Having Meaningful, Empathetic Conversations About Racism

Why is racism so hard to talk about? It’s so hard, yet it is so important. Many of us have recognized that change is necessary. But how do we facilitate conversations about race that are meaningful and help us better understand each other? 

The answer may very well be empathy. Empathy is a person’s ability to share and understand each other’s experiences. The good news is that we all can work on being more empathetic toward each other.

In the past month, many people have opened their eyes to the suffering of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) that they had previously ignored or are ignorant to for various reasons. How can we keep our eyes open and bring about positive change? A good place to start is to cultivate and expand upon our empathy. Truly listen to each other, talk to each other, and care for one another. Continue to talk about racism and do our best to try and see things from another person’s perspective.

The way our society is structured, some people think that talking about race is divisive in and of itself, and therefore avoid talking about race. However, a person of color may easily recognize the privilege that a white person has to not discuss race or have to think about race all the time. It’s hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Many of us that are in a place of privilege avoid talking about race to avoid stepping on anyone’s toes, so we shy away just to stay on the safe side. Some of us don’t speak out for fear of being called a racist, or any other -ist. But, avoiding this conversation reinforces the sufferings of our underrepresented communities. By taking this bold step of continually communicating with each other with empathy, we can hold each other accountable to the everyday work of anti-racism.

Let’s talk about the different layers of empathy.  The first layer of empathy is cognitive empathy. This layer is impactful in motivating others, negotiating, and thinking about understanding the viewpoints of others. Be sure not to ignore or block out your deeper emotions. If you do, you may assume that you know what the other person is feeling or experiencing. Ask questions directly and listen with your ears and feel with your heart. 

The second layer of empathy is emotional empathy. This is when you literally feel the same emotions and relate to the other person’s experience as if it were your own. As humans, we all experience the same gamut of emotions throughout our lives – anger, fear, happiness are all emotions we feel at times. 

The third layer of empathy is compassionate empathy. With this type of empathy, we understand the person’s situation and feel with them, but we also have the motivation to help. Compassionate empathy considers the whole person (both cognitive and emotional empathy) and we should all strive to step into this type of empathy as much as we can. Gauge each situation and listen to your heart and your thoughts as to which type of empathy to use.

We must have uncomfortable conversations to facilitate change. I hear many of us saying that we want to make changes, but are not sure how to make a difference. Talk to your colleagues, peers, friends and family about what they have been feeling in the last month about all the unrest and racist acts that are happening in the Nation. Take things a step further and have authentic and empathetic conversations with people of all colors to help continue the conversation on how to combat racism.  Use compassionate empathy when talking with BIPOC to gain their full perspective and understand what they are going through as much as possible. By being more empathetic towards each other, we can be more than just an ally. Through compassionate empathy, we can work on understanding the whole person so that we can actively commit to unlearning bias ways of thinking and behaving. We can change the current landscape that teaches us “us vs. them” and instead unite together as “we” to create meaningful, lasting change.

At Counseling Services and across the Michigan Tech campus, our hearts are broken at the violence, discrimination and hatred we have seen unfolding across our nation on members of the Black Community and historically marginalized people. Please take the time, if you have not already, to read A Call to Action written by Kellie Raffaelli, Director for the Center of Diversity and Inclusion and also A Message to Campus regarding George Floyd by President Koubek. 

“As we navigate these challenging times together, let us serve as role models for unity and strength. Let us use our voices, our skills, and our influence to advocate for change. And let us elevate the level of public discourse around equity and inclusivity. The responsibility of justice rests on us all and can only be carried out as one community built upon a plurality of voices.” – President Koubek

In addition, check out this video from former Michigan Tech student, Travis Tidwell, where he has shared his first-hand perspective of his experiences in Houghton. https://www.facebook.com/travie.tidwell/videos/10157998175200073

Please know that Counseling Services is here for you and we hear you. We recognize that you may be experiencing many different emotions that can be difficult to unpack. We are offering times for drop-in healing spaces throughout the summer and fall via Zoom. Summer dates are July 15, July 22, and August 5 from 11am-12pm EST.

If you would like more information on this or need a supportive space to connect with one of our counselors, please contact counseling@mtu.edu.