Lack of empathy exposes American ideals as imprudent
Editorial Column: Frontlines
There is a difference between sympathy and empathy. The former is a shared feeling, while the latter is related to understanding. When it comes to the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, everyone exhibited sympathy. So many people changed their Facebook profile pictures to a photo of them on a family vacation or study abroad trip, smiling proudly in front of the Eiffel Tower. They’ve been to France and they’ve seen Paris, meaning that they understand what it meant when people decided to bomb a concert hall and open fire on restaurant-goers. But for many, when it came to discussing the racist events transpiring at the University of Missouri, another disparaging instance in the tired history that has become race relations in America, empathy was needed. Such an emotion notes that as people, we should be able to understand the plight of another without having experienced it ourselves. The vast majority of American citizens and college students probably have not experienced racism — meaning empathy, not sympathy, was needed. Instead, students at Mizzou were told to go to class even after threats against their lives were made. Protestors were called whiners, and those who stood in solidarity with them were called foolish enablers. Yet none of this is new.
After slavery, the American Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, the United States government gave black people in this nation just enough to be complacent, but not nearly enough to be deemed equal. Black codes, Jim Crow laws, the school-to-prison pipeline and the so-called War on Drugs were all measures put in place by state and local governments to prevent black people from becoming fully integrated into American society. And now that this sense of complacency has been shattered by black college students, protestors and activists, white America is up in arms.
It is shameful that people have the audacity to ask, “What more do black people want?” I couldn't care less if there are a million and one bias reporting programs, diversity inclusion measures and whatever other systematically implemented post-racial America ideas that someone in a position of power can devise. What more do I want? For people to stop being racist, to stop hating people because of the color of their skin. Stop hating me because I’m black.
Before I transferred to Rutgers, I went to a school in Boston. During my sophomore year of high school, I set my sights on that university, and did whatever I had to to get in. I got straight As and became captain of my high school track and field team — as a freshman. I graduated with a GPA above a 4.0 and worked two jobs. Yet none of that mattered, because when I got into my dream school, person after person, friend after friend, told me I only got in because I was black, discrediting every ounce of work I’d ever done.
Fast forward to one of my first nights at that university. I sat in a common room with a group of girls I had just met. A couple of them were white, one was from Dubai, one was from Ethiopia and two were Latina. I was the only black girl. One of the white girls turns to me and asks, “How did you get in?” I didn’t think anything of it, most of these kids were Ivy League rejects, so conversations about SAT scores and admission essays weren’t going away — everyone had something to prove. But then she questioned me about the “ghetto” I grew up in, how many cousins I have in jail and what drugs I’ve used. From that moment on, I realized that to many people, I’d never be anything more than a black face. No matter how hard I worked or how hard I tried, I’d always be “that black girl.”
Yet because so many people lack the ability to empathize with my story and the stories of so many other black Americans, our fates are left hanging in the balance. We have no one to fight for us — we have to fight for ourselves. It is easier to process the thought that bombing innocent people is wrong, the logic is there. Killing people is never good, so we have to show our support. But so many of the black students that are victimized in this country are also innocent. I was someone who thought that hard work equaled success and nothing more. That’s not true when you’re black. When you’re black in America, you have to work twice as hard for half as much.
Clearly no affair is more important than the other. If you can see something wrong with a terrorist bombing, you should be able to see something wrong with racism. But more are quick to defend and pray for Paris than they are to care about students at Mizzou. France is a Westernized nation, terror attacks shouldn’t happen there. But can’t the same be said for America? The United States is a Westernized nation, people shouldn’t be getting death threats because of the color of their skin. Yet still, this country has seen a myriad of wars, countless social justice movements, and still students are afraid to show up in their college classrooms because they’re afraid for their lives. And when these students hold protests and sit-ins to discuss and call attention to their stories, they’re told to stop whining.
Terrorism and racism are both deplorable and cyclical phenomenons — neither is acceptable. If the nation and its citizens can so quickly jump to sympathize with terror attacks, why can’t a single bone of empathy be conjured to combat racism?
Yvanna Saint-Fort is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in political science and journalism and media studies with a minor in public policy. She is the Opinions Editor of The Daily Targum.