In light of recent events, I have been puzzling over the lack of empathy among my fellow Americans. I am confused because I have always been told that America is a melting pot, a unique culture made up of all the culture of the world come together. We are a country of immigrants. Yet, racism, religious discrimination and gender discrimination are not just endemic at this point in our history, it would seem, in some circles, that they are celebrated. People are just plain rude in the name of rejecting "political correctness", taking obscene joy at their freedom of speech at the expense of others.
This doesn't just concern me, it shocks me. I frankly, don't get it. This isn't what I learned in school. WTF, my generation? Did you forget what your parents fought for? Is this what you are teaching your children? Have you not cracked open a history book, like, ever?
The truth is, I can't change the mind of any adult and I can't control how other people are raising their kids. I can only raise my own and hope that their generation will do better than ours apparently has. My greatest concern right now is that my offspring be better.
Is there a Cure?
The real problem isn't racism (or any other -ism). It's not just about learning that there are people that are different and that's okay. It's about empathy. It's about understanding that every person, no matter how different, has feelings, needs, desires, hopes and fears. That we're all the same. That poor people work hard and rich people love their children and black people enjoy a good cup of coffee and Muslim people sometimes have trouble taking a compliment without blushing and gay people have no idea what the right questions to ask at a job interview are. And everybody poops.
I believe that it is natural to fear things that are different and that it is really easy for fear to become hatred and even the wish to destroy a thing. But I also believe that curiosity and empathy are also natural. As with all things natural, the muscles that are trained are the ones that develop. Railing against "-isms" just gets people worked up. We have to fight a destructive thing, with a constructive thing. Curiosity and empathy, I strongly believe, are the cures we need.
The Curiosity Cure
When confronted with a new thing, we have the opportunity to choose how we react to it- with fear or with curiosity. Unfortunately, many of us have been taught since early on that curiosity is rude. Examining someone is staring, asking questions is awkward. Curiosity itself becomes a social faux pas. (What a terrible message! It's a wonder our culture produces any inventors at all!)
Fear becomes a more socially acceptable response.
We as parents are entirely empowered to make a change here. When we catch a child staring, instead of saying "Don't stare, it's rude!" we can say "Is there something you want to ask about?". And if we come across a person who inspires our child's curiosity, we can gauge whether that person would be willing to have a conversation or whether we should try to answer his questions ourselves.
Sometimes we don't know and that's okay. Sometimes we will have to do a little research before we provide an answer and it's good to bring the kids along on the journey. Why is that person wearing that thing? What does that symbol mean? What is that strange medical device that was attached to that child we saw at the diner? All of these are curiosities and satisfying them is much more constructive than shushing them.
Encouraging a Diverse Environment
All of this has me thinking about my kids. My kids are awesome. Okay, so they have no ambition whatsoever, but they also do not seem to have any "-isms". They accept people for who they are. They don't love everybody, they aren't nice to everybody, but they give everyone a chance. Not only that, they are civil rights activists. You know, if they feel up to it. They will definitely sign a thing.
I have often attributed this to the fact that they grew up in a very diverse situation. My extended family is very multi-cultural. Many religions, colors, etc. all gathered around the Christmas table (Even though Christ has nothing to do with many of them.) My older children also grew up with a single mom on a University campus. They were exposed to people from all walks of life. They went to student performances of everything from Les Blanc to Les Miserables. The people who lived in our on-campus apartment complex ranged from low-income, single parent families to visiting scholars from all over the world. On the playground, pasty white was not the majority color. Even after I graduated and moved off campus, I still worked at the University for five more years, so though we didn't live there anymore, we visited often.
I cannot recreate this sort of environment for my younger son. We live in the boonies. All of our neighbors are white. His activities are all with middle class white kids. This is something I am going to have to go to great lengths to address. It means that those things my older kids got for free as part of everyday life, I may need to spend some money and plan into my younger son's life. This may mean going to culture specific museums, or purposely signing up for activities outside our immediate area.
