In the search to find compassion, one might turn to one of the oldest comments made about it centuries ago: The golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.”
Today there is a significant amount of conversation about the inability of many white people to have empathy for people of color and especially black men. Now this problem is being characterized as the “racial empathy gap,” but it is not a new notion. Perhaps it has not been referred to in this manner in decades past, but the dynamic has existed since the first black person was characterized as being so different from a white person that there was no chance of them having mutual understanding and caring feelings for one another, which in most circles is considered as the capacity for empathy. One can find numerous evidence to support this lack of white capacity for empathy as was reflected in a recent study where even 40 percent of young white people in the seventh grade concluded that black people do not feel as much pain as white people.
Long ago my mentor, Dr. Howard Thurman, told the story about a time early in his life when a little white girl said he “could not feel” after she jabbed him with a pin from her pinafore. He had raked a pile of leaves in her family’s yard and she insisted on scattering the leaves. She became upset when he told her he would tell her father. A few months ago, Officer Darren Wilson, in Ferguson, Missouri, summed up his encounter with Michael Brown as feeling like a child up against Hulk Hogan. He went on to say that Brown’s “face looked like a demon.” Oddly enough, Wilson and Brown were comparable in size. But many of the historical records about white perceptions of black people, especially men, tend to reflect a similar type of characterization and reactions of fear.
My years of psychological training and reflection help me to understand some of this, though I do not claim to understand all of it. The roots to this ability to denigrate black skin and thus those of us who happen to have our bodies covered with it, ran deeply through the effort of trying to make slavery palatable. The enterprise of kidnapping and selling human beings was a distressing business for everyone involved whether European or African. The human soul had to be compensated for that dirty work in some way; and one way was to make the slave into the “other.”
Creating otherness is not unusual for human beings. Another great example of this dynamic is seen in the ways the Nazis were able to make the Jews into the “other” and then to move to create all kinds of horrible ways to destroy them. There is no need to have compassion for someone who has been designated as being less than human. And then any type of dehumanizing behavior toward that person or group is justified.
So, as we say hello to 2015, we are being challenged to the core of being to change our ways in regard to race relations. We need to find a path to true compassion. Many black people don’t have compassion for white folks either. But black people have an understanding of white people that white people do not have of black people, because those who are oppressed are forced to understand their oppressors in order to survive. Since understanding does not automatically lead to true empathetic compassion, we have work to do on both sides of this divide.
True compassion makes us seek to make changes so that the one who suffers can be relieved. We need to find that path because all of us, black and white, are suffering.
This column by Catherine Meeks, Ph.D., appears twice monthly. Meeks is also a contributing writer for the Huffington Post. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.