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.

Happy National Coming Out Day!

I never know what to say on National Coming Out Day. On the one hand, I am incredibly privileged. My mother is the most supportive and incredible human being I could ever imagine. My friends, no matter their gender or sexual orientation, are accepting of me as asexual and homo-romantic. I pass as White, I’m cis, I live in a liberal city.

But I have yet to officially come out on Facebook. My Aunt as well as one of my Uncles are my facebook friends and I’m not ready for them to know I’m queer. My Aunt might tell my grandfather and I definitely don’t want him knowing I’m queer, especially because I’ll be home for the first time in months for Thanksgiving and I don’t want my sexuality to be the conversation of choice.

I joke sometimes that I think my grandfather suspects I’m not straight (i.e. a lesbian) because he’s made hints that it’s okay if I don’t get married. He knows I’ve never shown an interest in men. But when I come out to the rest of my family, I want to be honest. I won’t come out as a lesbian because I’m not a lesbian.

I’m asexual and I’m homo-romantic and I won’t compromise on that to make my identity simpler to understand.

Again, I’m privileged. It I were to come out to the rest of my family I’m sure I would still be loved. I would still have a place to live, I would still have employment, and I would still have people in my life like my mother who would stand with me.

On National Coming Out Day, I celebrate these brave individuals who take these steps though their lives might not be so certain on the other side. I celebrate those who are out and proud every day, showing that queer life can be normal life and that we are everywhere. Thank you to the queer community for all your bravery today.

Are you married? and other loaded questions

I bus tables at a restaurant and a coworker today asked me if I was married. He’s older, in his thirties or forties and though I knew he wasn’t asking me out, I was deeply uncomfortable.

I told him no, I’m not married and he proceeds to tell me that he’s surprised because with my sweet personality he’s sure some nice guy will snatch me up soon. Bull shit.  He thinks this a compliment but I went from being uncomfortable to being offended. I don’t want to be snatched up! I’m not some dessert made for someone’s pleasure. Who I am cannot be broken down into ‘sweet’ and if I am sweet it is not for the benefit of anyone else, regardless of sex or gender.

The worst part was he was trying to be nice! But questions like this are heteronormative. He assumed I was straight, assumed I wanted (and needed) a man in my life and assumed that I had the privilege of being able to get married if I so choose. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong again. I have ace friend who worked at a restaurant and she pretended to be a lesbian because it was more convenient for her than having to explain being ace. I don’t want to pretend to be anything. I am asexual and I don’t want to hide this fact, but I don’t know how to bring it up. It’s not my place to explain my sexuality to my coworker and I am not comfortable having that conversation at work, especially with an older man I barely know.

I feel gross and objectified. I’m not a person in his eyes because all I am is a sweet girl ripe for marriage. Is it so much to ask to be treated as a human being?

I pulled him aside and told him his comment made me uncomfortable. He asked why and I said because it was a personal question. This is true; it is a personal question. But more than that, it’s a loaded question. Even with the best intentions, asking someone questions about romantic or sexual relationships can make the other person feel threatened. I am immediately on edge if someone asks me if I have a boyfriend. Even the non gender specific question of “Are you dating anyone?” holds assumptions about my sexuality and I will inevitably disappoint with my answer.

Does anyone have advice on answering or diverting loaded questions? Any advice on how to watch your language so you don’t make someone else feel unsafe? I would appreciate the feedback. Thank you.

Asexual Flag. Proud to be ace.

Asexual Flag. Proud to be ace.

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

All Genders

I was speaking with my mother yesterday when casually she said “all genders.” This is the language we all must start to embrace and use in our every day vocabulary. When you say both (whether both sexes, both genders, both sexualities etc) you are telling those around you that you subscribe to the gender binary, the male-female binary, the gay-straight binary and all harmful either-or’s that dominate our speech. It seems like such a small thing, to consciously switch from saying both to saying all, or none but it can mean the world to those who are otherwise excluded from the conversation.

