“But I’m not racist.”—Choose Empathy for Change

In this series, I share what I have learned about racism in my journey of understanding my white privilege and the story of race in this country. I address this mostly within the framework of what I have learned about Black people’s experiences in the USA because it is the story of our headlines currenlty (and for the sake of focus in writing), but that doesn’t mean my desire to understand and humility towards the subject doesn’t stretch to the stories of all people of color. To all people of color reading this—please correct me, my language, and my insights and points of view when I get it wrong. I am still learning.

“Oh, I’m sure that didn’t hurt.”

I’ve heard that phrase at different times in my life; for small injuries as a child, for larger painful moments as an adult. Someone smacks you as a joke, you say “Ouch!” and the other person responds, “Oh, I’m sure that didn’t hurt.” Walk across the living room, bump the coffee table, say “Ouch” and hear, “Oh, I’m sure that didn’t hurt.” Recount a story of being personally hurt, and the person listening responds with, “I’m sure they didn’t mean it, I’m sure it wasn’t that bad.” In other words, “Oh, I’m sure that didn’t hurt.”

The damage of minimizing pain

I get so frustrated when I see us judging each other’s pain, and deciding for each other if something does or doesn’t hurt. We do damage to each other when we minimize pain.

It’s at the very least aggravating, and at worst insulting, dehumanizing, and disempowering when someone decides for us how we should feel, whether our pain is valid, or that they get to define our experience without letting us be the ones to tell the pain of our stories. Only I can know how something feels for my physically or in my heart. Only you can tell the full extent of your experiences, how they have coursed through your body and how they have felt in your soul.

I’ve been listening, reading, and digesting a lot of stories since the nation-wide expression of the pain of 400 years of racism broke open in recent weeks. And I’ve been heart broken when I see people decide if the pain being expressed by Black people is valid. I, as a white person, cannot understand this pain. It is not my story, it is not my experience. When we choose to not listen, choose to label, and choose to judge the stories and question the pain, choose to question the racism—we do such immense damage. In essence, we are sending messages telling Black people who are expressing immense, horrific pain that, “Oh, I’m sure that didn’t hurt.” Or even worse, we imply, “Oh, I’m sure that didn’t happen.” Or worse, “I’m sure that shouldn’t have hurt.”

And we aren’t just saying this over someone bumping their knee on a coffee table. We are saying this about hundreds of years of physical brutality, systemic oppression, lynchings, insults, slurs, discrimination, and myriad other ways by which Black people have been horrifically suffering in this country. This needs to stop, and it needs to stop now. We need to stop making excuses, stop ignoring, and stop minimizing pain.

Choosing empathy as our response to stories of experienced racism

I want to ask us white folks to slow down and to think about how we are responding. We can label, dismiss, argue, justify. Or we can choose to listen with empathy.

Empathy is opposite of “Oh, I’m sure that didn’t hurt” It’s saying, “Your pain is valid, I want to listen well, and I want to hear what you are feeling.”

Empathy is being willing to say, “I don’t understand what you are feeling, but I validate your pain. I want to learn about your story.”

Empathy is accepting that the other person knows their pain and deserves to express it without being questioned.

Empathy is letting someone describe their experience without having to superimpose our experience.

Empathy is fully making room for someone’s story instead of just making room for ourselves.

Empathy is choosing to try and walk in someone’s shoes and imagine what they have been through, even if we haven’t experienced anything like it.

And empathy is listening fully, without shutting down when we are being challenged by what we are hearing.

It’s high time for empathy that brings about change

Human stories deserve empathy. At the end of this post are a number of stories Black people have shared about their experiences with racism. I want to ask you—will you listen with empathy? Instead of jumping to typical conclusions and the patterns of thinking we are accustomed to, will you open your heart to these experiences?

Will you imagine how you could walk in each person’s shoes? What would it be like if you were the person experiencing what they are describing? What are they feeling, and what would it be like for you to feel some of that pain with them? Will you challenge yourself not to judge the story because it makes you uncomfortable, but instead open your heart to the immense pain being expressed?

“If you’re wondering if there’s a right way to show empathy, there isn’t. But one thing I can assure you is that not demonstrating any, will accomplish nothing.
For starters, sit down with someone. Ask with outstretched arms, how I can help? Listen. Check in on your colleague or friend who is a person of color, just to see how they’re doing. Be open to exploring and understanding the hurt and anger they may be feeling. Ask your employer to create a safe space, where people can talk about their emotions and have constructive conversations about supporting one another. If you are the boss, step in and do it yourself. Stand up in the spaces you occupy — whether at work or among friends — and speak out against any comments or actions that perpetuate racial stereotypes and prejudiced actions.
These simple, human actions have the real potential to make positive change.”

—Christine Ngaruiya, “White Friends, Now Is The Time For Empathy”, https://www.wbur.org/cognoscenti/2020/06/03/george-floyd-racism-in-america-christine-ngaruiya

Emmanuel Acho

James A. White

Charlie Dates

Beyond these stories, will you listen with empathy when you read stories online? And will you choose to listen to Black people express what they have experienced, so that we can grow as a nation and grow in love towards each other?

“But I’m not racist” Series
Part 1: Responding to Protests and Riots
Part 2: Choose Empathy for Change
Part 3: Definitions of Racism (forthcoming)
Part 4: Confessions of Racism (forthcoming)
Part 5: Recognizing the System (forthcoming)
Part 6: White Privilege (forthcoming)
Part 7: Thoughts on the American Church (forthcoming)
Part 8: Humility, Repentance, and Listening (forthcoming)
Part 9: Resources

Photo Credit: Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

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