Posted in Communication, Conflict, Empathy, Political communication

Empathy, Story Telling, and Race

The topic of race in America has been prominent in the media and in our homes for months now. We have the Paula Deen case, the Trayvon Martin case, and frankly, the thinly-veiled (when veiled at all) racist tinge to our political discourse about our President, our election process, the economy, health care reform, welfare reform, immigration reform, and so on. At the same time, I keep hearing (and reading, especially in readers’ comments that follow news stories) that we are living in a post-racial America and that racism is dead. That is not what I see and hear.

For these reasons, I was glad to hear President Obama speak on the issue of race in America yesterday.  More importantly, I was glad to hear him share his own story.  As the Editorial Board of The New York Times pointed out yesterday, the President is uniquely positioned to tell the story of race in America. His story emphasized a point that communication scholars have been making for years. Racism is, among other things, a behavior.

While people seem to be fighting over the label – over who is “a racist” and who is not – we are missing the point that racism is enacted in interaction. The label is simply a conclusion; arguing over a conclusion is unproductive. It generates a never-ending cycle of attack and defend. What we need to examine is interaction.

When the President spoke of his experiences, I could hear the clicks of the locks on the car doors ringing in my ears. I was raised to do this. And, as a young girl, I did it, as instructed. I was taught to be fearful and to be suspicious of “the other.”  It was years before I considered the message that was sent by that clicking of the lock. But one day, I saw the message register in the eyes of the man who was crossing the street in front of me. I felt ashamed. My behavior conveyed that I had judged him, and judged him to be dangerous, without knowing anything about him at all. I felt the pain of that interaction again, yesterday, in the President’s words.

By sharing his story, President Obama opened an opportunity for us to think about the mundane, banal, everyday behaviors that make up racism.  He also opened up an opportunity for building empathy.  As Dean Obeidallah has pointed out, we have a stunning lack of empathy in our society about racial matters. Calling each other names based on our conclusions about who is or is not a racist does not build empathy; it just builds the attack-and-defend cycle. Empathy is built when we can share, listen to, and learn from other people’s stories. It is through sharing stories that we learn what it is to live in someone else’s skin.  Empathy is our only way through racially based pain and conflict; denial and defensiveness are not getting us there. We need the stories.