This is the sixth reflection in a series about the life and work of Dr. King, commemorating his birthday and holiday, 2015.
When we assume that our view of the world is a full and accurate view, we stand in a dangerous place. While it’s difficult to know how others experience the world, it’s crucial that we try to learn others’ experiences, to empathize. If we don’t do this, we are caught in our own smallness. We can end up thinking that everyone is treated they way we are treated. This is dangerous, in part because it’s inaccurate. It’s also dangerous because it blocks us from empathy.
In 2015, we need this empathy more than ever. Over the last year, we have watched the historically difficult relationship between police departments and communities of color rise into full conflict. For those who have not experienced police brutality it can be hard to see. Privilege always is hard to see. What we must do is listen to the experiences of those who have suffered. We must ask them, hear them, and take their experiences into our own hearts and minds. The world is always bigger than we know.
This is especially true for those of us in the racial (and power) majority. It is easy to assume that because I have never been followed by security in a store, that few people are ever unfairly followed in a store. It can be easy to assume that because I have never been roughly treated by the police, that roughly treatment is actually rare. More than ever, today we need to listen to others’ experiences and take them seriously.
The third chapter of Dr. King’s book Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? teaches me some deep and challenging lessons. Dr. King urges “white America” toward empathy. We have to know what others suffer. He writes:
What is needed today on the part of white America is a committed altruism which recognizes this truth. True altruism is more than the capacity to pity; it is the capacity to empathize. Pity is feeling sorry for someone; empathy is feeling sorry with someone. Empathy is fellow feeling for the person in need — his pain, agony, and burdens. I doubt if the problems of our teeming ghettos will have a great chance to be solved until the white majority, through genuine empathy, comes to feel the ache and anguish of the Negroes’ daily life.
Why is it so easy to dismiss the experiences of others? For me, to accept others’ experiences requires me to act. If I have a certain view of the world and hearing another person’s experience shatters the universality of my view, I have to reset my thinking. I might also need to defend the person whose experience differs from my own. This “reset” challenges me. I have learned my views of the world from family, school, country, all my own life experience, and to admit that those teachers, have been limited and skewed– this requires a kind of rejection of my own education and formation. This is a complicated challenge for many of us who are in various majorities.
The good news is that empathy can save us. When we listen to the experiences of others and take their experiences seriously, we can be freed from the smallness of our own views, limitations of our own personal experiences. We can grow into a broader, more accurate and truthful vision of the world. Then we can begin to build our world in a new way.
Photo Credit: Getty Images