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 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.

Books By Women: The Lady Matador’s Hotel

Suki Palacios is a half-Mexican, half-Japanese female bull fighter. Cristina Garcia‘s novel only gets more intriguing from there. The story chronicles the lives of a cast of strangers (or near strangers) for the few days they all live in an unnamed Hispanic country’s most expensive hotel. The country has recently come out of a long and violent civil war.

Won Kim is a failing Korean businessman, at the hotel with his pregnant mistress. Aura is an ex-guerilla, no working as a waitress in the hotel’s restaurant. Gertrudis is a German international adoption lawyer. Martin is a colonel behind gross acts of violence during the civil war. Ricardo is a poet who, along with his wife, are adopting a baby girl.

lady matador

I first read this novel for a course I was tutoring and couldn’t devote the time to it I wanted. I was in the middle of taking my own college courses. When I made the commitment to read books by women for a year, this was on my list as one of the few books I planned to reread.

There are a four things which automatically make this book stand out as an inclusive feminist text.

1. Suki owns her sexuality.

As I’ve noticed as a trend in Garcia’s work (I’ve since read Dreaming in Cuban and will post on it shortly), her female characters do not shy away from sex or taking their own pleasure. For Suki, this means that part of her ritual before a bull fight is to find a male stranger with handsome feet she has sex with. In the novel, he pleasure her in a beautiful jarring scene between Suki and a man from room service.

Throughout the novel, all the male characters want to have sex with her, but Suki is always the one in control of how she uses her body. Better yet, there is no rape or coerced sexuality at all in the text.

2. Garcia plays with gender roles. 

Each character subverts or works from a gender stereotype. Suki, for all her beauty, competes in the masculine world of bull fighting. Won Kim wants nothing more than to study butterflies. Ricardo desires to be a great father, but no one trusts him because he’s male. Martin is the epitome of masculinity and we watch it consume his thoughts and violent desires. Although there are no queer, trans or gender divergent characters, Garcia purposely uproots our ideas about simple gender roles.

3.  Aura.

Aura’s my favorite. Garcia plays on gender expectations (again) when “the ex-guerilla” turns out to be female. Her plot arc, one of the most action based in the novel, is a revenge story which does not rely a gun in a female character’s hand for her to be strong. Her strength comes from her morality and her decisions. As Aura seeks revenge for her brother’s murder she has to really consider the consequences of jumping back into a life where she is a murderer: a life she gave up and does not want.

4. Aura. 

Aura provides the magical realism of the novel, adding just enough magic and mystery that I was engaged with both the characters and the world. Is Aura really speaking to her dead brother on the roof of the hotel? Maybe. Probably. But maybe not.

Garcia is the master of this in-between, ambiguous space. What I love the most is that, like Suki’s mixed heritage, everyone is more than one piece of  their identity. Everyone is messy and struggling. Without straying into dark plots that could never reach a happy ending or even a conclusion, Garcia takes each individual’s struggle seriously even the despicable characters we want to hate. Writing this humanity for even the darkest and most awful characters is what makes this novel a must-read.

Up next feminist nonfiction essays: Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. Keep reading!

My Jewish Life in Taboo

From my experience as a Jew, saying “G-d damn” was not taking the Lord’s name in vain, but to say “Jesus” was anathema and a rejection of Judaism. Growing up in a conservative Jewish home[1] while living in a majority Christian town, my religious community sheltered me from the Christian world. I grew up with a paranoia I couldn’t quite name that translated itself into a fear of saying “Jesus.” To say his name would give power to the Christian world over me and bring Christianity into my life, usurping Judaism. My taboos are religious taboos, but have become self proscribed taboos that reveal a fear of Christianity I am trying to overcome.

No one ever told me not to say “Jesus.” Within my Jewish family, no one had to. It seemed that only Christians talked about Jesus because, it seemed, only Christians cared about Jesus. But I’ve begun to understand that I’ve refused to talk about him precisely because I had to care as a religious minority living in a Christian community. Jesus had to always be a part of my consciousness because as Jews, we were defined (and defined ourselves in the process) by what we were not and we were not believers in Jesus. Jewish vocabulary, and a lack of Christian vocabulary, became a marker of difference. And to be a good Jew, was to reject Jesus not just as a savior, but as a person or a concept for discussion. To say Jesus’ name was to give him legitimacy as the son of G-d and reject Judaism in the process.

I didn’t know it was possible to talk about Jesus outside of the Christian context of “Jesus-as-savior” (words I am hesitant to even type because I am still bound by my own fear of this taboo). During a world history class my freshman year of high school, I struggled when we learned about Jesus; it was my first time learning about him. Studying for a history exam with my mother, I found that, lacking a euphemism, I called him “Jesus of Nazareth” and opted for historical accuracy with none of the religious potency of naming him as “Christ”. Even so, I feared I would emerge from studying somehow less Jewish than before for having said Jesus’ name. And if I wasn’t Jewish then what was I?

