. The losers lose self esteem and become the under caste–on every level from small conversations to larger issues of systematic oppression. The losers lose dignity and then have to fight and climb over others to not be the bottom of the bottom. The winners lose ideas of cooperation and knowledge that a life without oppression and dominating others is possible. The winners lose security because they must constantly defend their position of dominance and power through aggression.

I met an American naval officer in the airport a few months ago and she said we live in a world where “You’re either first, second or dead and you’ll never be first.” As long as we are in competition with each other, we cannot work together to overcome or analyze what keeps us divided. We see it in racism where poor white communities are pitted against communities of color, or middle class communities of color are pitted against poor communities of color, where straight women are pitted against the queer community, where women are pitted against trans women. We see this needless competition everywhere, this mad scramble to be first.

And, unfortunately, Patriarchy and the culture of competition is first, and the rest of us claw and spit and climb over each other for the scraps to be second. When we think about competitions, think about who’s dead.

Explaining Sexism to the Oblivious

I knew it was going to be a long conversation when a male co-worker, upon learning I graduated from a women’s college, asked me, “So you hate men?” I told him that it has nothing to do with hating men but with believing in equality and valuing myself and others no matter their gender or sexuality.

I’m busing tables in a restaurant. I’m not part of the waitstaff. I didn’t think I would need to deal with this much blatant and oblivious sexism immediately, especially not two days into the job. How I was that naive, I don’t think I’ll ever know.

everyday sexism

The man who asked me this question told me he never had to think about sexism before. He said, “I can’t really say much because I’m not a woman but in my mind men and women are equal.” If you did, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. “Women might even be smarter than men. Men suck.” That’s an appeasement tactic. You’re throwing me a bone thinking that by praising women as greater I’ll believe you’re one of the nice men. The gentlemen who think holding the door for a woman means you’re not a misogynist. Try again, sir. Try again. “I just think that women only think men treat them differently. I think most men believe women are equal.” Tell that to the wage gap. 

“No.” let me say that again: NO. I told him that everything about our culture praises traditionally masculine qualities and devalues traditionally feminine qualities.

“Do you have an example to prove your point?”

The English language is inherently misogynistic. There are more ways to describe women than men and most of these terms are sexual and insults. The female equivalent to male terms always go the way of insults. For instance, a master is in command, but a mistress is a sexual being. Boys will be boys, but don’t hit like a girl/run like a girl/throw like a girl.

I laid out one or two examples as we stood in the back of the kitchen peeling potatoes. It was a moment of pressure because I was defending all women and all feminists. My answer would be the answer. I hated his smug white face as he nodded occasionally, but clearly didn’t believe me. He did not see sexism in the world because he never had to deal with it, only reap the benefits.

Just the fact that he needed proof is evidence enough that he valued my opinion less than a man’s. I had to defend myself. I had to explain sexism, knowing he wasn’t interested in anything more than being polite. I’d rather he wasn’t polite. I don’t want feminism to be tolerated and on the margins. Tolerance is far from acceptance.

I told him, “Feminism is more than just equal rights or thinking you treat women equally. You have to act on it. Feminism is active and you have to want it. You have to want to tear down the structure of male privilege.”

You have to seek out equality, not just ask about everyday examples of sexism too numerous to count. You have to want it more than anything else in the world.

and that I (gasp!) wanted to be there

“Are you Muslim?” “Does it matter?”

This past weekend I was at the 2015 Hunger Walk benefiting the Atlanta Community Food Bank. I’m there through my internship, a non-profit that works with the Hizmet Movement (AKA the Gulen movement)–a peaceful civic interpretation of Islam that fosters understanding and dialogue between all faiths, based on the ideas of Turkish scholar Fetullah Gulen.

In such an environment I wasn’t expecting to have the conversation that I did. Before the walk begins, I was speaking with a middle aged woman who, upon learning I’m at the walk through my internship, asked: “Are you Muslim?”

I told her, “No.” I’m not Muslim. I din’t tell her I’m Jewish because I distrusted her.