Consider all the people who are:

  • gender queer
  • trans*
  • agender
  • gender fluid
  • polyamorous
  • intersex

and I know this is not an extensive list, so please comment and let me know who else is alienated by the language of both. 

To better illustrate my point and to explain other ways of consciously shaping our language to be more inclusive, check out the youtube video below by sexplanations.

 

That’s Problematic

I tend to move in left wing circles of friends. This is great because it means we very rarely need to tell one another to stop using homophobic language or to treat the female participants of the conversation as full individuals, it also means we tend agree on most issues. So, how is this a problem? Well, in order to become more knowledgeable about the issues we discuss (gender, sexuality, race, economics, government, politics, etc) having a cross flow of ideas is invaluable.

Think about cross ventilation in your home or apartment in the summer. Imagine how the room becomes unbearable with a lone fan sitting in the window blowing hot air into the hot room. What can initially seem as a joy in and of itself (at least you have a fan, or  a space for liberal discussion) that joy does not last.

I’ve noticed that when I’m in these groups, one of us will comment on how something is problematic. Disney’s Pocahontas, for example. I might say that I love that film, but I am well aware it is problematic. Another of my friends will agree with me and we move on. In short, we’ve identified a problem,  but failed to unpack what’s actually wrong. All it would take for us to have a discussion and not just throw around vague opinions we both agree on, is for my friend to ask me, “how do you see Pocahontas as problematic?”

Because maybe I’m thinking about the affront to Native American culture when the white men leave in peace at the end, denying hundreds of years of continued abuse, brutality and racism. Maybe my friend is thinking about the sexualization and exoticization of Pocahontas as a character. Maybe another friend jumps in and talks about two-spirit ideas of gender in Native American culture.

Pocahontas

 

Suddenly “problematic” has branched off into many veins and sparked a conversation where a cross flow of ideas can take place.

Unpack your ideas and don’t be afraid to be challenged or to challenge others. Ask questions to better understand another’s views. There is no need to sit with that same one fan blowing hot air. Open up another window, turn on the AC and let the ideas circulate. The conversation will be far more fascinating and your opinions far more developed.

Motivation: As Narrated by Men

If you look up motivational videos on youtube you’ll notice a disturbing trend. Whether it’s one long speech or a compilation of movie speeches, motivational quotes and intense action or training montages, the videos are always narrated by men.

Let’s take a look at a few examples:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lsSC2vx7zFQ

How about:

And:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N2WVHIau77Q

If I want to find women narrating to me about motivation and pushing myself to be better than my best, I have to look specifically for “motivational videos women.” Women are not the norm but the deviation. But women do not need specific motivation geared toward us!  The same ideas about “fall 7 seven times get up 8 times” about “take hits because life is tough but we are tougher” are not advice just for men. There is no monopoly on success but mainstream media wants us to believe women are inherently different.

There is no gender monopoly on success and motivation! We do not need “motivational videos for women.” We need non-gender specific motivation that recognizes human potential for success not male potential or female potential. We all can get beaten down by life and we all deserve to be told not to sit down and take it.

Why I do not want a woman president

ready-for-hillary-e1388976729948

I am ready for Hillary but America is not. And this is the issue. Hillary Clinton (or any woman running for office) should not be defined by her gender. The fact that it is groundbreaking for a woman to have a fair shot for the American presidency, puts unnecessary emphasis on the fact that she is not a man. It should not matter whether she is a man or a woman so long as she fulfills the role of President and makes smart decisions for the country.

It is a similar situation when President Obama was running for his first term in 2008 and it was groundbreaking that a black man could not only run for president but be elected. And the logical leap commences that because a black man is president of the United States therefore racism is a thing of the past. If a black man can “make something of himself” every black person (or person of color) is obviously just not trying hard enough to make a decent life for themselves. If they are poor, if they are in jail, if they are illiterate it is now undeniably their fault. We live in post-racial world, after all. The logic of these statements do not hold up.