It has only been in college, surrounded by irreverent (and mostly atheist or agnostic) friends that I’ve begun to say “Jesus.” But saying Jesus remains a rejection of Christianity for me, and remains a loaded word I need to think about before, during and after I’ve said it. With my friends, talking about Jesus is a joke, a means of insulting Christians who do believe. I can be part of this conversation because I’ve never believed. A few weeks ago, my friends discovered the website AnswerMeJesus, a Jesus-inspired magic 8 ball. You ask questions and receive answers such as “Hallelujah” or “Pray harder” or “No chance in Hell.” And while my friends asked questions about the anti-Christ and “What would Jesus really do?” I didn’t know what to ask. I couldn’t think of anything other than to ask if I was going to Hell, or other questions that would reveal my insecurities about Judaism, and my continued reluctance to call Jesus by name or speak about him. Against my wishes, his name limits my speech and I continue to view Judaism as not-Christianity. My friends can joke about Jesus because they were raised Christian, but “Jesus” continues to hold power over me, my speech, and my understanding of myself as a Jew.

I am far more comfortable speaking about Islam and Muhammad or any religion except Christianity. I work at an organization dedicated to interfaith dialogue but rejecting Christianity remains a primary concern of my identity and my language. Even though my mother will now occasionally refer to Jesus as “Christ” without meaning any harm and my brother has used “Jesus Christ!” as a curse word for years, I am barely comfortable saying “Jesus” with my friends. For me, he will never be “Christ.” Long after the taboo disappeared in my family, it remains as a self proscribed taboo of my own prejudice and fear of Christianity taking over Judaism in my life. I’m attempting to overcome this fear by separating Jesus, the historical person, from Christianity and the historical bad blood between Christians and Jews that fuels my fear. I hope to eventually feel free to speak about Jesus as a historical figure of significance, who holds no further bearing on my life.

I wrote this for an English class at my university. I assumed that the professor would understand that it was personal, but he did not. He called on me during class to explain what I wrote because he found it an interesting point of discussion. And because of the power-dynamic between teachers and students I felt obligated to share. When a professor asks, “Cheryl, do you want to explain what you wrote?” there isn’t the option to decline.

After I explained, the professor said he found it interesting how much Jesus still holds power of me. He laughed saying, it was as if “Saying his name would be taking Christ into your heart.” He laughed.

I felt attacked and ridiculed for my faith because I am not Christian. Until power dynamics shift away from Christian hegemony, of course “Jesus” will continue to be a taboo in my life because even progressive places like academia are not always accepting of minority religions. If anyone else ever feels targeted in the classroom for their faith or lack of faith, this post is for you.

[1] Conservative as a Jewish movement or denomination, not conservative as a political leaning.

Kick Off Asexual Awareness Week

Celebrate asexual awareness week by celebrating the diversity within the ace spectrum.

Like other sexual orientations there are variations in our gender, our sex, our dress and our race. We are heteroromantic. Or not. We are homoromantic. Or not. We are panromantic. Or not. We are biromantic. Or not. We are polyromantic. Or not. We are aromantic. Or not. We are demiromantic. Or not. We are grayromantic. Or not.

And that is okay.

sexual and romantic expression

We are cis, trans, genderqueer, gendervariant and agender. We are gray aces. Demisexuals. We masturbate and we don’t.

And that is okay.

We are varied in our expression of our orientation. Celebrate Asexual Awareness week by celebrating diversity and inclusion. If ace is to become a more accepted part of the queer community we need to stand for the inclusion we hope to achieve.

Watch the video below to see different asexuals speak about their experience. Happy Asexual Awareness Week!*

*if I have unintentionally forgotten anyone’s gender identity, romantic orientation or other means of expressing their asexuality it was unintentional. Please leave me a comment and I can update this post to include you as well.

How to not Appropriate Someone’s Culture

I’m taking a Concept Development class for media and the arts and have to market a chocolate. Starting with an abstract concept I have to name the chocolate, design a package and ultimately produce a commercial.

My abstraction is feminism and my idea is that the proceeds of this chocolate would go toward aiding female cacao farmers gain economic independence. I want to name my chocolate in line with a mythology and specifically after a goddess because of the role of women in the cacao industry. Most of the cacao beans are grown in Central and South America or Africa and to be accurate I would then choose a goddess from a Central or South American lore or African lore. This, thankfully, got me thinking about cultural appropriation and that if I were to go the route I am considering I would have to do so with care, research and caution.

So, what is cultural appropriation?

Cultural appropriation is when someone takes certain aspects of another culture for their own, without understanding the culture they are using and without asking permission. This occurs when someone, knowingly or unknowingly, believes the culture of another can be used as a trend, a fashion statement, or a symbol without acknowledging the origins and oppression that are ingrained in that culture’s history.

So, here is a quick list of questions to ask yourself if you think you might be in danger of appropriating another’s culture. This is not an exhaustive list and I would love to get feedback and suggestions to expand.

  1. How much do you know about the tradition/fashion/religion/symbol (etc) you seek to use? Does your use align with the original intent?
  2. Why this particular tradition/fashion/religion/symbol (etc)?
  3. Would you feel comfortable with someone using your culture’s tradition/fashion (etc) in this way?
  4. Can members of this culture practice their tradition/fashion (etc) in public without social ridicule/stigma?
  5. Does using this tradition/fashion (etc) in any way rely on stereotypes (positive and negative) of this culture?
  6. Does this using this tradition/fashion (etc) in any way elevate your culture above the one you are representing?
  7. Do you know anyone from this culture who might be able to offer some insight on your idea?

If your answer exoticizes another culture in any way, or places the culture as a trend to be used instead of an ethnic heritage to be understood, you should rethink your idea. Cultural appropriation is racist and even the best intentions are not always free from this prejudice.

Question yourself before you take a racist step. There are ways to learn about the cultures of others and appreciate their beauty, but it is through research and understanding.