“Always do the right thing even when the right thing is the hard thing.”
— Bryan Stevenson
The book, Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, uses compelling stories of racial injustice to demonstrate the need to fix the United States’ flawed justice system. The recent deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery have magnified inequities, prejudice and indifference to racism. Demonstrators of all ages and races are calling on all of us to do something. When we remain silent or merely think about “doing” or “saying” something, we fail our black friends, colleagues and neighbors.
Take a moment to imagine yourself as George Floyd’s brother or Ahmaud Arbery’s mother. Now, consider the long list of black men and women who have died through brutality, hate and injustice. Next, put yourself in the shoes of peaceful protesters who are mothers, brothers, fathers, sisters and friends in cities across the US. What are they feeling and what is driving them to march, hold signs, chant names or kneel? Finally, ask yourself, “What are my feelings about what is happening and what do I want to change?”
Empathy for those with different experiences is more important now than ever before. Demonstrating empathy requires us to be curious and step into the shoes of another person and act. Think about Harper Lee’s powerful words in her landmark book, To Kill a Mockingbird: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.” Physically, that’s not something we’re able to do, so empathy is the next best thing. When we better understand others’ feelings, thoughts and experiences, we can begin to identify what they might be going through and we help them feel understood. While empathy does not mean that we agree with what others are feeling, ongoing research validates that actively taking on perspectives of others does help to reduce racism and unconscious biases. Empathy also improves interactions with those who look different from us.
Anti-racism activist Jane Elliott asks this question from the podium at conferences: “If you as a white person in this society would be happy to receive the same treatment as black citizens receive, please stand.” No one ever stands. She then asks, “Then why are we so willing to accept it or allow it to happen for others?” It’s a great question, and you may be asking yourself, “What can I do?” Consider these first steps:
- Don’t remain silent; say something to your black and brown colleagues.
- Admit what you do not know and seek to learn.
- Listen, listen, listen… allow others to express their truth.
- Refrain from saying you know what another person feels; you can work to understand with empathy, yet you will never know exactly unless you’re in their skin.
- Avoid defensiveness about how you are “different.” We all have unconscious biases that do not allow us to see micro-inequities.
- Expect to feel uncomfortable. Change is wrought with discomfort.
One conversation is not going to result in change. However, with greater empathy to guide our actions and behaviors, we have hope for social transformation. It’s time for all of us use our voices to take a stand for racial equality.
For other ideas for what to do: