Empathy is the Vehicle for Change.
If you want to uphold the dignity of every human person, you can't avoid looking at the ways that people have been held down. White people have long had the privilege of turning away and not looking at it. Black and brown people cannot turn away from a daily diet of risk, threat, humiliation and vigilance. Black, brown, white...we belong to each other. It is long past the time when all people, but white people especially, have to move past "me" and toward "we". It is a time for radical kinship among us.
When I taught a leadership and social justice class at the local Catholic high school in Napa, I taught my students to understand this. Honoring the dignity of every human person, each a beloved child of God, is a central part of what it means to be a Catholic Christian. (I'm not saying all Catholics make this manifestly clear, but I am saying it is at the center of Catholic doctrine and teaching. So I taught it.) A former student texted me on Monday and said, "Hi Mrs N! I just wanted to thank for you having us watch "13th" in your class. I think it's really important for people to learn about systematic and continued racism earlier than college and you were one of the few teachers in high school to make it a priority!" Dear, it was my privilege. It literally was, and is.
Why did I make these kinds of conversations a priority? Because I deeply believe that empathy is the vehicle for change. We cannot show up as an authentic "We" if we will not choose to stand in the shoes of another and let their pain be our pain, and their delight be ours as well. In a marriage, in a church, in a community, in a school, in a nation divided by rhetoric and partisanship, empathy is what will draw us into the deep knowing that we belong to one another and that my fate is bound to yours at all times.
A woman out after curfew in Minneapolis spoke to a reporter from the New York Times after she was arrested. She knew she was at risk of arrest, but thought it was important to come out anyway. To stand up for something right she had to keep going, she said. "Why was it important to come out tonight, when you knew what they (police) were going to do?" the reporter asked. "For my younger brothers," she said. "They've been profiled since they were 8 years old. A white woman got her bike stolen and they took my brothers while they were riding their bikes on the way to get a haircut, and put them in the back of a police car, and taunted my baby brothers, and pulled this white woman up to let her be the judge as to whether they were guilty or not. That's why I'm out here...that happened in what...2009?2008? This is not a new problem." She recognized that police were out doing their jobs and that they are not the problem. She doesn't hate them or want them hurt. The problem is the system! she said. "The power, we're fighting the power. So until everybody is out here, and we outnumber everybody on the other side, things will never change. Things haven't changed for hundreds of years. I'm a black American."
Who does she mean when she says "we"? Who is everybody? It's us. It's me. It's you. I have a son. I have brown nephews. I can pause and imagine that my boys are her brothers, that her brothers are my sons. And when I put myself there, my heart aches for her, for them, for all of us divided. I can feel that, even though I can literally "only imagine" as a white person. I don't have to feel this...I get to. Empathy is what will draw us from the limiting "me" towards the radical "we".