She attempted to backtrack but didn’t apologize because she didn’t realize she had done something wrong. She then told me, “I know not all Muslim girls wear a headscarf.”

This is true, but it doesn’t justify her question. If she had to ask if I was Muslim it meant she would view me differently based on my answer. She needed to know to satisfy her own curiosity and prove her own goodness and accepting diversity. It’s the same way that by telling me she knew not all Muslim women wear hijabs, she was really telling me was: I’m a good liberal woman, I swear. I’d accept you even if you were Muslim.

And I’m sure she’s a good person, but she didn’t need to prove how liberal she was to me. I talked with her throughout the walk and found out she routinely does walks for Breast Cancer, that she supports gay marriage and that she’s aware of issues of race. These conversations came up naturally and we were having a discussion. I felt more at ease because she wasn’t trying to prove anything.

I’ve been having a lot of conversations with one my friends lately about the “good liberal on the street” who thinks that listening to NPR, voting for the democrats and supporting gay marriage or having a gay friend makes them radical and leftist and somehow helping the world. But if this is all a person is doing, if this is all a person sees as making a difference, and if a person is willing to stop there and congratulate themselves on their good liberal lifestyle they’re still part of the problem.

NPR is tame. Gay marriage is the tip of the iceberg.

As long as liberal people feel the need to prove how liberal they are with questions like “Are you Muslim?” then we’re stuck in an unfortunate definition of liberality. We’re stuck with liberals but not activists.  I’m not saying these “good liberals on the street” are bad people, or that being radical somehow makes someone more moral, but we need more than surface level change. We need to arrive at a day where the answer to the question “Are you Muslim?” is “Does it matter?”

The Positive Language of Feminism

Nearly a month into 2015, but it’s not too late to add a New Year’s resolution. This year, I will be a positive feminist and use my language to uplift women.

I’ve noticed an unfortunate trend in my speech this past year: when speaking about feminism, social justice or human rights I fall into the category of one who sees some of the problems but frames my responses from a negative outlook. Instead of saying “Women’s voices have been devalued by patriarchal culture,” I say, “Women are told their voices don’t matter and that we’ll never matter.”

The difference is in the tense. It is true that women’s voices have been devalued in the past, and that in the present women still struggle to be heard, but that does not mean WE’LL NEVER MATTER. If I frame our current struggle as a losing cause I keep my self down, I keep others down and surround myself with the fear that nothing I can do or say will matter because the past=the present=the future.

Not true.

In a conversation with a group of women of color at my university the other day, many of them spoke about how their mothers and female role models never told them that they were worth less as women. Looking at my own background, my mother never told me that I was worth less for my sex. I was telling myself this lie because to be a feminist and to be a part of feminist culture and debate means to drop into a fist fight and always keep your arms up for defense. You will be attacked.

Maybe I wanted a lost cause. Maybe it felt good to rant in absolute statements that said negative words like NEVER.

But feminism is not a lost cause.

With your arms up you are also on the offensive and you choose how you fight. This year, I choose to fight with positive language. Women’s voices are valued. Women’s voices are valued because I value them. And I am not alone.

When  I was home in CT for winter break I met up with a friend I’ve known since elementary school. The year before we both went off to college we were both afraid of the word feminism and wouldn’t listen to a mutual friend begin to question the patriarchy. We only meet up once or twice a year, and in 2013 we sat in Barnes and Noble and laughed at the articles in Seventeen Magazine for its portrayal of young girls as sex objects in a heteronormative world. I was a feminist then but was too afraid to say so to my friend and she was a feminist, but was too afraid to say so to me.

This year, I followed her facebook page as she posted about Ferguson and the fight for human rights across differences in race, sex, gender and sexuality. When we met up this year, she told me that as a creative writing major, “I’m tired of reading stories by and about men.” Wow, did I understand the feeling! Finally, we came together as the feminists were always terrified to be, but we lifted each other up through our bravery. Feminism is a positive language to make positive change and connect individuals for a more just and peaceful world of equality.

In 2015, I will be a positive feminist.