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.

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Books By Women: Memnoch the Devil

I know I promised that my next book post would be We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but I just finished Memnoch the Devil and I have a lot of critique I need to express.

download (2)Memnoch is the fifth book in Anne Rice‘s Vampire Chronicles Series (Interview with the Vampire, The Vampire Lestat, etc). I read the first four books my first year in college, one after the other after the other after the other and fell into Anne Rice’s characters with devotion I couldn’t begin to explain. I talked about the series for hours to my mother and pulled out quotes and passages I found devastating or hysterical or blindingly real and human, despite the characters being undead. There are still passages in The Vampire Lestat and Queen of the Damned (book three of the series) I can still quote from memory, though I haven’t reread the books in nearly five years. Anne Rice’s characters are nearly all pan-romantic and homo-erotic overtones shape her narratives. The first three books are a dream.

Without going into too much detail, I found the fourth book, Tale of the Body Thief, bland and overall unpleasant in any number of ways. I stopped reading the series there because I had been told by friends and numerous internet reviews that Memnoch the Devil was the worst of the entire series (now ten books total).

The premise is that the vampire Lestat, the narrator and hero of the past three books in the series, gets called upon by Memnoch the Devil to serve as the Devil’s Lieutenant in Hell. Throughout the book, the Devil takes Lestat through Creation, Heaven and Hell as well as throughout time. Lestat needs to decide if he’ll serve God or the Devil by the end of this journey.

I wasn’t expecting much but was somehow still deeply disappointed. The flowing descriptions that characterized Anne Rice’s historical settings in Paris and New Orleans became purple prose and were spent describing three things:

  1. Lestat’s clothing and appearance (even for a self-identified dandy of a character, it’s an incredibly odd and jarring choice because Lestat is the narrator)
  2. Dora’s beauty (the one Human female character Lestat is obsessed with)
  3. Lestat’s tears (you could play an intense drinking game for all the times Lestat cries in this book–for a bonus round, take a drink every! time! there’s! an! exclamation! point!)

But her writing style aside, what upset me the most was her treatment of her female characters and the way women are woven into (and not woven into) this alternative creation narrative. And while Anne Rice published Memnoch in 1995 and just declared on Facebook that she quit Christianity, saying “I refuse to be anti-feminist” I still find it important to discuss the ways this narrative remains a harmful portrayal of women, rape culture, and the erasure of female narratives within religion. Regardless of whether she continues to hold the views or opinions I gathered from this book, it is still important to discuss the issues.

The narrative is told from Lestat’s perspective, but there is no pushback against his misogyny. We, as readers, are expected to agree with him and be sympathetic to his views. So when Lestat’s narration reads:

[Dora’s] voice was small and typically feminine, that is, the pitch was without mistake feminine, but she spoke with terrific self-confidence now, and so her words seemed to have authority, rather like those of a man.

are we supposed to agree with him?

Dora is a saint, a televangelist saint, who is perfect in every way. She is not afraid of Lestat even he reveals that he killed her father or when she knows he’s a vampire. And at the end of the novel when Lestat returns from his journey with the Devil and is distraught and crazed, Dora kisses him and she’s on her period (which Lestat has noted every time they’re in the same scene together). Lestat’s response is:

I rolled her over gently […] and I pulled up her skirt and I lay my face against her hot naked thighs […] my tongue broke through the thin cotton of her panties, tearing the cloth back from the soft down of pubic hair, pushing aside the blood-stained pad she wore, and I lapped the at the blood just inside her young pink vaginal lips […] blood that brought no pain, no sacrifice, only her gentle forbearance with me, with my unspeakable act […] my tongue licking at the secret bloodstained place, taste and smell of her blood, her sweet blood, a place where blood flows free and no wound is made or ever needs to be made, the entrance to her blood open to me in her forgiveness.

um…well, it’s great to know the female body is there for a male character’s enjoyment and forgiveness. It’s even better to know that Dora’s response is to hold Lestat’s head as he cries, call him her darling and her angel, and then ask to sleep beside him when he goes to rest. Did I mention there are two other male vampires in the room and no one does anything to stop or question Lestat’s actions? I can’t remember the last time I was so angry or disgusted over the treatment of a female character.

