An Education In Empathy
If there's one thing that I have taken pride in my whole life, it's been my exposure to different cultures, practices, and ways of life. Growing up my mom and dad both stressed the importance of my siblings and I seeing the world to expand our point of view and giving ourselves the options that come with an education. Not just formal education, but life education. Experience in foreign countries, seeing art, volunteering, working, and essentially just becoming well-rounded people. So why is it that when I found myself in my last semester of my senior year of college, I realized that I had hardly had any exposure to different types of people or different points of view?
Let's backtrack a bit.
As I was creating the schedule of my last semester of undergrad, I realized that one of my required classes was conflicting with an elective I had been excited about taking. I was bummed, but I was also hell bent on graduating in May (something I had only recently learned was possible) and would be damned if an elective spoiled that. I went ahead and chose another one: Themes in Africana Philosophy. It sounded like a cool class but I wondered what it would be about. Why hadn't I ever heard of this class mentioned when my philosophy friends were raving about their readings? Why hadn't I ever searched for a class like this on my own time? Was this something I could be passionate about? I answered those questions with. "Whatever, all philosophy classes are great, I'm sure I'll love it," and solidified my schedule. It wasn't until the first day of that class that I thought to myself, "Hm.. I wonder if other white people will be there." Most of my philosophy classes had been predominantly white people and while I never consciously noticed that, it hit me when I thought about this one. Turns out I wasn't the only one. I was probably one of four or five if I remember correctly. I was nervous, walking into a grad and undergrad combined class in a topic I was wildly unfamiliar with, around mostly people who didn't look similar to me. I got extra nervous around attendance time because if you know me, you know my last name is near the top of the list and my first name is consistently mispronounced (Xochitl). The teacher taking attendance called my name out and for the first time in my college career, my name was almost pronounced correctly.
"Is that how you say it?" He asked.
"That was really close! Some people say it like so-chee or so-cheel and some people say it like so-chit-l." I said lightly, trying to move on.
"Yeah... And how do you prefer to say it?" He asks.
Crickets in my brain. Nobody had ever asked me that.
"I like so-cheel." I said, half wanting to disappear under my desk.
He marked me down and moved on.
I knew then that this class would require a higher level of me showing up, both for myself and other people in a way I had not experienced before. Throughout the semester, we read articles, books, poems, essays, you name it, by Black & African Americans and people from the African Diaspora. As you can imagine it was truly, a whole new world. I came quickly to the realization that mainstream philosophy topics and classes mostly featured writing from white people, even though there is no shortage of philosophical concepts and relevant writings from Black people and African Americans. There was a philosophical, historical, and generally important point of view missing. All of the things that I had previously pondered were different, because they were told through the experiences of colonialism, slavery, racism, the civil rights and black arts movements, and so on. Each class meeting we sat in a circle and discussed the reading we had done. My classmates would comment left and right with what I imagined as 50x the amount of substance that I could've contributed; so much so that I believe I was silent in class for about a whole month. I wondered if I would do well, if I should drop the class. I wondered if the teachers thought poorly of me because I didn't know as much. I worried I would never be close to the people in class because while we read about how family structure was impacted a concerning amount by slavery, they cracked jokes about how they related, they agreed with one another and heard each other and I... sat and listened. I could not relate. I wished I could but it was the one thing that regardless of how "cultured" I prided myself on being, I could never know because I would never experience.
Being a philosophy nerd and striving-for-the-best student I was really conflicted. I felt like I wasn't getting anywhere and all I wanted was to excel. It was then that I understood the level of "showing up" I had to get to. This was not just showing up in a big way, contributing as much as possible, doing everything you imagine a great student doing. It was pretty much just...showing up. Being there every class, listening, and learning. Writing to try to understand rather than writing to convince the teachers. Instead of my papers sounding like lectures as philosophical papers often do, they sounded like self-evaluation and questioning. I questioned what we read, I questioned how I felt about what we read, I questioned everything I had read or heard prior to the class. I was learning at a rate that felt close to the rate babies learn at. There was one book where almost every chapter title was something I had never once considered. I was mind blown when I wasn't totally lost and in the in between times I would just be celebrating the fact that I talked once in class that day or when I made connections with the other students. I felt the most bare-minimum I had ever felt in class but I was working harder than I ever had to feel that way.
And that's just it! I had rarely ever had to work this hard before. I usually had to think about what paper I would write and if I could get it printed and handed in on time. Now, I was thinking about what paper I would write, if I could print it out and hand it in on time, if the teachers would think my paper was dumb, if the students in class judged me for not contributing, if they knew I didn't understand things the way they did, if I could make friends in a class where I felt disconnected, if they knew how much I really, truly did value the information, even if I couldn't regurgitate it or come up with a thoughtful response.
