It’s Not All About You, or The Case for Empathy

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

Back in 2004 when I first started speaking and blogging about race, I was invited to facilitate a phone discussion with a group of parents who had adopted children from outside the United States.

One of the mothers in the group was white and Jewish. She adopted her son from an African country, and was raising him in her faith. She told me that she wanted my advice on a situation she was dealing with.

Her nanny was a Jamaican woman. One day, the nanny came home and the mother noticed she looked upset. The mother asked her what was wrong, but the nanny just shook her head and said everything was fine.

The mother was concerned, so she kept prodding, but the nanny was still reluctant to say anything. The mother was persistent, and told her that this was a safe space for her to share. She said there wouldn’t be any judgments, no matter what it was about.

Finally, the nanny broke down and said, “You people don’t know how to act!”

She explained that anytime she took the child for play dates in their mostly white and Jewish neighborhood, parents would treat her brusquely and avoid eye contact. Whenever she went to a store, salespeople would follow her around to make sure she didn’t steal anything. When she went to pay for items, the cashier would treat take great pains not to touch her hand when giving her change back.

She had been putting up with this kind of discrimination for a long time now because she loved working with this family, but she didn’t know how much longer she could go on as it was wearing on her emotionally.

“Can you believe that?” the mother asked me, her voice shaking with anger.

I was about to respond by expressing how sorry I was that this level of prejudice existed in her community, when the mother continued.

“I’m going to fire her! How dare she call Jews ‘you people!’ I’m Jewish and my son is Jewish. I’m just going to have to fire her because I don’t feel safe around her anymore.”

I was stunned.

Not only did the mother completely ignore the very real discrimination her nanny was dealing with; she managed to turn the entire situation around so that she became the victim.

In subsequent years, I’ve come to realize that this kind of behavior is not at all unusual.

If anything it’s the norm, not the exception, for people to be pre-occupied with their own suffering and supremely uninterested in hearing about the oppression others face.

This lack of empathy is one of the biggest roadblocks we face in dismantling racism.

If we’re serious about social justice, we need to recognize that when one of us is discriminated against, it’s an affront to us all.