The novel disregards women again through Anne Rice’s mythology of Angels and God. All the Angels are male. God is without a doubt male. This, despite the fact that Memnoch says Angels resemble females more than males yet Angels are without a doubt more male than female. And what angered me the most as a feminist was that rape culture and violence against women was explained as a natural part of humanity. When Memnoch goes to live among the humans, he chooses to become male. Lestat understands this decision, saying:

‘I would imagine you had seen enough of rape, childbirth, and helpless struggle to make the wiser choice. I know I would have.’

And right there, to be female is laid out as to be deficit and there is no challenge to this conversation. There is no alternative voice or speaker of authority to these two male character parading their superior maleness. There is no thought that women are not naturally victims of rape, that childbirth could be anything but horrific and painful, or that women do not naturally struggle.

Of course, I knew going into this book that not all female authors are feminists, but I was amazed by the breadth of the dismissal of the female sex. Although I’ve definitely read books since starting to read books by women I did not enjoy, this has been the first book I was angry about and would not recommend.

But, if nothing else, reading this book has made me more conscious of the fact that it’s not enough to be a female author writing speculative fiction. You have to consciously decide on feminism and equality.

Next up: We Have Always Lived in a Castle. Keep reading. Even the books you don’t like, just keep reading.

Books By Women: Parable of the Sower

Writing is one of the few professions in which you can psychoanalyse yourself, get rid of hostilities and frustrations in public, and get paid for it.

Octavia Butler

In my pursuit to read books by women for a year– and specifically women of color– I turned to Octavia Butler. Last summer I read books one and two of her Xenogenesis Series (also known as Lilith’s Brood) and her short story Blood Child–a pdf is available online.

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When I read Octavia Butler, I’m ready for three things.

  1.  science fiction with the understanding that the genre is perfect for commenting and critiquing our world and culture
  2. a detailed analysis of culture
  3. a diverse cast of characters and a female lead of color

Parable of the Sower lived up to these expectations.

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The book follows Lauren, a teenage black woman living on Earth after the planet has suffered ecological disaster and the United States has all but fallen into anarchy. Lauren lives with her dad, a Minister, and her family behind a walled city, one of the only ways to protect yourself from a world where walking outside of your gate almost certainly means being robbed, raped or killed. I loved the raw and brutal depiction of the United States because the danger was real and very plausible. The narrative brought up issues of modern day slavery where most jobs do not pay or pay in company scrip from company-owned cities and towns. The economic situation pitted the poorest people living on the streets against the less-poor but barely eeking out a living families who live behind walls, like Lauren. The story is a survival story: when Lauren’s walled city is destroyed, can she survive the danger posed by her fellow human beings?

Lauren also has a secret. Though her father is a minister and she was raised Christian, she doesn’t believe in a Christian G-d. Her understanding of G-d is a self-designed religion called Earthseed, told through poems at the start of each chapter.

All that you touch
You Change.

All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
is Change.

God
is Change.
Octavia E. Butler Parable of the Sower

I’m sure I missed many of the religious references because as a Jew, I don’t know the Christian Bible and often miss Biblical allusions, but someone with a stronger background in religion would, I’m certain, have endless entertainment parsing through the novel.

There were a few things in particular I loved about this book.

  1. Lauren is black but her race is not her one and only defining attribute.
  2. Lauren has sex and doesn’t apologize for it, demean, or demonize her sexuality.
  3. the main characters are racially diverse with multiple characters who are black, white, Hispanic, or mixed. One character never serves to represent their entire race.

I have not read the sequel, Parable of the Talents, but from the summary, it seems as if it will patch up a few issues of the story I struggled with. The novel is a brilliant text and a feminist text, but I wasn’t as invested in the characters as I wanted to be. Especially as the novel progresses and we have more and more main characters to follow I have difficulty keeping up and wished the story were more character driven and less plot driven (though the Xenogenesis series had the same issue). Still, I would highly recommend Parable of the Sower for your reading list to add more female authors of color to your shelf.

