Thursday, November 17, 2016

Finding Some Fucks To Give: A Primer on Empathy

This piece began a while ago when some white folks hit Twitter to complain that the Netflix production of Luke Cage is racist because it doesn't feature enough white people for their liking. Never mind that entertainment has all but ignored people of color, going so far as to utilize white actors to represent characters meant to be people of color (I'm looking at you...Ghost in the Shell/Aloha/Doctor Strange/Gods of Egypt/Argo/etc etc etc). Luke Cage is a story about a black hero rising up out of a black community. Harlem is gentrifying, but it's still a black neighborhood. When I lived in Harlem, I was the only white person I ever saw on my block. Luke Cage accurately represents the Harlem I know.

This critical response, and so much of what is happening right now, highlights the need for us to pay respectful attention to stories that are unlike our own, of which we have no part. If one is open, you can learn from these stories and enjoy the wider perspective that they may afford you. After all, it is impossible to take in everything that this life has to offer. Engaging with other people's experiences gives us the opportunity to understand something outside our personal universe. This is a form of empathy and an expression of humility. I will never know what it's like to live in another body, and to be born in another time and place, but I can take interest in other people's narratives. I can learn.

On the flip side are those who must constantly have everything around them mirror and affirm their existence. Their identity is wrapped up in being the center of the dominant narrative. They are the leads. They are the heroes. Anything presented outside of that storyline feels like a threat. They have been in full possession of the limelight for always, and are unwilling to give even an inch so that someone else's story may be brought forth. They don't care if this dominance means the erasure of other worthy stories from the pages of history. Their personal experience is Universal Truth. Anything outside of this is Unknown Other, and Other is always wrong. Unknown is terrifying, and fear is alchemized into anger.

This anger is sometimes, horrifically, alchemized into violent action. Marginalized groups have always faced threats to their well being, but those threats are reaching a new fever pitch. As was the case before, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, there are some who continue to insist that everything is fine. They say we live in a post racial society, they site black on black crime rates and statistics about false rape accusations. They shriek that #ALLLIVESMATTER, ask others to "Give him a chance!" and call others sore losers for protesting the rise to power of a dangerous demagogue. Some well meaning folks plead with everyone to "OMG just like love everyone! Like don't hate you guys!!! Keep it positive!!!!!" all the while continuing to ignore the voices of those whom are in real, actual danger...still.

Absolutely nothing is accomplished by hiding your head in the sand and refusing to humble yourself before real life experiences which you don't share or understand. This may overwhelm you. You may suddenly find yourself plagued with guilt and the knowing that at best, you've been a silent witness to oppression, and at worst, you've been an active participant. You may be so overwhelmed that instead of asking how you can help and beginning it, you decide to disengage. You cannot face the enormity of this. It's too hard and too scary. It's a confrontation of your identity as a person who is sooo totally not racist. It means owning up to your own biases, your own subtle sense of superiority, all the parts of yourself of which you are not proud. It means facing your own shame, which is a brutal beast. Instead of employing courage for this difficult transformative work, you choose to deflect. "They're being dramatic. Everything is fine." "I'm an optimist. Let's just see what happens."

Meanwhile, black and brown bodies, lady bodies, trans bodies, Muslim bodies, queer bodies continue to be the target of a swell of harassment and aggression. You don't have to believe in any of this for it to be true. You can pretend that it's liberal media hype, but we know different. The bodies of people I know and love have already bore this brutality, before and after the election. We have tried to let you in on this narrative. You couldn't hear it. Hearing it meant being cracked open, changed, pushed to action, and the discomfort was too great.

We must find some fucks to give one another. We must take interest in stories that are completely unlike our own. We must give them space and time, respect and credence. People everywhere are hurting, desperate for change. There is a sickness among us and it is the distancing of ourselves from those unlike us, as if we were made of different materials, as if we all don't just want to live well. People need to able to earn a living to support their families. People need to be able to practice their faith, or love who they love without fear of violence. Not everyone will look like you, or live the same way as you, but they are still worthy of every liberty and protection on offer. There should be no second class citizens here.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have a dream that one day soon we will reach out across party lines for the sake of our shared humanity. I have a dream that we will soften and humble ourselves before an unfamiliar story, let it change us, let it be a call to action for the dignity and well being of another. I have a dream that we will unite over an insistence that each body in this country will have the benefit of clean food and water, healthcare, shelter, a good education, and honest work. I have a dream that we will muster the courage to give some fucks about people we may never meet who may be very different from us.

Unanswered needs are still needed. Unattended suffering gnaws away. Those who are desperate remain desperate until something is done to help them. Name calling and blame placing doesn't feed a hungry belly. It's time to get practical. It's time to ask the people what it is they need to thrive and figure out how to make it possible. There is a way through every block. We can do this.

How are you hurting? How can I help?

All bodies rise, together.

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