For the past couple of days, I've been at a real loss. I am sitting in my nice quiet dining room in my new duplex trying to put my thoughts together. I'm back from Canada, I'm engaged to a guy I love and care about deeply, I got to see my family and let them meet his last week in St. Louis but while I was there, something awful happened in St. Louis County. Michael Brown was shot and killed likely for no reason other than he was walking down the street.
Now, people rush to blame here. I get why they do. They demanded his information be released and I was on that list of people that believed a badge number and name were important here - for the family, for the community, for everyone. I was completely appalled by cries for vigilante justice because those aren't good. They just end up hurting his innocent family and others like it. And, just because someone has a hunch on Reddit doesn't mean it's right (a la Boston Bombing). However, I saw very little taking up of a fight against racism or calling for the institutionalized circumstances that brought this about end. Well, except for the African American contingent of my friends and twitter followers. It seems that a lot of people (especially those of us speaking from a place of white privilege) forget just how rough life can be for those living in poor, black communities.
I have no easy solutions to the problem of this murder or others like it. My heart aches for these families and it has taken every bit of sense I have to hold me here. I desperately wanted to hop in a car yesterday and drive the two hours there. Yes, if you knew me you'd know I hate that drive but I'm willing to do it to go protest, apparently. However, my fiance told me that while he'd support me, he couldn't just hop off work to bail me out. So, I'm grounded. He encouraged me to write to my blog audience because it's all, logically, I can do. So, today, I am calling for us to teach empathy. We need to teach it to our own children, our students, and we need to lead by example. That is my plea to you today.
Let's take a step back to what I've been told by people from that area of Missouri. It's largely segregated. Much like where I grew up, there are black towns and white towns. The town where I worked for most of high school and college in the summers (at least in its inner core) is decidedly more black than where I grew up to the south, which is incredibly white. A number of officers drive the 15-20 minutes to it daily from my hometown, to patrol the streets and a large number of normal folks like myself go there to work since it has more opportunities.
There are many good people in both places, but I have witnessed some awful things said about people on foot patrols at the outlet mall where I used to work. The outlet mall was interesting because it was a place for rich and upper-middle class people from Chicago to come and shop but it is literally in the middle of a very bad part of town. The word "animal" was once muttered by a white officer to another white colleague that I was following across a stretch of concrete to my car at the end of my shift on a particularly bad time in the middle of July when fireworks were causing much trouble. He was complaining that people here just didn't care what happened to their kids with fireworks while back home (which I will assume was my hometown or another white community), just "didn't do that". Here I was, a white chick walking to my car. Police and security made sure no one robbed me. While working there on my drives home to LaPorte, I saw drug deals, prostitutes, and a lot of poverty.
I could have looked at this and thought, "God, these people have no personal responsibility." I could have droned on and on about welfare queens, abuses against the system, and laziness. I certainly heard enough white coworkers say such things. However, that would have been quiet racism and it's wasn't how I was raised. And that isn't who I am.
I asked my fiance last night, "When did people stop teaching empathy at home? At school? We weren't raised like this. How do we have empathy and these people don't?" These people are the people who have been highlighted on my Twitter and Facebook. They range from outright racist accounts about how black people are just lazy and deserve to be shot, apparently, to more subtle discrimination in the eyes of people like Nate Silver who don't seem to understand the injustices faced by young black men. For the record, someone put some sense into him because he retracted that and did apologize.
It's much easier, I suppose, to say this young man should have simply stayed in and "stayed out of trouble" or "not dressed like a thug" or "looked less black" but is that really the problem? Should I have to fear for MY life every time I step outside the door in a similar manner? Of course, the answer is no. I'm white. I'm a lady. I don't cause such a stir. I can do as I please because no one suspects me. I dress "well" and people leave me alone. The problem is it's much easier to blame people for "being thug-like" than to empathize and think how scary it must be to be judged all the time.
I try to empathize with people here. I will never know what it is like to grow up in a community where the police are constantly looking for reasons to pull me over. I was once in a car driven by another person, a friend. We were just driving, not doing anything stupid, and we got pulled over. She is black so that's the only real reason I assume we were pulled over. The officer spoke directly to ME, asked if I was okay, as if she was what...holding me hostage? It was bizarre but not the first or last time a person of color has had or will have this problem.
I argue that regardless of what happens in Ferguson, Missouri, we need to do more. We need to teach our students and children to think critically. We need to reach outside our little communities of privilege and realize there is a big, scary world out there. For me, that was when I was teaching kids in the inner city basic French back in college. These were kids whose parents couldn't help them with their homework because they worked 3 jobs. These were kids who HAD seen drug deals potentially even gun crimes. These were kids who washed in the art room sink because their water was off at home and they were sick of being picked on for being "stinky". If I'd never seen it, I'm not sure I would have ever believed it. That experience taught me greater empathy. I learned that poverty was systemic, that treatment even of parents by administrators was racially-dependent in this school (it wasn't that black parents and students were hated but there was definitely a difference in how they were talked to and the programs the students were encouraged to take part in), and that poverty, coupled with racism was a really hard road to hoe for my 8 year olds.
When you watch a pastor beg and plead for the police to stop hurting his people, put yourself in his shoes for a minute. What issues does he and his congregation face? Do you think you would feel the same walking in his shoes, in the shoes of his son? We can all say we are colorblind and lie about it but it's not true. Even I, someone who professes a desire to combat racism and inequality, have my own biases and hangups coming from a wealthy white town and relatively wealthy white parents. I'm not only college educated, I am the 1% in terms of education in this nation. It's hard for me to comprehend what it is like growing up a poor black young man. I'm a white chick but I can try to empathize.
How we teach that, though, I don't know. I learned it from my parents - don't judge people. I learned it from hearing the story of my father's best friend who left a poor, black Steel Mill town to go on to become one of the most educated, experienced people I know. It wasn't easy, that I am aware, but he did it. I learned it because we were always taught NOT to judge someone because of the color of their skin. I learned it while working at that school. I learned it while even in pre-school where my first best friend was a black chick. It didn't matter to me. My parents never made a big deal of race and, despite growing up in a wealthy white community, I turned out okay, I think. I grew some empathy. I realized the world wasn't perfect and that there were still prejudices that made it hard for some people and easier for me. My fiance had a similar story and also grew some empathy. It's not impossible to instill it. It just takes a lot of time and it's hard to teach like you would arithmetic.
My students learned empathy last year, I think, when I showed them important stats on welfare and race discrimination. Sometimes just broadening their minds is enough. When I asked them if they still thought inequality was a problem in America, I got an emphatic yes. They may not have agreed on how to solve these societal ills but they at least don't deny they exist. No one seemed to stand up for "colorblindness" that day. We aren't there yet. We probably never will be.
So, my challenge to educators, parents, and people of the world who are enraged by the shooting: think bigger. This is about institutionalized racism, discrimination, and inequality. This is not JUST about a kid who was shot in the prime of his life. In order to mourn this loss effectively, we need to do something. Teach empathy. Show your kids the other side of the story. Encourage them to become invested in the lives of those who don't look, act, or who didn't experience the exact same things as they did growing up. College should be a true melting pot of experiences but, honestly, the sooner you start this the better. Empathy is learned at home. Your actions speak louder than words. If you have kids, make sure you encourage them to think critically about such things. It could save the world when you think about it.