What Happens to Empathy Deferred?

As an alumnus of an independent school, I have enjoyed reading about the increasing emphasis on teaching cooperation, teamwork, mindfulness, and empathy. As independent schools become more globally and racially diverse, the need for greater reflection, for awareness of one's own thinking and biases, and for curiosity about the perspectives of others also grows.  The ability to empathize may be the most critical need in this century, and some research suggests that mindfulness can help cultivate empathy.

The importance of the ability to see the world from the perspective of others became apparent to me when I was a somewhat lonely, out-of-place freshman at my New England boarding school. At 14, I quickly began to see and understand that I was different from most of my peers. My views and perspectives were different as a result of being a black urban kid from the often unforgiving south side of Chicago. Over the years, I learned that my approach to many issues, assignments, and problems was vastly different from those of my white friends. As a black person living in a white world, I learned to understand the white perspective, and it was strange and frustrating that white people rarely, if ever, bothered to learn or even inquire about how I saw the world. 
 
This was most apparent in 1995 when, as a senior, I was reviled by my classmates and, more shockingly, by my teachers, dorm parents, and coaches for celebrating the O.J. Simpson verdict. While I knew that my white classmates wouldn’t understand why the black students, like most of black America, felt jubilation that day, I was disappointed that educated adults, some of whom had seen me grow and mature since my freshman year, could not be open-minded enough to look at this national issue from my point of view.  As usual of course, I was supposed to see the issue from their point of view.
 
I had the same experience a couple of weeks later with the Million Man March on the National Mall. Why did the people with whom I interacted daily and who cared about me lack the desire to empathize with my thoughts and feelings about issues that had directly affected me, my loved ones, and other people who looked like me?  

Why the Differences Matter

Although I learned a lot and have an abiding affection for the four years I spent at my independent school, I wish some things had been different. Had my school focused on mindfulness and empathy back then and incorporated them into the curriculum, my experience and those of the other black students probably would have been different. I think that it would have been more equal, more fair. My experiences would have been more like those of my white classmates: My school trials would have been limited to in-the-classroom and on-the-field challenges.
 
Instead, we students of color frequently were forced to address, on our own, micro-aggressions and problems that the majority of our classmates didn’t even realize existed. As a result, I felt out of place on the very campus where I lived most days over four years. I frequently felt unsupported and misunderstood because there were very few adults who truly understood my everyday challenges. My ideas were often dismissed or met with indifference. I felt like a bull living among a campus full of horses.  

New Generation and New Opportunities

Today, I am not bitter; I am hopeful. My goal is to offer this perspective on the importance of sparing future generations of students of color my experience by supporting the growing movement to develop in students nonacademic abilities like mindfulness and empathy.
 
According to NAIS data, independent schools are heavily populated by students who increasingly come from different backgrounds and who, consequently, see the world very differently. Education experts stress that in order to offer the most substantive and meaningful education, we must embrace and teach skills that promote mutual understanding, cooperation, and respect. I couldn’t agree more. It’s a view I’ve held since the 1990s, when I realized that my own perspective-taking ability and understanding of how people operate would be critical to my success. Thanks to my school's student diversity, I learned to expand my understanding of people who weren't like me. Where else would a 15-year-old black kid from Chicago get to room with a Japanese student and learn Japanese customs? Where else could a hip-hop loving, urban basketball-junkie teenager find his voice and a true passion to advocate for racial understanding and multiculturalism? 
 
Today, developing reciprocal understanding, mutual respect, and empathy among diverse populations remains our greatest challenge. The need has perhaps never been more obvious. In the last two years alone, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray, to name just a few, have focused national attention on racial inequality and social injustice. We have heard “I Can’t Breathe” chants and seen “Black Lives Matter” signs and hashtags that raise awareness of and express dissatisfaction with the status quo. Independent schools claim to embrace missions that promise to lead the way to create a healthier culture of cooperation and understanding. Consequently, independent schools must actively work to ensure that those missions aren’t empty abstractions.
 
What I have learned is that creating a culture of empathy requires a level playing field.  Young people need guidance from adults who understand them, who share their background and experiences. Understanding others is more likely to occur if people first understand themselves if they understand who they are, what they think, and why they think it. White students in independent schools have the white mentors and role models they need in order to develop this sort of self-confidence and understanding the base from which, with further guidance, they can become increasingly understanding of others. Black and Latino students in independent schools lack sufficient numbers of black and Latino mentors. 

Diversity Issues still in Deferment

I’ve recently met directly with students of color who attend independent schools. They unanimously agree that what they need most are adults who look like them and have walked the paths that they stumble along each day. Theirs is an old wish not yet realized not yet addressed.
 
These students need mentors and educators of color to demonstrate to them and, equally important, to white students, that the biggest brains on campus aren’t just white teachers. Black and Latino students need teachers of color to empathize with them about issues that only they can understand because they have lived them: what it’s like to be the object of racial bigotry; what it feels like not to meet the American standard of beauty; what it’s like to carry the weight of negative stereotypes on your teenage shoulders; what it’s like to have to be courageous enough to speak out and risk either becoming a social outcast or feeling ashamed for failing to speak; even what it’s like when the hair and hygiene products you use are not available at local drugstores. Students of color need adult role models who respond thoughtfully to their ideas about current events, instead of dismissing them as “immature, idealistic, or ignorant.” That's what I needed when I was a student, and that's what students of color need today.

Turning the Corner with Meaningful Solutions

Creating the conditions for a more mindful, empathetic culture begins with faculty diversity. If independent schools are to truly provide a full, substantive, and meaningful education to all of their students, each institution must staff itself with educators who can provide all students firsthand experience and perspective. Schools must understand that educators of color absolutely have a critical role to play. It is they who, working with their white colleagues, will help develop empathy and understanding, while conditioning all students to understand that there are black and Latino education professionals and administrators. What better way is there to simultaneously improve the educational experience for students and faculty at independent schools, prepare students for the global society and workforce they will soon enter, combat long-standing stereotypes, and address a need that has for too long gone unaddressed?
 
As a black alumnus, I know firsthand that aggressively seeking and hiring candidates of color will make a significant difference. But hiring isn’t enough. Schools must do three other things. First, the administration of each school must develop a realistic, accurate sense of the particular culture in which teachers and students of color live on their campuses. That is, schools must understand how these teachers and students experience life at their schools on a daily basis.  Do they feel alone? Do they have a voice? Do they feel respected? 
 
Second, schools need to hire sufficient numbers of teachers of color so that the teachers won't feel as though they are isolated tokens or appear like tokens to other members of the faculty or to students. Retention of good teachers of color is a constant problem, and creating a strong cohort of teachers of color can improve the chances that the teachers will stay.
 
Third, administrators must empower teachers of color to ensure that the dominant white culture will not indirectly or unintentionally silence them. Once schools have created the right culture and conditions, the real work of developing empathy can begin and will have the greatest likelihood of success. The key is caring enough to care.
 

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