What do you say to your daughter when her life has been threatened by a schoolmate simply because of the color of her skin? What words do you use to explain to her why a white fellow student “hate[s] black people” and records himself symbolically shooting a black man over and over and over again? Unfortunately, my husband and I somehow had to try and find those words this weekend after learning about the horrific situation at Cardinal Newman School where she attends.
We started with just the facts although we knew very few of them. Next, we tried to answer her questions about what happened. Yet again, our responses were limited due to the lack of information from the school. Then came that question that I was dreading for which I had no sufficient answer, “Why?” Hearing her ask that while looking into her beautiful innocent brown eyes nearly broke me. I had to look away in an attempt to gather myself so as to not let the pain that I was feeling inside spill out and upset her.
In attempting to answer her question, we referenced our conversation from four years ago following the tragedy at Mother Emanuel. We talked about how some white people think they are better than black people. We talked about racism and discrimination. We talked about friends of hers who had been called the N-word. We tried to assure her that when she encounters people who direct racist and vile words towards her or discriminate against her because of her race, it won’t be because of anything lacking in her. It will be because of something lacking in them.
Racism is rooted in “lack.” It is rooted in the absence of something, and that something is empathy. When most people think of empathy, they think of compassion and understanding of others. While those ideas are certainly important components of empathy, in the context of racism, empathy is more about identification than it is compassion. Before one can truly have compassion for another, he must first identify with that person as himself. Racists and white supremacists do not truly see or identify people of color as people. They do not identify with us as one of their own.
It is precisely this mentality that empowered white slave owners to capture, abuse, barter, mortgage, rape, and kill millions of black enslaved people for 400 years. Following slavery, Jim Crow laws legalizing segregation and discrimination were founded upon this mentality. Not viewing black people as people helped to justify humiliating, derogatory, and deadly treatment at the hands of some white people ranging from separate water fountains and lunch counters to lynchings. Racists who lack identification with black people can practice shooting an inanimate object while pretending to shoot a black man because to them, there really is no difference between the two.
Both families and schools play pivotal roles in the formation of a child’s identity and values. They both share the responsibility of cultivating empathy in their children and students. Parents, family members, teachers, and administrators should do all that they can to prevent a dangerous lack of empathy from taking root inside a child’s heart or mind.
Therefore, let us teach our children to see themselves in others. Let us teach them to embrace difference rather than fear it. Let us constantly remind them and ourselves of the Golden Rule to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” For as this horrifying experience at Cardinal Newman has shown us, our children’s lives may literally depend on learning these important lessons.