Just because one person of a specific race achieves something deemed “out of the ordinary” by the dominating white culture, means nothing in regard to the others of that race suffering under systematic oppression. The fact that a successful person of color is deemed “out of the ordinary” at all holds its own immense problems.

I fear that if Hillary Clinton is elected, it will give the world another excuse to claim feminism is a defunct principle that belongs in a history book and not in contemporary issues of debate. If a woman can become president, then sexism cannot exist, right?

In addition, anything that goes wrong during her presidency would be blamed on her gender. Most arguments I hear about why we need a woman president is based on biological essentialism: women are naturally more inclined toward peace and therefore a woman president would prevent wars. Women are not naturally inclined toward anything and neither are men, but this argument consistently arises. Even people who support female leadership do so by putting emphasis on her gender. This is not the way to bring about equality but to further the gender divide and place it as a normal concept in the public sphere.

Whoever becomes the first woman president would be an experiment, but even worse, an experiment pre-determined to fail. No matter what she might do in office her policies will be treated harsher and she will be more criticized than her male predecessors. Women in any sphere fight a two fronted war. They need to first fight to enter the conversation and then fight again to get an idea implemented. Imagine fighting this war when you are chief executive of a nation trapped in a political system that is already stagnant. It’s not that she would fail because she is a woman, but that is exactly the message the American people would receive. Everything would be a failure for not being the perfect president women have claimed a female president would automatically be. Putting someone on a pedestal is just another form of oppression: it gives you a reason to hate this person when they do not live up to your expectations.

I believe in gender equality, but I do not believe in a female president. The only change in American politics would be the gender of the commander-in-chief. Instead of instituting gender equality from the top-down we would be replacing a male led power structure with a female led power structure. Politics would remain stagnant. Policies combating racism, sexism and classism would remain on paper (at best). And when her term (or terms) were over she would be relegated to a footnote in history.

Gender equality will not come about through top down reforms anymore than racial equality came about with Obama’s presidency. Real change needs to be a bottom-up overhaul of the oppressive systems that make a black president or a female president an anomaly even in the 21st century.

Take Up Space

It is not difficult to look into a room and know immediately who controls the area. Watch people’s body language. How do they sit? Who is standing? Where are they gathered and around who are they gathered? Who looks the most comfortable in the space? Chances are the ones in control of the space are men.

Count how many women sit with their legs or ankles crossed.  Count how many men sit with their legs splayed. Who is controlling the space?

Men are taught to take up space when they enter a room. Whether that is literally inhabiting more area by sitting with their legs splayed, or standing with confidence to dominate those who are sitting, men are taught they enter a space and they own it. Any competition to be top-dog exists between men only. Women in the space are fixtures of beauty to be acted upon and brought into their sphere of influence.

Just the other day I was standing and drinking tea with a male professor. Another man came by and asked if I was cold. I was not cold and for a moment I did not understand. Then it became clear: I was standing with my tea cup grasped with both hands in front of my chest and my shoulders hunched together. I looked cold because I was unconsciously trying to take up less room.

While men are taught to dominate public spaces, women are taught that their presence is tolerated so long as they don’t speak up or take the spotlight from men. It’s so easy to sink into the shadows when you’ve been taught your whole life the public sphere is not for you. It’s easy to relinquish control to the idea of male domination because most of this power dynamic is incredibly subtle.

It’s me standing with my whole body hunched in on itself to give my professor more room. It’s me walking just slightly behind a male companion to let him lead. It’s me readily giving up my control of a situation. Because that’s what this concept of public space is about: control.

If you control the space, you control the people in the space. You set the agenda for what is heard, what is said and what is taken seriously. With myself included, women need to take up more space. It won’t be easy because a woman who takes up space is a woman with a voice and a woman with a voice is a woman who is shot down at every turn. It is “unladylike” and you will be criticized for it. But it is better to have a voice and push to be heard because eventually you will succeed. With more and more women understanding this idea of body politics, we will succeed.

