Empathy and Privilege

I woke up on November 9th feeling a little bewildered, but not surprised. There were too many Trump yard signs in my blue state in the weeks leading up to the election for me to be surprised by the outcome. And with a little reflection, even the bewilderment lifted as I realized that this election outcome doesn’t change much for me. I’m white and heterosexual. I live in a blue state. I have a college education and although I don’t personally earn any money, my family’s income puts us firmly in the upper middle class. And as for the misogyny, that was no worse on November 9th than it was on November 8th. Today I can still live anywhere in the United States, just like I’ve always been able to. I can still use my passport and leave the country if I want to—and expect to be let back in—just like I’ve always been able to.

More than this, I’ve already been living my values, never as well as I’d like to, but always in that direction. I’ve been wary all along, watching my elected officials to see if they’re overstepping their authority and the powers granted them by the U.S. Constitution. This election doesn’t actually change that. It might end up giving me more to do, but it doesn’t change my level of alertness.

I also don’t believe that things would be all hunky-dory if Hillary Clinton had won. The hate and vitriol and violence, the ugly and dangerous expressions of racism, misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia had already been unleashed. It’s possible that it would have been as bad if Clinton had won. Perhaps it would have been even worse because of the backlash against that election outcome.

The challenge for me remains the same either way: To be aware of the oppression going on around me without making it about me. Because I retain all of the privilege I had before the ballots were cast. I will continue to challenge myself to be aware of inherent bias in my thoughts and behaviors just as I was before. I will continue to be ready to step in if I see violence or mistreatment of another person, just as I was—or fervently hoped I was—before.

Like I told my children on November 9th, the way we deal with this election outcome is the same way we’ve dealt with these already existing problems up to now: We challenge ourselves to learn and grow through both intellectual pursuits and through direct experience. We keep our thermostat turned down, eat leftovers, turn off the tap while we soap up our hands, and don’t let our car’s engine idle. We travel the country and live throughout the country and talk with people all over the country and find common ground, not just in the safe blue patches but wherever we can. We learn languages and history and confront our personal and cultural paradigms and engage in the difficult and scary process of changing those paradigms when we find it’s necessary.

I don’t expect anyone to trust me to support them because I self-identify as a “safe” person. The way someone will know they can trust me is if I actually stand up and stand beside them when they need me. Until then, it’s all talk. I can imagine what it’s like to wonder if I will be shot during a routine traffic stop. I can imagine what it’s like to be sprayed with water cannons and tear gas while defending the safety of my water supply. I can imagine what it’s like to feel afraid to hold the hand of the person I love in a public place. I can imagine what it’s like to be afraid that I will be sent out of the country I call home because a failed system didn’t allow me to get the proper documentation. I can imagine being harassed in public for my religion.

But in the end, it’s just an empathy exercise. This oppression is not my oppression. I will not help anyone by claiming to feel someone else’s oppression as though it’s my own. Because it’s not. I am protected from all of these things by virtue of factors I do not control. After the empathy exercise is over, I can go home. I can go back to being invisible because I am privileged to be unseen.

I can stand beside someone who is the victim of violence or hate when they need someone to stand beside them, but I have to remember that I can go home. I can be unseen, and they can’t. I disrespect those I claim to value by acting as though, through empathy, I can experience what they’re experiencing.

I don’t know. I can’t know. But I can watch. I can learn. I can be honest with myself. And I can take the risk of challenging other people privileged by their race, ethnicity, immigration status, sexual orientation, religion, or economic status. And if I can have the courage to do all of that, hopefully I can have the courage to act as an ally if I’m in a situation where someone needs an ally.


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