Next up: the Poisonwood Bible. Keep on reading!

How to Make Your Holidays Inclusive for Minorities

I used to hate it when cartoon stations I watched growing up would wish me “Happy Holidays!” when the show went for a commercial break. The way I saw it, the network could animate the interstitial with all the secular snowflakes, Rudolphs and Frosty’s it wanted, but the only message I heard was “Merry Christmas!” and I wondered why they didn’t just come out and say it. I knew that as a Jew I was (and continue to be) the minority.

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This is my first year celebrating Christmas. I’m staying with a friend in a small town in Ohio with her conservative religious family. Though I grew up in a majority Christian town, there was a synagogue down the street and I’ve lived in a east coast bubble my whole life. I’ve never sat at a table where someone prays before each meal. I’ve never been wished Merry Christmas by so many well meaning people who in all their well-meaningness assume I’m Christian because Christian is the norm.

It’s unintentionally offensive and makes me uncomfortable. Similar to my queer identity, I have to wonder if these well-meaning people would treat me with the same kindness if they knew I was not like them. Would I be so readily accepted as a Jew? As asexual?

I never noticed the extent of my privilege until I sat with my atheist friend as her family and a visiting pastor sang Christmas carols, many of which I did not know and almost all of which involved Jesus.

And I still have to check my privilege because most people at least know about Hanukkah and grant the holiday legitimacy. But what about holidays like Kwanzaa which are disregarded to such an extent I grew up believing Kwanzaa had no merit because it was only a recently established as a holiday. What I really grew up believing was that Kwanzaa had no merit because it was a holiday for African Americans. I only wish I had recognized my racism and bigotry sooner.

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As the holiday season rushes toward Christmas, here’s a list of things to keep in mind that will make the holidays an enjoyable time for all.

1. Say Happy Holidays or Seasons Greetings. It’s a quick way to remind yourself that your faith and traditions are not the only ones being celebrated this season and it opens the floor for communication.

2. Learn about holidays and traditions of other faiths. I got to speak to a Pastor for the first time in my life and ask him about his duties. Before my college semester ended I attended a Kwanzaa workshop with Akinyele Umoja from Georgia State’s African-American Studies Program. My friend’s family has been great about getting me the ingredients to make latkes (Jewish potato pancakes) and challah (braided egg bread).

3. Include secular traditions in your festivities. Singing secular songs and winter activities like sledding or taking frozen walks are always great ideas. Not everyone believes in God.

4. Remember that people of varying gender and sexual orientations as well as people of different races will experience the holidays differently.

I wish everyone Happy Holidays and I’m looking forward to a great New Year!

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.

Islamophobia: Stop the Racism masked as Homeland Security

My grandfather sends me chain emails he gets from his friends. These emails are sometimes funny, sometimes worthwhile, but more often than not they’re offensive. Yesterday I received a particularly racist gem that I couldn’t just ignore and send to my deleted items folder.

Under the guise of being pro-American and religious, the email spoke about how a leader in Prison Ministry had to undergo diversity training and attend a lecture by representatives of Catholicism, Protestantism, and the Muslim faith. The email begins with a subtle racism, but blatant Islamophobia:

The Muslim religion is the fastest growing religion per capita in the United States , especially in the minority races!!

As if the exclamation points don’t voice their concern enough, the speaker needs to dirty his language further by referring not just to those who identify as Muslim, but identifying a connection between minorities and Islam. There is a fear and hatred in these words directed at the Muslim religion and those who might be converts- i.e. those who are not white. The speaker fears minority representation taking away from the dominant white vote.

In twenty years there will be enough Muslim voters in the U.S. to elect the President! I think everyone in the U.S. Should be required to read this; but, with the ACLU, there is no way this will be widely publicized, unless each of us sends it on!

If minorities get the vote, who knows what will happen to our precious country, right? Where will our country be without the strong leaders of white male America to lead it away from the hatred of Islam, right? Everyone in the US should read this, but because it is eye opening about how easy it is to shove our own hatred of others onto them hating us.