When women take up space we create a more equal playing field before words are even spoken. We challenge the status quo by putting our bodies out there as whole people who deserve respect. Respect yourself and take up more space.

Culture of Protest: Do not Fear Change, Fear Passivity

Before coming to Turkey concerned friends and family only knew Turkey was part of the dreaded Middle East. They told me not to go near Syria even though I’m living on the opposite side of the country on the European continent. They told me not to go near Gezi Park–the site of anti-government protests summer 2013 which turned violent when police used water cannons and tear gas canisters to disperse Turkish people encamped in the park. The protests have been compared to the Occupy Movement and the 1968 protests in America because of how people of all political affiliations have been involved and it is not just one issue they are fighting for.

When the Occupy  movement swept through American news, it was a joke to me. The people holding their protests against Wallstreet weren’t making change, they were making fools of themselves and contacting TB while they struggled to get organized. From my sheltered life as a college student in GA these protests were futile and I barely paid them any attention.

But living in Istanbul I’ve seen protests. I walked outside of Istanbul Cevahir (the biggest mall in Europe) and there was a crowd of people chanting in Turkish, yelling in Turkish words that I didn’t understand. The other American exchange students I was with stopped to gawk, inching closer with smiles on their faces as they felt like such big-damn heroes for braving a protest scene. As soon as the police showed up and started attacking people in the crowd, my acquaintances ran off, yelling for me to follow them. I cannot remember the last time I was so angry. How could these other exchange students be so heartless and exploitative at the expense of people putting their safety on the line for something they believe in? When did protests become a spectacle?

I believe it happens when people find them exotic. The Occupy Movement aside, there is not a large protest culture in America since the 1960s because it seems as if protests haven’t been working. Maybe it’s because America is such a large country that creating national fervor has become near to impossible. Maybe it’s because the American government is so great at turning its citizens against each other that we’re too busy to fight the real enemy of the government who is supposedly elected to serve us. I do not feel served as an American citizen, I feel betrayed by a system I was taught all my life is perfect. American Democracy.

And because have American democracy, things may not be perfect as we’re told they are as children, but things could always be worse so sit down, shut up and don’t complain. Laugh at the people brave enough to complain. Run away when things get too dangerous and don’t you dare try to stand up for your rights. It won’t work.

The protests in Atlanta after the Zimmerman trial didn’t stop the government or the court systems from being racist. The No More Names protest against gun violence following the Newtown school shooting didn’t stop the NRA from keeping its boot on the American government’s neck. They marched on Washington and nothing has happened to pass gun safety laws. It seems as if every protest we have is quickly forgotten as people turn a blind eye to suffering that does not affect them. Again, we are too busy fighting ourselves to fight the government and this is a form of oppression. Although the system of democracy advocates for the voice of the people in making decisions, the real world of living in American democracy tells you the opposite. It tells you not to make change and that maybe change isn’t possible.

Yesterday, March 11th 2014 marks the death of Berkin Elvan a 14 year old who left his home to buy bread during the Gezi Park protests and was hit in the head by police. Elvan had been in a coma since he was attacked and yesterday he died. In Istanbul and Ankara (the two largest cities in Turkey) there were massive protests and looking at the pictures  I wondered if protests like this could happen in America today. I wondered if protests like this do happen today and the government is great at covering them up or turning them into parodies to be laughed at.

But no matter what I wonder, there is one thing I know. One of the most striking ways Turkish protests differ from what I have seen and understand about American protests is that in Turkey, the protesters are not pushing for the government to enact small reforms. They are asking the government to resign. 

That is what American protests are missing: the belief that large-scale change can occur and that we are not beholden to the current system. I do not have all the answers for a perfect government but I do not fear a change in the system, I fear living my life under the belief that change is impossible.