*portions of this piece were first published in the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s “The Village” Blog on December 15, 2014
“We have no need for your sympathy. We welcome your empathy. We require neither to grow into the highest versions of human being Creator would intend us to become.”
This morning I was burdened by a disheartening and uncharacteristic thought regarding my 5-year old son. Anybody who knows me knows he’s my life, pride, and joy. It was fleeting thought, passing almost as quickly as it occurred, but it occurred, and the fact it occurred speaks vulgarly of the cause.
In the wake of two more fatal police shootings over the past two days of Black men in the United States, one of which occurred in our hometown of Minneapolis / St. Paul, I had a natural desire to keep my son close. Upon waking this morning I decided to keep him home from daycare to spend the day together.
Then the enigmatic, fleeting thought occurred, “I wonder if he’d be safer spending the day at daycare, or with his mother or female cousin, instead of spending the day with me, a black man in America?”
What kind of B.S. is that? What kind of psychological imprint must exist for such a thought to originate in the mind of a father? Chillingly, I realized if this thought could occur in my mind, as blessed, grounded, and optimistic as I am, what of countless others who may be less fortunate? The mental anguish being experienced by Black people in this nation hurts my existence to the very core.
I am an optimist by nature, the blessed second son of a father who was humbly raised in a small African Canadian town near the border of Detroit, Michigan. My father never knew his father, yet he strived, matured, and developed to become the kind of man every fatherless child looks up to as a strong male role-model and father figure.
My wife and I are in our forties, now raising a Black Son in the United States…and the optimism is waning. We live relatively well. I practice my passion as a natural healthcare provider, we are business owners, giving and striving to be the best examples of success we can in an urban setting of a major US city.
From the outside looking in life is good, with a beautiful family, comfortable home, and solid social ties, but from the inside looking out, as a community-vested Black Man in the United States, life is an everyday battle pitting individual and group self-worth against a society repeatedly showing disdain, disrespect, and ultimately contempt for the lives of young black men.
The air of racial tension in the United States is burdensome; a heavy and ever-extant cross to bear that is present in every waking facet of life. As a Canadian growing up near a border city, I used to marvel at the change in racial climate and energy the moment we crossed the border. Not to say racism and prejudice do not exist in Canada, they do, but in the United States these negative elements are super-charged and ever-present, like a destructive cancer on steroids spreading to every vital element of an aging and illness-infested body.
Today the disturbing image of Philando Castile, the innocent young Black man shot four times and killed by a policeman in a nearby suburb of the Twin Cities during a questionable traffic stop, slumped in the driver’s seat of his vehicle, dark red blood covering the front of his white t-shirt while his girlfriend live streamed the aftermath of the shooting on Facebook, is vivid on my mind. I hear the innocently compassionate voice of their 4-year old daughter, who was in the backseat of the car at the time of the shooting, trying to comfort her mother shortly afterwards while they sit in the back seat of a police car before being taken into custody and separated.
My son unintentionally glimpsed the graphic, bloody image of Philando Castile being shown on CNN as the story played heavily on the 24/7 news networks. He asked me about it. Hesitantly, I tried to play it off, saying it was TV, like as a movie, or make-belief, but I know he knows the truth. Kids are smarter, more comprehending at a younger age, than we give them credit for. There have been other similar race-related incidences close to home, like Jamar Clark, who was killed less than a mile from our house. Intuitively my son has picked up on race-themed crisis-conversations taking place.
“Daddy, only if people are brown, the police shoot them, right?”
A question asked yesterday evening by my son. He has yet to attend his first day of Kindergarten. To those who would minimize, or outright dismiss, the notion that a problem even exists, or acknowledge that a problem exists but feel it’s all a self-inflicted exercise in self-pity and woe, here’s a question. How would it feel to have to answer such a question to your 5-year old child? How would it feel to second guess spending a day in public with your child for fear your very presence may put their safety in jeopardy? How insane is it, really, to even contemplate such questions?
To dispute there is a problem that a disproportionate number of Black people are unjustly killed at the hands of police year after year in the United States is a willful refusal of reality. In words of the iconic American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Your actions speak so loudly I cannot hear what you are saying.”
I pay respect to a few of the fallen by writing their names…Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Sean Bell, Alton Sterling, Amadou Diallo. Just a sample of the higher publicized cases we know about. Research the real numbers, the cases we know about, and the list is staggering.
All these killings are evidence against perhaps the most famous sound bite from Martin Luther King Jr’s most famous speech, in which he proclaimed, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
Created equal? Definitely. Valued and treated equally? Not a chance. The only self-evident truth regarding the treatment of Black people in America, especially young Black men, is their lives are not regarded equal. Unequally, all we hear is a broken record of recurrent themes and happenings in a nation warped and wrapped around indoctrinated prejudicial traditions, beliefs, and policies at its core.
Enter the dialogue of sympathy, empathy, and race in America. A look at the reactionary protests sparked by the most recent round of police killings and we see the disenfranchised, suffering, and moral minority striving to find effective voices and means to express frustrations, hurt, and anger. Black Lives Matter. Respect. A look at the social-media reactions of the rest of America, even well-intended individuals of other races joining with the protesters, and we see a plethora of pity posts or inflammatory rants, sympathy gestures, pure hatred, disdain, but very little empathy or true desire for change.
