Why A Struggle for Empathy Doesn’t Justify Apathy
Date Originally Published: Oct. 7, 2016
Ah, white privilege. At this point in our eternal scroll of newsfeeds and timelines, the phrase itself has come to evoke, within even the most progressive, little more than an eye roll and additional up-swipe of one’s thumb. Headline after headline, we’re constantly inundated with instances of injustice that highlight the racial hierarchy clearly present in our country. These posts and stories urge white Americans, including myself, on a day-to-day basis to reach out our upper hand and help our oppressed fellow citizens.
However, it seems we’ve reached a sort of privilege-paralysis; white Americans know that we should take action, but have no clue what that action should be. And with each passing day, the pressure is undeniably on.
It seems as though the issue facing white America is no longer white privilege itself, but rather our paradoxical refusal to channel it productively. After all, most have already accepted the very real existence of white privilege within Western society. We’ve shared the cartoony social media posts answering, “What is white privilege?” and perhaps even expressed a broken heart or two via Facebook for the victims in Charlotte; in Charleston; in Ferguson.
However, while the "Peace House" video that metaphorically explained the argument for #BlackLivesMatter definitely looked like the worst Applebee’s visit ever, there’s truly no way for white Americans to fully understand the urgency of our nation’s current racial crisis within the simplified terms of an internet post. Or within any terms, for that matter.
Digitally, white privilege begins and ends with the very ability to log in and out of a racial crisis. In reality, white privilege extends as far as the immunity to live in a country filled with racially-charged murder and injustice and remain completely unscathed and unconcerned. While white Americans’ distance from racial injustice through privilege is inherent, our hesitation to attempt to close this gap is deliberate.
So, then, the question stands: why are the vast majority of white Americans not doing a damn thing?
As Huffington Post reporter Kim Simon proclaims in, “The Problem With White America,” “Allies are not passive… Allies don’t wait for a guidebook on how to make things better. Allies are outraged, because outrage changes things.”
However, it seems as though what should be innate outrage at the suffering of fellow Americans is foiled in practice by our own inhibition of our racial position: the guilt of white privilege.
Jamie Connors, Fordham Junior, admits to having struggled with this guilt herself while first trying to understand her white privilege. Through her work as a social justice leader for Fordham’s Dorothy Day Center for Service and Justice Connors gained great clarity.
“Guilt implies a certain thing that someone has done, and shifts the blame to an individual,” says Connors.
“In reality, this set of privileges and benefits are something that, because of the nature of our society, white folk are inherently born into. The struggle then is figuring out what to do with this privilege besides feeling sorry and hopeless.”
Confronting one’s privilege and discovering its proper usage, Connors believes, is “a baby-step process.”
So, how can Fordham’s white community take that first baby step towards making a difference? Well, we can start with education.
There are various resources provided across campus to learn more about social inequality, including the Dorothy Day Center, ASILI (The Black Student Alliance), and FSU (Fordham Students United), each of which welcome students of all races and backgrounds.
Likewise, residence halls frequently host student forums to reflect upon these sensitive issues, such as Finlay Hall’s recent grieving and discussion of the Charlotte shooting.
Yet our greatest and most accessible resource of all lies in the varying demographics of our classrooms and social circles.
Within these environments, we can find unity in our divisions. We can educate ourselves on current and historical discrimination, both major and obscure, so that we feel more prepared to discuss it with others. Most importantly, we can find our purpose to act.
Stagnation is just as deadly as our biases. Simon concludes “[black America’s] killer was born from the seeds of apathy and entitlement. Our silence created a vacuum for hatred to fester in.” By remaining silent to the issues surrounding us, we are not being polite. We are not doing anyone any favor besides ourselves.
The bottom line is, no amount of empathy will ever allow white Americans to feel the systemic and prolonged injustice against black Americans. The history of American racial oppression is an atrocity that can never be righted.
But what we can achieve through empathy is the simple sense of human understanding: understanding that these people who have suffered and are still suffering are our friends, our classmates, our countrymen, and our fellow human beings.
Offering to remove the knife we have historically driven into our fellow Americans is nothing short of awkward. Attempting to remove it will undoubtedly re-open the painful scar tissue of its insertion points. However, facing this responsibility, having these uncomfortable conversations, and using this upper hand we've been dealt to ensure that the cards aren't stacked against our fellow citizens is, truly, the very least that we can do.