Discomfort as the path to empathy

In church this morning, on this Martin Luther King Day weekend, the sermon topic was white privilege. The minister urged us to notice the ways we as white people (and yes, 99+% of the congregation is white) benefit from our skin color without even being aware of it. And of course he's right.

But the sermon didn't leave me satisfied, because it seems to me that simply understanding that we have hidden privileges doesn't necessarily help us relate to people better, or create the kind of society I want to live in. In fact, sometimes I think it just adds an extra layer of guilt and awkwardness.

Creating the kind of beloved community that MLK dreamed about takes more than intellectual understanding. It requires empathy. And empathy is never going to come from an "us" and "them" framework, where "we" are privileged and "they" are not, as if our lives are fundamentally inaccessible to one another. Empathy comes from recognizing the threads of common humanity, even when the details are quite different.

While it's true that I'll never have first-hand experience being black in America, I do know what it's like to feel like an outsider, and to have false assumptions made about me based on how I look. Recognizing how terrible that feels is the beginning of empathy.

Most of the time I try to avoid those uncomfortable situations (and usually can, because I'm pretty darned privileged). But I'm realizing how poorly that avoidance serves me as a human being who wants to love well. If I can't be around large numbers of people who are different from me without feeling totally uncomfortable, I've still got a lot of growing to do. 

To support that growth, I have been thinking today of ways I might be able to put myself into situations where Ithe straight, white, well-educated, able-bodied, home-owning, English-speaking womanam the minority, and wouldn't necessarily be welcomed with open arms.

For starters, I could attend more diverse cultural events, volunteer with different populations, travel to other countries or regions, or just walk around different parts of the city. These things all seem embarrassingly small to me, but the truth is, I've often avoided them, not just because they're "not my thing," but because I'm afraid of the discomfort of feeling like I don't belong.

I think it's about time I got over myself.

Anyone else want to join me in this exploration?

What would it look like for you to step out of your comfort zone with different groups of people?