The difference between sympathy and empathy is major. Both are acts of feeling, but only one constitutes a true act of compassion that may potentially lead to authentic change. Sympathy is an act of feeling sorry for another individual or group without the ability to truly understand what they’re feeling. Conversely, empathy is a shared feeling – the ability to mentally and emotionally place oneself in another person’s shoes, to have an accurate sense of what they are experiencing and feeling.
Empathy requires mental work and imagination, or a similar life experience, to attain. Sympathy requires lip service and a brief acknowledgment, but no real feeling. Empathy is active, while sympathy is passive. By its very nature the word “active” implies movement; the word “passive” implies stillness. Movement is necessary for change, and change is necessary for progression.
As a nation, the United States needs to embrace the ideals of empathy, not sympathy, if its ever going to turn the corner on race relations. If a corner needs turning before a rumbling freight train falls off a cliff, then the crucial corner must be turned. In 1903 W.E.B. Dubois wrote, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” In 2016, one hundred and thirteen years later, it appears the problem of the 21st century remains the problem of the color-line.
How’s your level of optimism regarding race-relations doing today? That’s a question for people on both sides of the equation. Are we willing to come face-to-face with past or present privilege and disenfranchisement, and what can be done to bring a fairer chance of equity and equality across the board? Are we willing to have difficult conversations, and engage in self-empowering actions to shift from victim to victor mentality? Or do we even possess the desire or capacity to care?
Perhaps the greatest beauty of an idea is its indestructibility. Ideas exist forever. Combine that existence with the notion that nothing can stop an idea who’s time has come, an now is the time to move America beyond the deeply entrenched racial and prejudicial doctrines binding its blessings. There is incredible strength in collective mindset and motion, and that power can be used for good or evil. A collective vision of cohesiveness, communication, and unity has the power to loosen constraints and bring a torn nation together, moving us together toward a better common goal.
What good is a rant about problems without suggestion of solutions? We all have valid ideas, from simple to complex, which may help heal our lives, communities, and nation. What are some ideas and actions that might help this country to move in a direction more akin to the language, yet beyond the bleached vision and version, the forefathers envisioned? Like many others, I have a few opinions. Here are three of my opinions regarding race in America that quickly come to mind:
1) At the highest level, there is a spiritual solution to every problem, including America’s race problem. Not a religious solution, but a spiritual solution. There is a big difference. By a spiritual solution I’m not suggesting the grace of a Higher Power to intervene. Rather, as individuals and a nation we must tap into the spiritual core that exists within each and every one, at our highest level of being, and allow that source to guide our actions daily.
2) There is no need to pretend everyone will or must always get along, but we can and must cordially co-exist on many different levels. Some individuals may intermingle races, cultures, social and economic stratospheres, while others may never evolve to this level of being. Some will choose to stay secluded and limited in closed-minded places, for whatever reason. That’s reality. That’s fine. However, within this model, we must prevent privilege, power, and authority from monopolizing opportunities of fairness, equity, and equality against the disenfranchised, poor, and oppressed. The pursuit of an equal playing field is a fight worth fighting. It is the essence of the American ideal of the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.
3) An unprecedented shift in mindset is necessary on both sides of the race equation for meaningful progress to be made. For some, this mindset-shift will require the recognizing and acknowledgment of privilege, past and present, and asking what can be done to help reconcile unfairly gained privilege. For others, this mindset-shift will require the implementation of self-empowerment goals through means of self-responsibility, once again illuminating the victim-to-victor pathway and journey.
“A people taking charge of their situation, striving for self-improvement through self-change, will necessarily become a successful and respected people.”
At 240 years old, the United States of America is still a relatively young nation. A young nation exhibiting the learned behaviors and growing pains of a bad, spoiled, and selfish childhood. The race, class, and privilege conflicts ingrained and currently on display in this country are, as Malcolm X said in 1963, products of the chickens coming home to roost. It’s a karmic law – we reap what we sow. None may know the time, place, or how, but good will be rewarded with good, and the opposite will infinitely reign true.
Children require time, and some very trying and difficult times, to grow, mature, develop, and evolve. Hopefully the evolution is for the better. A person who views the world the same at 75 years old as they did at 25 has wasted a half century of their lives. Consider from where we’ve come. See the direction we are going. Envision a best case scenario where we may end up. It is my hope and prayer the United States of America may evolve into a much better and greater place.
For the record, my son and I enjoyed an excellent day together. For him, I will always be an example of strength, communication, love, and compassion, regardless what the world may label me. For him, I remain “Super Dad!”
Together we send thoughts and prayers of comfort and strength to all those going through anxious times during these difficult days. Stay the course. Continue to fight good and righteous fights in a positive way, and know every effort, down to the smallest effort, is not in vain. In the simple and prolific words of an old friend, “We’re all in this together.”
Thank you for reading…wishing wellness and empowerment your way,
3 thoughts on “The Truth About Sympathy, Empathy & Race in America (Version 2.0)”
Thank you so much for this post. I have had similar thoughts and commend you for shining the light on this unspoken topic.
Magnificent article! I hope it is read by thousands!
Brother J! What a great read! Things find you you for a reason and I can say as a resident of the USA that it saddens me that things have taken this turn! Being from that same small town as you, I can honestly and proudly say that color never crossed my mind! My best friend and family to you was Alex! Just simply Alex! No color no race, just Alex! Life should be simple? Embrace what happens now… Prepare for what you want to happen next ….. And Never forget where you came from! So happy that social media made us reconnect! Proud of ya son! Boz!