Prior to the upheaval caused by recent events, many people had been celebrating a post-racial America and the fact that we’d finally achieved a country free from racial preference, discrimination, and prejudice. Lots of people pointed to President Obama as proof that the tide had turned and we were entering an equal opportunity era. Opinions are still divided on this concept: some believe we’re there, some say far from it. Before I address any of that, though, I simply say race matters.
I grasp why people want to say the differences between human beings don’t matter — I understand their belief that all human life is valuable, and so physical traits like skin color aren’t significant. Their argument seems to be that the dignity of every soul is inherent; the body that houses each soul is simply what we see on the physical plane and has little to do with that person’s essence. This is a pure and altruistic outlook on life, the logic of which is hard to deny. Someone’s physical characteristics have very little to do with what you find at their core: devotion or unfaithfulness, respect or disdain, bravery or cowardice, generosity or greed.
However…as a white mother of two biracial children, I have to reiterate that race matters. As much as we’d like to think that physical traits are irrelevant in judging character, that’s only true if what’s immediately visible to the eye doesn’t influence perception before you have a chance to discover a person’s core. Since no one grows up in a vacuum, we’ve all been influenced to a degree by the culture around us: our neighbors, the news, magazines, movies, music, celebrities, sports…the images that have worked their way into our subconscious are infinite, and to believe that none of these have registered is simply unrealistic. A no-nonsense assessment of our own perceptions is imperative to forward movement; otherwise, true progress will be hard to come by.
Earlier this week Jen Hatmaker linked a seriously startling blog post from Judy Wu Dominick about the racial empathy gap. (You can read it here.) My friends and family would most likely describe me as liberal, progressive, and passionate about equal rights. I feel strongly about eradicating prejudice of all kinds. I have a son who’s going to be very tall and very dark, for the love of Pete, so you’d think I’d be the last person to find an empathy gap in my subconscious. But I did. No one could be more shocked than me.
In summary, the post talks about how different narratives (ways that stories are told from unique beliefs and perspectives) affect the racial empathy gap. We all have the capacity for empathy and compassion, but because we’re human we are conditioned to feel those emotions within certain contexts. Ms. Dominick provided two images, each with their own narrative, to demonstrate this concept.
The first image shows a young black man with braids. His narrative describes life in America for a 23-year-old black man and the fact that he’s more likely to be considered dangerous, to be arrested, convicted of a crime, receive a harsh sentence, and be killed by a white police officer than a white man in his 20s. It also details the public behavior that would most benefit him and his chances for employment as compared to whites. The second image shows the same black man in his college football uniform, being carried off the field after a tragic injury. This narrative is told from a reporter’s perspective who attributes traits to the young man like “soft-spoken leader,” “humble, straight-laced student,” “consummate team player,” and “role model.” It further describes how this injury eventually made it impossible for him to continue the career he’d started in the NFL so he planned to complete his college degree.
So. Same young black man. Two narratives. The question Ms. Dominick asks is if the reader feels a difference in their empathy meter between the two, and I realized I did. Despite my outrage at the injustices listed in the first narrative and my fury that T-man will face many of the same issues, despite the fact that I felt empathy while reading the first narrative, I had to acknowledge that I felt a slight increase in empathy during the second one. What the hell is THAT about??
Ms. Dominick explains that the first narrative is societal-level, based on psychological and social science research. It attempts to evoke empathy for an entire demographic group, but whites typically hold a cultural belief that merit (like empathy) must be earned at the individual level. Therefore, the first narrative is a lot less likely to evoke empathy in whites since it describes this from the “black man’s” perspective, not from an individual one. Alternatively, the second narrative is an individual-level narrative that includes parts of this man’s life story. The traits the reporter attributes to him are positive ones that evoke empathy for someone who has lost his career despite being an upstanding young man.
Now THIS is the hard stuff. Talk about angst producing. Yes, I felt empathy for the black man in the first narrative; nothing in that account even vaguely resembled equity, and my personal connection to a young black boy who will grow into a man probably made me more sensitive than some. But a hard look at my own perceptions still revealed a little more empathy on the second narrative.
What does this mean? That I’m not a machine. That I’m not impervious to the millions of images and stories I’ve been bombarded with over my lifetime. Even though I love my children to the depth of my soul and would fight tooth and nail for them, there are very real issues to be dealt with. And the only way to do that successfully is to tackle those issues head on.
I believe that dignity for every soul has to be our ultimate goal, and this can only be achieved through personal growth in each and every one of us. And personal growth only comes through cold, hard evaluations of ourselves and our motivations.
Race matters. To pretend otherwise is to keep us stagnant as a society.