It is Really White Guilt or Just Empathy? Let’s Talk about it.
I’ve been hearing more people say that they don’t want talk of systemic racism (and sometimes even talk of America’s history of racism) in schools. The argument is that it will make White kids feel bad about themselves.
Beyond the idea that we have to talk about history regardless of our feelings about it or how it makes us feel, I get confused about the notion that talking about racism is causing White guilt or shame. And there is a lot to be confused about.
First of all, where is the data on this? And, is it really shame we’re talking about, or is it empathy? Let’s be careful about confusing the parents’ feelings with kids’ actual experience.
As a psychologist, I do not believe that talking about systemic racism or any racism causes guilt or shame. I do, however, believe that is creates discomfort, which is actually — empathy. Entire books have been written about empathy so forgive me for simplicity here. Empathy is attempting to see and experience life situations through the eyes of another person as if you were that person. I believe hearing about racism does cause discomfort because people are practicing empathy, and that is a fantastic thing.
Psychologists have long researched and written about teaching empathy in small children because empathy is an amazing skill that predicts so many other successful skills in life. As well, sitting with discomfort and allowing it to be is another incredible life skill. Empathy and sitting with discomfort are skills developed through interactions with people who have different life experiences and viewpoints. The essential piece is that there must be a safe space to share these differences without fear of retaliation.
In a demonstration of empathy, let me throw out this possibility. Perhaps some White folks feel like discussion of systemic racism negates or leaves out their experiences. For example, I am White and grew up in a community that was almost entirely White. When I first became engaged in conversations about diversity, I was seriously afraid. There is so much bluster about appropriate things to say or inappropriate things to say that it felt like a minefield. The fear of being called a racist can be overly confining. That isn’t an excuse, but it is a reality that must be overcome. An open discussion of systemic racism would provide a safe space for empathy from all perspectives, including White folks’ fear of being called racist for unwittingly saying or doing the wrong thing.
I actually think that open discussion of systemic racism and racism overall opens the door to talking about other systemic problems like class bias, which affects folks of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. In America, we seriously need a discussion of class bias, but we cannot have that discussion if we are banning discussions of bias.
Another barrier to discussing racism comes from a well-intended but not-so-helpful drive of parents to protect kids from any discomfort. The end result is that we have kids today who cannot hear any corrective feedback without feelings being hurt. We have kids who do not have the resilience to manage life’s ups and downs. I understand the natural drive of parents to protect, but the unintended consequences is that kids are ill-equipped to manage discomfort that comes with living a full and independent life.
I get that topics like racism and systemic racism are divisive, but I believe it is because we are stuck in our own perspective. We take it personally when it is not all about us. Difficult, uncomfortable conversations are needed to build connection, to build empathy, and to build a platform for talking about so many other biases — like class, gender, and the like.
We are different, and we have to be able to talk about how we are different, as well as how we are alike. We need a safe space to do all of that where people aren’t attacked for asking ill-informed questions. We need a safe space for people to be respectfully, honest without fear of being called a racist. I don’t think these conversations should end in schools, but they are great place to set the stage. History gives it all context.
We’ve got to end the policing of conversations on both ends of the political spectrum because in my view, it is leaving us with nothing to talk about at all.