Engaging with Empathy

A few weeks ago, a close friend recounted an unsettling encounter she had with a random, middle-aged gentleman on the streets of London. After exchanging pleasantries, the seemingly benign conversation took a rather strange turn:

“I’m from London, but my parents are originally from India. So you said you’re from Switzerland? Do you remember the Swiss referendum against the construction of minarets?”

“Yeah I campaigned against it.”

“Yeah that’s great because minarets are no good for us.”

“No no no, I was against the initiative, so basically in favor of building the minarets.”

She had barely clarified her stance on the controversial referendum when the man launched into a bitter diatribe against Muslims:

“Young people like you are so naïve and completely brainwashed in thinking that Muslims aren’t coming here to kill us all. This is an army- they are coming as an army. My parents suffered under the Muslims and were refugees in their own country. You don’t know what they are coming here to do. Why do you think all the refugees are men between the ages of 18 and 35?”

As she tried to interject and point out that this was likely due to young men having a greater likelihood of surviving the perilous crossing, he became more agitated. “It was good they banned the minarets, because once they build one, they build ten.”

The conversation ended here as they parted ways, but my friend was left disconcerted. In narrating her own experience, she expressed her discomfort at addressing a person of color about his own bigotry- “if he had been from my culture, I would have felt more comfortable telling him off, but I didn’t know how to address him without fully understanding his family’s history and life experiences. I didn’t feel comfortable negating his pain, as uncomfortable as it made me. The roots of racism run so deep- it’s so much more complicated than we think.”

As I mulled over my friend’s dilemma, I couldn’t help but reflect back on all the anti-Muslim rhetoric I had heard over the years from distant relatives, colleagues, and even some people I consider to be friends. Just two weeks ago for example, an otherwise thoughtful colleague posted a status questioning the contributions of Islam and publicly accused all majority Muslim countries of not allowing any other religion to flourish. Such brash, inaccurate and insensitive statements caught me off guard as they were not typical for him.

While confronting him about the status, I was finding it difficult to control my own frustration at reading such words. However, when we finally broached the topic after a few days, I realized he had spent half a day reading about the forced exodus of Kashmiri Pandits from the Kashmir Valley in 1990, amid rising tensions, violence, and forced evictions. Over 60,000 families from the Valley are internally displaced in India to this day, but he feels frustrated that they are neither officially recognized as Internally Displaced People nor highlighted appropriately by the mainstream Indian media. What followed from this realization was a “rushed, emotional response” as he put it, which he immediately regretted.

As flawed and hurtful as his words were, they managed to shed a spotlight on the difficulty of having a productive discussion about racism and bigotry without first understanding where the other side is coming from. In this particular case, the wounds of historic abuses of power in areas of India where Hindus have been a minority still run deep. Even older generations of Indians who have migrated abroad to countries like the United States often carry these sentiments with them. Over the years, many of these wounds have lightly scabbed over with racist stereotypes to make sense of the suffering they have undergone. The hidden bigotry manifested itself in interesting ways in 2016 when the Republican Hindu Coalition vociferously rallied for Donald Trump and aided his electoral victory, despite his racist, misogynistic, and xenophobic sentiments. A particularly disturbing charity concert stoked anti-Muslim sentiments further by featuring a dance performance where dancers were attacked by terrorists shouting in Arabic, before being heroically rescued by Navy Seals.


Source: Google Images

To be clear, historical wrongs do not excuse modern-day racism: they merely provide an important lens to start a conversation. As my colleague and I sat down to openly discuss the events of 1990 and broader trends throughout Indian history, we came to a shared understanding around the religious tensions between communities in post-independence India as well as the role of power and politics in stoking these sentiments for political gains. One conversation probably did very little to shift the perceptions on either side, but we did manage to engage in civil discourse because it was easier to appreciate where the other side was coming from.

Many of us have struggled with the occasional, blatantly racist stranger or the casually bigoted uncle, but how do we begin a dialogue without having the complete context? The impatient, social justice oriented, millennial impulse within me urges a hardline stance: we can have fruitful debates over politics or economics, but we do not have any obligation to entertain or empathize with racist beliefs.

But this also leaves me unsettled.

In a world with increasingly polarizing views and divisive rhetoric, what other avenues exist for hearing and challenging the views of the other side? I come from a generation that has little patience for arguments lauding how far we have come as humanity, because we recognize that the historical evils we celebrate overcoming should never have existed to begin with. But change has rarely happened in punctuated bursts—it has happened over generations, through the persistent efforts of activists and the incremental shifts in policies. As the pendulum of politics swings back and forth from one administration to the next, we must engage with empathy even where none is possible, while continuing to fight for justice and equity at every turn in order to ensure that the arc of the moral universe bends in the right direction. The two are not mutually exclusive.

There will always be those for whom empathy will not work, individuals who are far too entrenched in age-old beliefs. However, we must recognize that racism operates on a spectrum from systemic to individual and blatant to subtle. If we take a hardline stance and refuse to engage in discourse where possible, we risk a more divided society where vulnerable groups are pit against one another without any space to discover common ground. While it isn’t our responsibility to engage racist attitudes, it is only through an empathetic understanding of the roots of racism that we can begin to push back against long-standing beliefs that have passed down from generation to generation.