On Empathy

The first time in my life someone chose to intimidate me because of my race, or perhaps more likely because of my (presumed) nationality, was about fifteen years ago, when I was living abroad. If you travel enough, something will eventually happen to you that you stop and think “wait, I just got picked on (or stolen from, yelled at, punched, etc etc) because of what they assumed about me based on my skin color.” It’s not a nice feeling, but it also was not traumatic. It did not change my life. It happened a handful of other times in the five years I lived south of the border, and I got to believe that I “knew” what it was to feel racism.

I fell in love and got married in Mexico, some of the best years of my life. It was wonderful and magical, adventurous and romantic and everything a young man could hope for in the first 25 years of life.

We moved to the US around the time of the Great Recession, and my wife started to have bizarre incidents around here that I could not figure out. I tried to rationalize them away, try see how she must be mistaken about the exact meaning of the words when she told me about how the director of the international school at WCC had told her she “needed to be legal” first in order to get into college. I would laugh when she would talk about being afraid of the border patrol (I thought she was joking!) and we both laughed when I took her to Canada and while crossing the border and she said, quite indignantly, “wait, where’s the WALL?”

But darker things happened. Things I couldn’t explain away. Things that would never happen to me. Bizarre little things, and big things. Things that she cried over and I couldn’t figure out a way to give people the benefit of the doubt like I always did in my life. Things that people needlessly said or did for no other reason than being mean. Things that otherwise nice people said that were just awful.

And I realized I had no idea what it felt like to experience racism. When I started seeing the world through her eyes, I started seeing things that boggled my mind. And made me furious. Why in the world would that car salesman block the door inside the show room and ask her what she’s doing here? I could not come up with a single reason that would happen, and I could absolutely never imagine it happening to me. Never. Those words would never be said to me. What would cause someone to say those words to my wife in that way? I was there to hear them too, just far enough behind her that the salesman didn’t know we were together. I am baffled to this day what that was all about. Or why would that employee at the hotel pass her in the hallway and ask her to come down to the desk so they could “verify that she was a guest in the hotel” after we had been there for more than a day. What? I can’t for a second imagine those words being said to me. It would be totally crazy. I’d lose my mind on social media about it.

And I started to realize that the silly things that happened to me in Mexico were nothing like the fear that my wife felt when going certain places, or in big parts of daily life. No one stared me down for no reason, leaving me wondering what they were thinking. No one asked me “are these kids yours?” No one said “let’s just speak in English and he won’t understand” with just me standing there.

I wonder about my kids’ lives. What they will have to deal with. They look more like me than my wife. What does it mean that that makes me feel relieved? What does it mean that I think they’ll have more opportunities, a better job, less challenges in life, than if they looked more like her? Am I wrong? Am I a terrible person?

Or perhaps I feel even worse because I’m not wrong? That their life experience will be more like mine and less like my wife’s, based just off of how they look on the outside?

I think no one wants to feel like they “had it easy.” Everyone I know has some sort of “I had a rough childhood” or “it hasn’t been easy” or “it wasn’t just given to me” life story. I think we all honestly want to be validated for the hard work we have put in in this life. The idea that my hard work is devalued because I started with an easier life is very hard for almost everyone. Has anyone ever said to you “well, my life has been pretty easy up to this point. Basically I was just born into the right family, at the right place at the right time of history, and that explains my life”? In our core I think we all believe that we have earned whatever we have ended up with, perhaps we will admit some small dose of luck but in general I have earned what I have done and gained.

Until I started to see life in this part of the world through my wife’s experience, I only saw life from the vantage point where I was standing. I had fully believed the quote that “the universe is conspiring to help us.” I had been born towards the top of the mountain, and couldn’t imagine that being born at the bottom of the mountain meant anything different. In my experience things generally went well when you did them exactly as I had. I guess I could kind of imagine that some people had less than me, but certainly they could get to where I was at with a little work, right? But we are all given the same climbing boots and supplies, right? This is America, where everyone has the same opportunities. Right? I worked hard to climb the hill up from where I started, and certainly that meant just as much starting from any vantage point. Looking down the hill didn’t seem that far for people below me to be able to reach where I had arrived at. If I can do it, anyone can.

It wasn’t until I was forced to see life from a different vantage point that I started to see what life was like in a place I wasn’t interested in visiting. To be honest I don’t think I’d have ever actually taken time to think about life from someone else’s point of view that deeply. Humans are pretty selfish and I haven’t been a great exception to that rule.

But when forced to, I saw obstacles that were never apparent from my vantage point. To see unexplainable occurrences that didn’t make sense from my life experience. To see systems that did not offer her a chance unless she spoke English fluently. Systems that required money to get up into. Systems that looked suspiciously like white people ran them, and mostly just let white people through (wait, she’s the only non-white person on this flight, and also happens to be the only person on this flight selected for a “random” search???)

You know what was easier? To just imagine that she was mistaken. That she must have heard or understood wrong. That this country was as tough as she imagined it was. That she just needed to work harder. No one had offered me a hand up. She just had to keep her head down and she could get up here. Figure it out. She is just getting in her own way, or blaming others. They didn’t mean that when they said that to her. She needs to grow thicker skin. Stop letting others decide for her.

It took work to stop all that, to start to assume that she is right, that her feelings are valid, and that she just wants to be loved and to be a part of and bring value to this community and this world. That bad stuff happened to her that I never had to deal with. That the mountain was higher than I thought it was. And to stop and to ask her how she sees things that I take for granted. To open myself to see the world from her viewpoint.

We can all do that. We can start now, if we haven’t started yet. And if we started years ago, we can still do it better today. There are so many humans out there who need our listening ears, our love and compassion and understanding. We can help change so much for the better. We can do so much more.

If you made it this far, thanks for listening to our story.
I’ll probably do less long-format things like this as we all start to get busier lives. But I felt like today was an important day to share.
Much love,