The anecdote the email’s author shares is that while attending this lecture series, he asked the Muslim speaker about the holy war and how Muslims are guaranteed a place in heaven if they kill an infidel. He asked the Muslim speaker to define an infidel and the Muslim man said an infidel is a non-believer.

According to the author of this email, the Muslim man “held his head in shame” when his beliefs were brought to light. According to the author of this email, the truth about the Muslim religion was out. What truth? That Americans generalize about the beliefs of others? That Americans hate based on race and religion while preaching tolerance? Those are the only truths I see.

The email ends with a call to action:

This is your chance to make a difference…

FOR SAVING OUR COUNTRY, AS WE KNOW IT,

IN SPITE OF IT’S WARTS AND MOLES, PASS ON THIS MESSAGE. IT IS OUR COUNTRY, WITH LIFE, LIBERTY, AND JUSTICE FOR ALL, THAT WE ARE TRYING TO PRESERVE! THE INACTION IN   EUROPE, MAKES THEIR FUTURE VERY MUCH IN DOUBT. WHAT DO WE WANT FOR OUR CHILDRENS’ FUTURE? A BETTER LIFE FOR ALL
AMERICANS, AND NOT A RETREAT TO THE HATE, MURDER, AND DARKNESS AS ESPOUSED BY MUSLIM-ISLAM!

I’ll end with a call to action of my own: we need to get the word out that Islamophobia is real and has an active audience. it is our country, but that does not mean it is a white country. The liberty and justice for all will be best preserved when the doctrine is followed through. Good luck preaching justice for all when you espouse hatred. Good luck educating children, when you raise them on a diet of white supremacy. Good luck, because the “hate, murder and darkness” you attribute to those of the Islamic faith are just reflections of your own ignorance and fear.

All minorities and oppressed groups need to take a stand and  act out against this! Hatred against one fuels hatred against all.

Gender is Not the Only Box

I had a conversation today with a Native American friend of mine which illuminated the idea that oppressive constraints of identity are not limited to gender or sexuality. This wasn’t news by any means, but the parallels between our experiences was incredible and definitely worth sharing.

He told me how he had wanted to buy  me a Batman ribbon for my birthday but that the ribbons were divided up between those for boys and those for girls. He didn’t want to get me the boys’ ribbon because he didn’t want to be rude, but he didn’t want to get me the girls’ ribbon because he knows I “hate pink”. I explained that I didn’t hate pink, but it ticks me off when marketing companies gender products. A thing does not need to be gendered. A boy should be able to wear the pink ribbon just as easily as the girl should be able to wear the blue. Items of clothing don’t have gender, so why do we assign the labels of “boys’ clothes” and “girls’ clothes”? I continued that it’s all just a way to enforce heteronormativity and traditional gender roles.

He began to talk about how frustrating being put into a box is. He made the point that if he listens to country music, for instance, people will come up to him and say “What are you listening to that for? That music’s not for you.” It’s as if his dark skin and traditional choices in dress and appearance are rigid markers of identity. Native Americans don’t listen to country music, what he is trying to do? He said that when he used to wear his long hair pulled back in a pony tail (instead of the double braids he wears now) people would ask him “why are you trying to look like a Chinese man?” And I know these were not the only stories, though these were the ones he decided to tell.

It reminds me of standardized tests: you check a nice little box next to your gender, your race and your religion. You are then wrapped, and shipped off to belong to someone else’s perception of your gender, your race and your religion. You suddenly represent what your identity markers say you should act like, talk like, or enjoy. You either fit the mold and perpetuate stereotypes or become an outlier to critique.

It can seem like there is no way to win when the world holds up a checklist and controls the pencil saying “yes, you’re a woman so you must be…” and “no, you’re not black, so you can’t be…” or “you’re transgender that means…”

Boxes are more than the over used figure of speech. They’re a real concept that damages people of every identity and are always oppressing with preconceived notions of who you should be by someone else’s definition. Gender and sexuality are not the only means of oppression.