In a previous post, I talked about how most Whites need to develop greater empathy for people of color. I also discussed a concept called approximating experiences, which is one way Whites can develop more empathetic orientations. Feagin and Vera say that that approximating experiences help Whites grasp what it is like to be the victim of racial discrimination. Citing a study by Tiffany Hogan and Julie Netzger, they say that approximating experiences most often come from three sources: relying on stories that people of color tell about their experiences, relying on general humanistic values, and relying on aspects of their own oppression. In the last case they note that White women who experienced multiple forms of discrimination (such as being a woman and being lesbian or Jewish) are more likely to develop empathetic orientations toward people of color. I think my personal story is useful at showing how Whites can challenge their own racism through approximating experiences and develop greater empathy.
I had my first approximating experiences in high school. My views started from a humanistic orientation…I grew up around all Whites, and my parents had taught me that everybody should be treated fairly. Although they didn’t say a lot about racism, I remember them repeatedly telling me that you do not treat people bad because they are different from you. I remember repeatedly hearing my classmates make derogatory comments about African Americans. I very specifically remember being bothered by racist comments, and I repeatedly admonishing my classmates not to use the n-word.
My outspoken views on racism did not endear me to my classmates. In fact, I was subjected to ridicule and occasional threats of violence. I was routinely called “nigger lover,” so many times that I do not remember most of them. In my art class during my sophomore year one of my classmates Brian, called me “nigger lover” almost everyday. See while we worked on our art projects, we talked social issues and politics. When I challenged my classmates, Brian as the ring leader and on occasion his buddies would say this to me in front of the entire class including the teacher, who had asked him to stop but never enforced any consequences. Frankly, I had no idea how to respond to comments like this because people like Brian don’t like common sense arguments. They like bullying. Eventually I came up with the most creative response I could. I would say, “I’m not a nigger lover because I don’t like you.” I was 16 and this was the best response I could muster to shut him up…all of the reasonable arguments about the golden rule, respecting your fellow man, and so on didn’t work.
One of the other incidents I remember happened when I was a junior. In this case two or the more popular girls in my school Mindy and Emily were taunting me in class. These girls were your typical means girls (as depicted in the movie LOL!). I have no idea why they were picking on me, but it wasn’t the first time and I was fed up. The teacher of this class was habitually late and played the popularity game, allowing these girls to do what they wanted. I didn’t expect any support from her or any other of my classmates, so I turned to them and yelled, “Bitch you need to shut the fuck up.” They laughed and the rest of the class got quiet. I hoped this would be it, but later that day when I went to my locker I had a note put inside my locker that said, “You’re a niger lover and a horsefucker.” I just looked at the note and truly was scared. I was afraid of what they could have taken from my locker or what may happen to me as I walked down the hall. The whole time my classmates, all of whom were White, were directing racial slurs at me (and of course, all African Americans albeit indirectly). I didn’t tell the principal, my teachers, my parents, or anyone. The primary reason I did say much about almost all of these incidents was simple…I knew that they wouldn’t do anything about it. I knew that they were indifferent to racial slurs and that they didn’t understand the severity of it. I knew the Whites who I lived and worked with were not bothered by racial slurs or racism. I did occasionally have people who agreed with me, but it was almost always a brief “I agree with you” when no one else was around to hear it. For me personally, it was these experiences that helped my to feel some empathy towards people of color. I am by no means saying I get everything. I just know what I felt like when these things were directed at me. I knew the fear, the powerlessness, the exasperation, and the anger that racism was creating in me. Because of these experiences (and others), I dedicated myself to fighting racism.
In my later years of high school and in college, my approximating experiences came from listening to my friends and classmates who had personal experiences with racism. I was able to get a better understand of racism from Black professors like my undergraduate mentor Dr. Lewis. I learned about Black nationalism from two friends who were in the Nation of Islam, and I probably learned the most from my friendship with Jennifer. Jennifer and I didn’t go to the same high school, but by getting to know Jennifer and her family I started to see how racism affected a good friend of mine. I had a close Black friend who wasn’t afraid to tell me about the things I didn’t get. This has also been the case as I have gotten older and have made other friends.
I have also been influenced in my anti-racist work by several prominent authors, artists, and academics. I didn’t meet these people, but I read their works. James Baldwin was my early inspiration. Somehow, I got my hands on If Beale Street Could Talk…one of his less popular novels. I loved that book, so I decided to read Go Tell It On The Mountain, Another Country, The Fire Next Time, Just Above My Head, and several other books. I remember reading a June Jordan article in college about the power of anger. The book I mentioned in the previous post…White Racism had a dramatic shift on my understanding of racism. When I read it, I felt like someone else was articulating what I felt about racism. While I do think many people misinterpret literature and art, this can be another was to begin to develop approximating experiences, which can help lead to empathy.
I think my experience is instructive for three reasons. First, it shows that there are many pathways developing awareness of racism whether it is through interpersonal relationships, organizational involvement, a general belief in social equality, or accessing at and literature. The second reason it is instructive is that it shows some of the ridicule and difficulty that Whites face if they challenge racism. I don’t want this to scare people, but it is a reality that people who challenge racism face. When we ignore racism, we simply opt out by using our White privilege, but when we challenge racism and White privilege there are consequences. Finally, I think my experience can help others who want to challenge racism know that they are not alone. I felt really alone in high school, and I kept many of these experiences to myself. I think developing anti-racist allies is crucial to maintaining a front against racism. Those allies can be Whites or People of Color. They can be role models and/or friends. The battle against racism doesn’t have to occur in isolation. I’m not saying I have all of the answers or that I have completely purged racism from myself. In fact, the more I learn about racism the harder I think it is to challenge it. I see coming to an anti racist consciousness as a long process. I learn new things every day, and I still have a lot more to learn about racism.
I would also like to add this link to David Schraub’s website. He talks about his own approximating experiences.