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My “Empathy Well” is DRY!

We live in a world where many well-meaning people do bad things to others. They didn’t “mean” to do it. Often, this is because of something called, “privilege.” When we have privilege, we forget the needs other people that do not have privilege (minority groups). For example, we have all encountered experiences with discrimination. In these experiences, we’ve dealt with microaggressions to overt forms of discrimination.  If you are one of those people who “accidentally” marginalizes minority groups, and if you care about the well-being of other people, you need to remember a concept called, “empathy.”

What is Empathy?

There is no way anyone could have the same experiences as anyone else. There is no way anyone could read anyone else’s mind. But people have empathy. Empathy is the experience of understanding another person's thoughts, feelings, and condition from their point of view, rather than from your own. So, if someone is accusing you of being racist, sexist, transphobic, sizeist, ageist, etc., this means that while you don’t think you’ve done something wrong, it doesn’t matter. You have done something to hurt someone. You are also helping to reinforce patterns that hurt people. Here are five practical tips for you to have more empathy:

Empathy Tip # 1: Shut Up, Listen, and Ask Questions

If someone is accusing you of marginalizing them in some way, try listening. Immediately getting defensive does not solve any problem. In fact, it makes you look guilty.  Try withholding your perspective, and instead, ask about statements you are not sure about.  The goal here is to understand the marginalized person’s experience. The other person is trying to communicate something, and for some reason, the message is being lost. Remember, you have privilege, so you must eventually realize that their experience is not yours. Remember, your goal is to affirm their experiences regardless of any reservations you might have.  Note: When trying to understand the other person, do not question their reality or experiences.

Empathy Tip 2: You are Making Choices that You Can Control

We all have biases. We all stereotype. We all live in vast structures beyond our control. Social scientists make careers about studying these processes. But that doesn’t mean you can’t hold yourself accountable for your actions!  When you choose to blame “stereotypes,” “society,” or “the minority in question”, realize that you are making a choice. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been told “It’s not our fault. It’s not the [insert gay subculture here] community’s fault, but it’s society!” This is a move to derail the conversation away from your actions. It also takes away the community’s responsibility to deal with our problem collectively. Here, you are choosing to live in ignorance and withholding your empathy just because someone is different than you are. Rather than listening, you are choosing to shut down. So, take responsibility for your behaviors, thoughts, and feelings. Also remember, the goal of any community is to make room for its most marginalized people. So not only do the individuals themselves bear responsibility, but the community also has some responsibility to ensure everyone is treated fairly.

Empathy Tip 3: Self-Reflection

A lot of social problems are institutional. That means that people have been provoking minority groups in different settings for ages. As a result, a lot of problems are simply naturalized within any given place. To fix this, we have to be better about making choices. We need to ask ourselves these questions: “Is there any way I can help increase diversity in this space?”  “Have I done enough?” “Is there anything I can do?” “Has anyone pointed out any minority problems?” Specifically, “Are there minorities pointing out that I am doing something wrong?”

Empathy Tip 4: Learn to Apologize

We all mess up. However, as someone who has privilege, you’re taught that you never mess up. You’re also taught that others are being “overly sensitive” and that THEY are “being troublesome”. No, just stop. Apologize. The most affirming thing you can do for someone, especially a minority, is to apologize.

Empathy Tip 5: Do Your Homework!

For a lot of people, empathy takes effort! Focus your time on reading about experiences on marginalized people. Learn about the kinds of language or behaviors that offend marginalized people. Unless you pay them, they individually do not owe you explanations about how to be a better ally. You should use a magic device, called “Google,” and read about the various ways marginalized groups experience their lives. If you happen to have a marginalized friend that would be comfortable to share their experience, ask their permission, and get their perspective. But remember, it’s not their job to educate you. Hopefully you will start to understand that people are just human beings (like you)! As human beings, people like to be treated with respect.  

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