I never had to work this hard.
This is what one of my (white) classmates summed up one day during a smaller group discussion. Our question was, "Does race affect you?" We went around our little circle and I said no. Of course not, how could it? Then, previously mentioned classmate came in late and sat with my group. We asked her if she thought race affected her and she paused and responded, "Yes. I think I come across like a white woman and it does me very well."
My brain damn near exploded. OF COURSE race affected me. It gave me the chance to never have to work that hard.
Toward the end of our semester we read The Man Not by Tommy Curry and the man himself visited our class for our discussion one day. I had just earlier that day given a presentation on Maslow's hierarchy of needs and realized that self-actualization was at the top of the pyramid. Above physical needs and safety needs; above love, affection, and community; above the levels that some people can never completely move past. I asked Curry if he thought self-actualization was a privilege. His response was roughly, without hesitation, "Yes. And I think that there are not many resources to process that self-actualization when it happens for people who are continually oppressed." This was my introduction. Some people never feel completely safe on a day to day basis. Some people don't feel secure enough financially, physically, and can't relax to the point of self actualization to benefit from it. This means only some people have access to experience life in a self-actualized way. I have always loved any practice of realizing ones self & nature as a human, and rarely imagined how regularly worrying about my physical safety would interrupt that. So, I went further.
I began digging into this topic more and eventually started working at The SAFE Alliance - a non-profit whose mission is to help people get to those lower hierarchy needs and go beyond. If people no longer have to worry about physical safety, they can then move up the pyramid and hopefully keep rising (if you're not familiar with this pyramid I speak of google is a great start). I work primarily for BIPOC, mostly Black and Hispanic families. I was definitely nervous at first but I love my job and the people I work with. I began learning more and more about the differences between people of different races, backgrounds, traumatic experiences, and so on. I was going and going and enjoying the day to day. Then, after a few months I found myself in a random public bathroom, surrounded by a few Black women and doing the little post-wash-my-hands-excuse-me dance to get to the paper towel dispenser. We spoke and laughed briefly as we wiggled out of each other's way to wash or dry our hands and then I walked out. After I left and had the time free of distraction to feel what my body was doing, it hit me square in the face - I thought to myself, "I'm not afraid of Black people anymore."
NOW, before you quit reading this and go all "Whoa, whoa Izzy, excuse me, what?!" on me, hear me out. I never consciously understood that I ever had been. I never realized my body had a fearful response or that my brain had been fed a very specific image of Black people for a very long time (good to note here, this image never came from my family). I couldn't believe that I hadn't understood that I had this reaction until I no longer had it. I realized that I hadn't felt completely comfortable around a lot of people of color for a long time, possibly ever. This was huge to me. I have never considered myself racist or exemplified racism in a blatant way, but now I was on this unraveling thread of understanding my own subtle biases and predispositions. I not only felt more comfortable around all people, I also felt more comfortable acknowledging these things within myself. Then, I began feeling more comfortable acknowledging the fact and understanding that people of other races may not feel very comfortable around me, and that it's not a specific thing that I did personally (or maybe it is) but rather their body's response, their brains specific image of who white people are, their life experience, which is valid no matter how good or harmless of a person I consider myself to be.
I have always been an advocate for education, not just in the traditional sense but as a continuous life practice. It wasn't until I had these experiences that I understood how much of a difference it can make. Tara Westover says, "I think that thinking about the world from another persons point of view is incredibly difficult, and I think that's what an education is, really."
This class taught me not only how important an education is, but how many people are restricted from getting one. One of the things brought up was the idea that someone who very strongly doubts that they will live past the age of 25 (many Black Americans) has no reason to see a formal education and the debt that likely comes with it as beneficial to their lives. There are, for a lot of people, bigger fish to fry and rarely successful representation in academia. This experience also led me to believe that for people who have the access to education, whether that means college, books and youtube videos, or other people to talk things through with, it is important for us to take the time to learn about what the world is like from another persons perspective and use our education to make that world more pleasant and safe. It is our responsibility to acknowledge in ourselves and our societies what is harmful to others and do our best to act on that knowledge rather than through thoughtless, programmed responses.
My hope is that we all continue to educate ourselves in any and every way that is available to us in order to understand ourselves and each other in a more honest and connected way.
May we use that knowledge to act on injustice with integrity.