Reading to Practice Empathy
Recently I was reading an article about studies that demonstrated what happens to your brain while reading. (http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/01/study-reading-a-novel-changes-your-brain/282952/) They say that when you read about doing a thing, the same parts of your brain light up as do when you actually do the thing and this can cause lasting changes in your brain. So your brain is almost practicing a thing, just by reading about it. Synaptic connections are being made. Neuropathways are being mapped. Just by reading.
I read this out loud to my husband and he scoffed that we actually needed a study to figure out something so basic and simple. But it was something we hadn't thought of before. It could mean that reading books about different people of different backgrounds in different situations could serve at least a little bit as a substitute for actual experiences in diversity. And books don't just show us different people, they put us inside them. They allow us to experience what they are feeling, their hopes, their fears, their wishes and concerns. Books allow us to practice empathy. We can do this now, as adults, to get our own empathy muscles going - go ahead, pick up that Christian Romance novel (yea, I know, I gagged a little on that too, but I think I'll give it a shot.) but also choose books for your children that are outside your normal experience.
Some books are purposely written to illustrate differences. Books written by white scholars about other cultures, for example. But I think the real value is in choosing books written by people who are actually a part of the cultures and communities, written from their own experiences. Choose children's books written by Hispanic and African American authors, by immigrants or by members of the LGTBQ community (perhaps I make a leap in assuming my audience is primarily straight American white girls like myself, but if you're not, read some white girl stuff while you're at it. The point is, to go outside your norm.) and consider choosing some of these for yourself as well.
Avoiding Absolutes and Othering
Perhaps one of the most effective ways to train a child is through modeling, yet this is often the most difficult for us to remember. Everyday language can be very othering even though we may not mean it to be so. It's not about refraining from using racial slurs or even using politically correct language. It's not about avoiding stereotypes either. It's about "othering". When we place someone in the category of the "other" then he ceases to matter. We don't have to be empathetic toward the "other" because the "other" isn't like us. He is not 100% real and he's certainly not 100% human. You can be politically incorrect and not "other". Someone can be stereotyped and still not "othered".
Othering is a very useful tool if you are trying to build public opposition toward a group of people. The Romans used it judiciously on their campaigns, first against the Christians, then against the Pagans after they decided Christianity was more useful for Empire building. Hitler "othered" the Jews, immigrants, gays and gypsies. He made them less than human, so that their genocide wasn't genocide, but merely a "cleansing". We here in America "othered" the Native Americans to allow that genocide, we othered dark-skinned people so that we could treat them like livestock without the guilt, we othered Asians so that we could lock up Japanese people in concentration camps and we were thoroughly engrossed in "othering" homosexuals and trans-gendered folks before we got distracted by the Muslims. Soldiers "other" their enemies because they must, because taking a human life hurts. But we everyday people not living on a battlefield, we shouldn't, because it's not conducive to growth.
Othering language lumps each individual into a larger group which may or may not actually exist. This is more than a stereotype. Othering strips each individual of the group of free will and ascribes traits, actions and opinions of the group to the single individual, reducing him to a creature following an instinct set forth by the evolution of its species. They are no longer people. They are a collective of non-entities. They are a problem.
For example - "They're all lazy." "They just breed like rabbits and collect welfare" "They are vicious killers" "They are all a bunch of child molesters and wife beaters." "They hate everyone who won't live according to their religion." "They're just a bunch of drug addicts."
It is important when speaking of other groups of people in a child's presence to avoid absolute language like "all" and "always". Absolutes kill both curiosity and creativity. Using othering language, such as racial slurs or simply "them" or "those people" remove the people you are talking about from the human race and make them worth less. Worthless.
When I look around and see people rallying to the support of dogs and cats and farm animals, I am astounded that people can still "other" groups of humans into worthlessness. African Americans were "othered" to the level of livestock or, at best, pets before the civil war but now we have more concern for our pets than our ancestors' slaves would have ever received, but "othering" of humans continues. It confuses the hell out of me.
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