A call for empathy

As a child, I remember being struck by the thought of my teachers outside of school. I was shocked to understand that what I could see was not reflective of their entirety. They had families just like mine and children just like me. They had people who loved them and missed them — just like I did. And knowing this somehow made me empathize with them more. This piqued my understanding of life and humanity.

Here at SMU, we’ve been engaged in a month-long debate on humanity — specifically intolerance and the LGBT/minority communities. These discussions culminated in the special election on establishing an LGBT seat in student senate. These developments are important for the SMU community because, frankly, we never come together and we’re rarely genuine. We live our lives in concentric circles — our student organizations, SMU, Highland Park, Dallas, Texas, The United States, then the world — each circle more contemptuous than the last.

It only takes one experience with the homeless population on the fringes of our campus to recognize our privilege. Yet, we struggle even to empathize with our fellow students. Whenever we are given anonymity (i.e. Yik Yak or CollegeACB), we take the opportunity to deride each other. None are spared. But ultimately, our anonymous hate speak reflects back on us. We habitually invalidate the experiences of others.

We all suffer from this affliction, identifying with people who are most like us. This trait evolved from the need to support families and disperse genes; it’s natural. And it’s easy to explain away, but for those of us with privilege empathy can be more important than self-interest. Conservative political theorist George F. Will reminds us that we too often conflate human instincts and morality. In other words, just because it comes naturally doesn’t mean it’s justifiable morally.

Even I live as a black man on this conservative southern university undoubtedly privileged. I am able bodied. I am college student. I’ve been blessed with some economically profitable skills. I am nearing graduation. I have a special interest seat in student senate. Do I think student senate is largely symbolic? Certainly — and I also think a singular “black seat” undermines the complexity of the black experience on this campus where black students attend from across America. I don’t communicate with the black senator.

So when I was approached by Colton Donica to vote for the LGBT seat, I understood the possible futility of such a seat. But I voted yes, because I recognized my privilege and the hypocrisy of withholding from someone else. While I am unaware of his aims, I’m sympathetic to his struggle. It’s awful to feel slighted by a system, even worse is the feeling that no one understands you.

I may not be the most knowledgeable on the struggles of gay students in college. But I feel sympathetic as a minority. Yik Yak and CollegeACB can quickly shift from homophobic to racist: “If you’re gay, ethnic or liberal, you shouldn’t have come to SMU,” “BLVD elevator’s work less than black fathers” or more subtle “I’m not against gay people. I just believe that if we are striving for equality then we shouldn’t have special interest seats.”

In discussing these issues with a friend of mine from the business school (who happens to be white), he always says, “these kinds of things have a tendency to work themselves out for the better” — I admire his optimism. And in all fairness, his successful battles with addiction through rehab have almost certainly contributed to this outlook. I feel for him. I couldn’t imagine overcoming addiction during such an impressionable time. But that idiom of optimism is merely a comfortable circumvention of the truth. Things didn’t just work out for our neighbors living on the street — at least from an outsider’s perspective. And a semester’s stint in rehab would decidedly be the end of college for me. The world is unfair.

In my gut, I don’t feel that same sense of smug confidence in my future that many of my friends share. Statistically speaking, from birth, I had a greater chance of going to jail than to college. Black families, on average, have six times less wealth than their white counterparts. Stories of success and failure do not fall far apart. Tangibly, both of sets of my grandparents are business owners. I have aunts and uncles who are physicians, employed professionals, homeless addicts and in jail. Life isn’t fair.

I stand as the sixth oldest out of 10 cousins, but I stand with my cousin Taylor, at Howard, as the first to graduate college. My older cousins have had children, dropped out of college, gone to technical schools and been in gangs. Are they bad people? Maybe, maybe not. Sometimes bad things happen and you just can’t fix them. There’s a fine line between success and failure that everyone must tread regardless of background. Hard work in the right opportunity can certainly lead to economic success, but discrimination can easily swing the odds.

What is this?

In the past month, Donald Sterling and Cliven Bundy have clearly represented the resiliency of close-mindedness. But Questlove and Homeboy Sandman have proven that contempt is not only a white characteristic. Questlove is in the midst of a daily editorial — “How Hip Hop failed Black America.” But his critiques are sent to an audience in Vulture Magazine that’s outside of the culture and makes assumptions that those within the culture know to be untrue and ultimately prove condescending. Similarly, Homeboy Sandman, a locally known DJ from New Jersey, has published an article through Gawker titled “Black People are Cowards” whose message is so problematic that it deserves an essay of it’s own.

In that same vein, how can I be bothered with the Supreme Court for essentially striking down affirmative action in the state of Michigan last week, and then vote against a minority special interest seat here at SMU? That would make me a hypocrite at the very least. It’s easy to list the injustices that happen to people like you, but sometimes it’s hard to sympathize for someone that’s different. And truly, all the advantages I enjoy came from someone different than me showing someone like me empathy.

But truthfully, we are all victims of circumstance. Everyone has advantages and drawbacks; but we share the same human condition. Even the most stoic or introverted among us feel excitements and fears — hopes and regrets. People we idolize sometimes feel sad or inadequate. Everyone has struggles. Life is hard for everyone; so I feel for everyone. I feel for the homeless. I feel for the addicts. I feel for the victims of sexual assault. I feel for those in prison. I even feel sorry for those who are closed-minded. If we are truly a society of exceptional people like we claim, then why do we so often fail to treat each other exceptionally?

An upstart hip-hop artist from Chicago named Chance the Rapper, a 21 year old like me, shares on his most recent mixtape his take on humanity: “Everybody’s somebody’s everything…nobody’s nothing.” As this school year closes and we enter the world we hope to change, I hope we remember that message. Have empathy.

Tell us what you think.