Ethnicity Studies · Politics of Education · Teaching

Empathy, and recognizing humanity

“Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin has to be one of my favorite stories, and it paired perfectly today with my need to discuss racism with my students. There’s a line where the narrator says, “My trouble made his real.” And, later, Sonny says, “And I don’t know how I played, thinking about it now, but I know I did awful things, those times, sometimes, to people. Or it wasn’t that I did anything to them–it was that they weren’t real.”

We discussed empathy, the ability to feel the pain of others, and, most importantly, the ability to realize that others are as human as we are. I spent the last couple minutes talking to them about the racial slurs posted on social media last week, by our OSU students, about other OSU students, and how when we do things like that, it means that we’ve forgotten that other people are human, and that when we forget that others are human, it can lead to a lot worse than name-calling.

During a fundraising event, held in our student union pavilion, students posted things like this in an anonymous social media app:

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I don’t think I could have assigned a better story for today, even if I had known this was going to happen, as, through it all, the narrator must learn to listen to the experiences of his brother. The language of the type that happened above is clearly the result of students not knowing how to recognize the experience of others, and not realizing that others possess humanity.  In “Sonny’s Blues” the narrator must learn to see the human beneath the drug addict that his little brother has become.

For the students that posted the hateful slurs, they need to learn that humanity does not just belong to white faces. They need to learn that throwing around denigrating phrases is not something that should be done, ever, whether it is anonymous or not.  For our university, it needs to learn what it has done that allows its students to feel safe uttering phrases like this.

And for my students today, it meant a conversation about how we must never forget the humanity of others, how it was enraging and heartbreaking for me to see that kind of language coming from students on my campus, and an explanation of why this kind of event makes me so passionate about what I do, and why we discuss race, ethnicity, and political oppression.

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