I often think that one way racism does serious damage to white people is by stripping them of their empathy. Privilege has long taught them that white is right. White people are given constant, regular reinforcement that their opinions are superior. They receive validation for their viewpoints. And they typically live in environments in which they do not have to pay any attention to people of color.
Subsequently, when people of color talk about racism, white people are quick to issue denials. Not only do they deny that the opinions or feelings of other people are valid, but they deny even the right to have those opinions. Look at some of the comments people made after Miley Cyrus’ racist “slant-eye” gesture. Remember the one about the rabbits?
What about kids who hold up their fingers and do bunny ears in photos? Should rabbits start holding town meetings to cry racism??
Translation: Asian Americans complaining about racism is as ridiculous as if rabbits began to talk. In other words, Asian Americans are not fully equal. They are being equated with rabbits. And who would imagine that rabbits might dare to bring up racism?
So the Organization of Chinese Americans and the Japanese American Citizens League might issue statements decrying the open acceptance of racism in Miley Cyrus’ actions and the public reaction. But civil rights organizations don’t know anything about racism. Neither do Asian Americans.
They’re whiners. They’re complainers. They see racism in everything. Because white is right.
If you don’t even see the Asian American viewpoint as being fully equal, maybe it’s because you don’t view Asian Americans as being equal. And that is the probably the single biggest example of loss of empathy.
One of the exercises I have done in the past involves asking people to think about something that hurt them deeply. They are not required to share it. They are just asked to keep it firmly in mind and then to imagine that they have told somebody about it in great detail.
Here is the response, “Why are you being so oversensitive?”
“I don’t see what the big deal is.”
“I don’t find that offensive at all.”
Any of these responses sound vaguely familiar?
In addition, the original hurt is replicated by other people. Over and over again. And they don’t seem to understand why it bothers you. Nobody understands how you feel. They tell you to get a thicker skin. To stop walking around with a chip on your shoulder. To let it roll off your back.
In reality, this exercise can’t replicate what people of color experience. Because racism is not only about these types of actions and denial of your reality, it’s about a system that is fed by these actions. And the system responds by saying that you’re inferior. You’re not equal. Your treatment often reflects the belief that you are lesser-than.
Racism harms white people by stripping them of their ability to feel. Instead of hearing the hurt, the pain and the anger expressed by those who suffer from racism, they choose instead to deny the humanity of others. In so doing, they deny the humanity of themselves.