Thursday, December 4, 2014

Empathy

I'm not going to pretend that I know what it's like to be a person of color in America. I grew up white. I was poor and I was female, but I always had the privilege of being white on my side.

I didn't realize that I had privilege, simply due to the color of my skin, until I moved to Newark, NJ. Suddenly, I was the minority among my neighbors, and yet, still, I carried privilege. When my friend Kristi's car was broken into while visiting me there, the cops told us, very knowingly, that the people around there were "animals." They asked me what the hell I was doing living there. I wonder if they would have said that to me had I been a person of color.

Then I worked as a teacher at a school in the South Bronx. While most of the teachers there were incredible, hard-working folks, there was one embittered woman who continually threw around the term, "THESE kids" and "THESE parents." As in, "THESE kids can't do that kind of reading, because THESE parents have never picked up a book in their lives." And "Don't expect THESE parents to come to a conference; they're too busy doing drugs." When it was time for those parent-teacher conferences, she said, "Bring your grad school homework; none of THESE parents ever comes." I sent all my students' parents a note a week before offering extended hours, and asked them to give me their preferred times. I gave each of them one scheduled time, as opposed to the general conference window, and promised refreshments. Many of the parents had had negative experiences at conferences, and I wanted them to see that my conference would be different. And guess what? All of my parents showed up. My coworker didn't have the same luck.

Then there was the time I called the cops while living in a lower-income neighborhood in Brooklyn for a domestic disturbance I heard upstairs. They came to my apartment and asked me what I heard. I said I heard screaming in Spanish. The police officer actually said, "Well if it ain't English, it don't count." These big, beefy, all-white police officers combed through my stuff (without a warrant), asked what a girl like me was doing living here, then walked out, chuckling.

Oh, and what about that sweet elderly woman who lived above me in my little apartment in the West Village? I helped her carry in her groceries every time I saw her. Until, that is, that one day she cornered me and asked if I'd noticed the new "coloreds" that moved in, and expressed concern that they might steal from her.

I don't know what it's like to be eyed suspiciously as I walk down the road, to constantly have to answer for my actions. I don't know what it's like to be stopped by the police for a routine "stop and frisk" or while driving my car, when I was doing absolutely nothing wrong. I don't know what it's like to worry that I'll be killed if, after being pestered by police my whole life, I find that I have an attitude with them just one time. I don't know what it's like to not be able to hail a cab because of my skin color, or to be denied housing or a job for the same reason. I don't know what it's like to have people follow me around a story when I'm shopping.

I do know what it's like to be harassed on the street for being fat and female. I know what it's like to have people assume that, because I'm a woman, I'm weaker and less intelligent than they are. I know what it's like to be sexually abused. I know what it's like to have people assume I'm the same religion they are, and then ask ignorant and sometimes offensive questions when they find out I'm Jewish. I know what it's like to feel intimidated by those who've never experienced poverty. And I draw on these experiences to have empathy for others.

I know being a police officer is tough, and I can't imagine what being a police officer is like in an impoverished and dangerous area. And we as a country haven't helped matters much by making military-style weapons widely available to the population. I can't imagine trying to keep citizens safe when people can now go grocery shopping with a semi-automatic weapon slung over their shoulder.

But cops, like the rest of us, need empathy. They need to stop being like that embittered teacher I worked with, stop looking at the people around them as "THOSE people." They need to be a part of their communities when times are good, to befriend the people there, to try, on some level, to understand where they're coming from. They need to see them as the humans they are.

Unfortunately for me, I've had too many bosses who swoop in, nit-pick everything I do, give a ton of negative feedback and make unreasonable requests. And I can tell you when I work for those bosses, I give as little as possible, take shortcuts, and have a bad attitude. It's human nature. But when I have a good boss - like the one I have now - one who compliments what I do right and offers support and as interested in my life - I find ways to go above and beyond.

Maybe police officers can try the same approach. Work with the citizens to make a place better. Treat them with respect. Think back to the times you've been treated as "less than" and use that to try to get it. And maybe the killing of unarmed black men can finally stop.

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