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another interesting entry on alas, a blog


I decided to link to it because of this:
Much of the racism in America today manifests itself in a lack of empathy.
The post goes on to add
I am by no means trying to dismiss structural racism. I agree that our political, economic, and educational systems are structure in a way that recreates racism. However, I think there is a fundamental lack of empathy that underlies White racism.
OK, here I am taking some of the points of the article and generalizing them out of the "White racism" context, which some people probably won't like. But anyway:

I often think that inability to understand and care enough about other people's experience underlies a lot of the problems in society.

The article goes on to theorize about life experience that increases empathy:
Feagin and Vera believe that Whites can develop empathetic orientations through “approximating experiences.” Approximating experiences help Whites grasp what it is like to be the victim of racial discrimination. Citing a study by Tiffany Hogan and Julie Netzger, they say that approximating experiences most often come from three sources: relying on stories that people of color tell about their experiences, relying on general humanistic values, and relying on aspects of their own oppression. In the last case they note that White women who experienced multiple forms of discrimination (such as being a woman and being lesbian or Jewish) are more likely to develop empathetic orientations toward people of color.
This part resonates with my experience. At some point I began to personally experience results of society's marginalizing of women, non-young women, fat people, and not-completely-able-bodied people more than I had in the past. That experience increased my ability to understand how other marginalized people feel.

Not that I understand all of what others feel or all of their situation, of course. I just notice that I feel "ouch" more often when hearing about other people's experiencing difficulties resulting from such marginalizing, as compared to the past when I was more likely to think "Why don't they just [fitb]?"

Also, when I read people saying "Why don't they just [fitb]?" I feel angry and frustrated more often. I know from personal experience that sometimes [fitb] isn't possible but I feel unable to explain why it isn't possible to people who haven't personally experienced a situation where [fitb] might be a solution but only if you have the mental, emotional, and physical resources to [fitb], and the resources aren't there. People seem not to understand in some cases why the resources aren't there. Sometimes it's because of the burden of a thousand straws on your back, none of which is a heavy weight by itself, or when picked up briefly, but when they are all lumped together and carried for long periods of time they end up draining your resources.

At the same time, as a person who has tended to be oriented toward problem-solving, I have some understanding of the "You should [fitb]" urge.


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 8th, 2006 07:48 pm (UTC)
Then there is trying to explain why [fitb] is not possible, what resources are not there, and getting hit with the personal experience of the person who said, "Why don't they just [fitb]," and the unalterable and usually unacknowledged assumption that if the person in question could [fitb] in these circumstances, anybody at all should be able to do it, and anybody who can't is a lazy whiner or whatever the insult of the day happens to be. I don't even start such conversations any more. It's too hard on my blood pressure. I'm sure it's partly a failure of imagination, but I can't figure out how to get past their righteous armor.

Apr. 8th, 2006 08:16 pm (UTC)
Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah. I don't start them, but sometimes I can't avoid running into them.
Apr. 8th, 2006 08:28 pm (UTC)
I sometimes feel bad for not engaging the people who make blanket "Why don't they just [fitb]" statements, especially to dismiss the suffering or troubles of an entire group of people, especially when those statements are the result of a complete lack of understanding about the people involved. I've tried, many times in the past; if I think there's a glimmer of a chance that I might reach somebody, I might still try. But I don't leap into the sty and wrestle pigs with the verve and enthusiasm I once did. Sometimes it can be entertaining, but most of the time, I just end up feeling dirty, angry, and frustrated.
Apr. 8th, 2006 08:39 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I sometimes make one comment but I don't engage endlessly, because in such discussions people's minds generally aren't open. One reason I am interested in the post is that they discussed a study that researched ways to improve people's empathy. This is a trend in psychology research I'd like to see widened and it would be great if empathy were actually something that people could get taught. There don't seem to be many ways to learn it right now other than accidentally.
Apr. 8th, 2006 08:03 pm (UTC)
I've had much the same experience as you have. I would add that from my mid-teens I started taking baby steps towards unlearning the "isms" I grew up with. From my 20's to mid-30's I was actively involved in working on this, mostly in an intellectual way; with the exception of fat and woman's issues since those were personal.

I'd like to say with aging comes wisdom, but I think it's less high-minded than that. At least for me, with aging has come my inclusion into more marginalized groups (as you said.) The political has become personal. My little problem-solving self has many fewer "You should [fitb]" movements, and yes I get angry too when I see comments like that, esp. coming out of politicians' mouths.
Apr. 8th, 2006 08:22 pm (UTC)
I've been working at unlearning "isms" for a long time. But I didn't GET some of the ways "isms" affect people until the straws on my back got really heavy.
Apr. 9th, 2006 01:43 am (UTC)
I have long made it a habit, when offering advice to a friend who has a problem, to phrase it as, "Would it be possible for...?" or "Is it feasible to..."? This is because I'm always very aware that I'm not there, don't know all the variables, and may only have heard part of the story. This carries over into a deep reluctance to say "Why don't they just..." in situations like these -- unless I know that I'm talking about people of my own race and economic class, that is!

Someone recently posted a link to an article about a social "empathy experiment" in which people from privileged classes were given the chance to role-play the experience of a welfare recipient, a Katrina refugee, or other lower-class group. The real kicker? The people role-playing the government employess with whom they had to interact were people who had been on government assistance, and knew exactly how they'd been treated when they were on the other side of that desk! If I can find the link (no time to look for it now), I'll post it for you.
Apr. 9th, 2006 03:12 am (UTC)
Even if it's someone of my race and class, there are factors that I can't know about. There are lots of things I haven't been able to do at one time or another because of depression, health issues, yada.

Yes, I read about that experiment! I hope the people who participated got something out of it.
Apr. 10th, 2006 01:51 am (UTC)
One small datapoint that I don't know what to make of.

During the hurricane Katrina disaster, I really identified with all the folks stranded on rooftops, etc., not because I'm poor, but because I don't own a car. The evacuation plan for the city was "hop in your car and drive!" I could've been stranded.

I mentioned this to an acquaintance, and he scoffed at the idea that I could've been stranded, even though I'm carless. I thought this was lack of empathy on his part, although he's Mr. Left Winger.

I realize that carless middle class people would be better off than carless poor people. We'd have a chance at renting a car or taking a $100 taxi ride out of the area. But still, that just increases options, and doesn't guarantee you'll be OK.

I thought it was odd that Mr. Left Winger couldn't think of himself as stranded on a rooftop.

PS -- my cousin's ex-husband and his mother were rescued by boat and were part of the crowd stranded on I-10.
Apr. 10th, 2006 03:53 am (UTC)
That's all really interesting. And yes, no wing has a reliable grasp on empathy, IMO.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )

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