Bridging the Empathy Gap

By Lester Asamoah

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2016, in some ways, has been a rough year in America. Racial tensions seem to be at least as high they were in 1992 after the Los Angeles riots. Some older civil rights activists even claim that tensions are close to as bad as they were during the civil rights movement. Race relations haven’t been the only divisive issue by any means – LGBTQ+ and Muslim issues also have had major dividing points. Needless to say, 2016 is a year in particular where it’s worth discussing these issues. Even if it means repeating certain issues or points. I’ve largely abstained from writing about these issues, but I want to return to them.

On Twitter, I’ve said that when I see certain politicians talk, I feel like I live in a different America than them. To be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong about having a different experience than someone else in the same country. I’m sure that someone living in San Francisco, CA has a fundamentally different experience than someone that lives in Savannah, GA. However, there seems to be major gaps in how some of the fundamental problems America faces is approached. We have different problems and perspectives. Again, not inherently bad. But some of the problems faced by certain Americans goes largely ignored. This election cycle along with other major events in the [US] country have revealed our capacities to misunderstand each other.

This isn’t the part where I say we should all get along and end the post. I wish it were that easy. This is actually the part where I try to tease out of some of what I think can help develop basic understanding between our different experiences.

Listen and Share the Load

If you’re at all interested in what people are marginalized in America are going through, you should start by listening. I say this time and time again. But, ironically enough, people don’t seem to listen. Or they need to be reminded multiple times. I also suggest listening to things from people of the particular affected group. It makes no sense to hear a congressman pontificate about how bad the shooting was in Orlando – especially if they don’t mention LGBT people (many people did not) and if they’re not LGBT themselves. This isn’t to say that people of the out-group can’t have opinions, but it seems asinine to build your opinions and advocacy from the words of those not in the marginalized group. A certain presidential candidate addressed the black community in a city and crowd that is overwhelmingly white. What good does that do?

If you’re a good listener, then you won’t have to ask the same questions over and over again. As Toni Morrison and many others point out – a part of oppression is having the marginalized consistently have to prove themselves and help others understand what they’re going through. Unless you’re asking a real simple question or are willing to start an honest conversation about a social issue, don’t keep asking basic questions. Google is a hell of an invention. Don’t waste people’s time forcing them tell you about racism, sexism, ableism, Islamophobia, homophobia, etc. when you have the resources to learn about these issues. And if you don’t have the resources, then make that clear. And make no mistake, if you’re intentional people will be receptive. But just know that when you see injustice and you keep saying “I didn’t know, I didn’t know,” it really does no good for anyone. It also does no good to call someone/group of people stupid for what they believe in. Even if you think they are, constantly sharing articles about how inferior a group of people are to you and your cadre of friends isn’t ingratiating. Oh, and let’s stop with the damn “devil’s advocate” please, unless you like patronizing people. We don’t need anymore devil’s advocates.

Changing from Within

Do you believe that people can change? Well, to some extent, people have to change for there to be less tension in the US. As alluded to previously, people have to change the way they take in information about others. But internalizing it is just as important – how many times have you sat in front of a TV or a lecture and not remembered anything that was said in the last 5 minutes?

It’s incumbent of us, as Americans, to get to know the other side. Of course, this shouldn’t be done if the other side is hateful or harmful to our health. I strongly take the stance that I shouldn’t need to empathize with the arguments behind racism, homophobia, and Islamophobia. Thinking people are inferior based on race, gender, religion, etc. isn’t okay, and we shouldn’t be interested in entertaining those beliefs. But where can we as individuals help others move on how they view the world? Can we help people move on these issues? I’ll be honest – I don’t have a great answer because I believe in spending energy on keeping oneself healthy and prosperous; battling with someone who sees you or others as less than a fully valuable human goes against that. Alternatively, what are we doing within our in-groups on these issues? The black community has pressing issues of misogyny and homophobia to deal with. As do many other communities of color. Intersectionality is something that has to be practiced by everyone.

To put this bluntly: for there to be change, the people that are in the dominant group have to change. For systemic racism to end, white people have to change. For misogyny to end, men have to change. For Islamophobia to end, people who are non-Muslim have to change. For homophobia to change, straight people have to change. You likely get the point now. This is where intersectionality is critical because a lot of us in some way belong to a dominant group. It’s not enough to say only white people or black people should change. And it’s definitely not enough, if not pretty offensive, to say that someone in the marginalized group should change – i.e. lesbians should “act straight,” blacks should “commit less crime.” Just for the record: lesbians should act however they please and we shouldn’t assume blacks are prone to committing crime. Rinse and repeat these principles.

Free Expression

So if a problem is that we’re bad at listening and internalizing important things about those different than us, we should expect people to get mad sometimes. Of course, it does no good to endlessly scream at someone about an issue. But anger is a legitimate response to being called rapist by a certain political candidate based on arriving from a certain country, or seeing people that look like you getting shot down in a Florida nightclub or in the streets of Milwaukee. For some reason we just have a hard time in America with understanding the emotional responses of others. We need to get over that. We need to understand the varying expressions of those around us. White working class people in Indiana who feel betrayed by the economy have a right to feel mad. Black students who are tokenised for 3 years of school at a predominately white institution [PWI] have a right to be reserved. LGBTQ+ people have a right to be annoyed at straight people constantly disregarding their rights (we do it way too often, fellow straight people).

Expression is an important point because when you press people in some way, they will eventually express how they feel. The inability to listen and learn means we have routinely misunderstood these expressions. And make no mistake, we as a nation will continue to misunderstand these issues if we don’t listen and learn.

…Is that all?

I promise I’m not trying to insult your intelligence and be elementary by suggesting we should simply “listen and learn.” However, that is that solution and we are bad at it. Quite frankly, it’s much easier to put off the problem for a number of reasons: we have our own things going on, we have a friend of a marginalized group that doing well so things are fine, or we just worry that we’ll never know enough to do anything. Those are things that I’ve faced, and things that I imagine most readers face. We have to be honest with ourselves. It’s easy to write Facebook statues and call it a day. It’s easy to let that guy we know say the n-word. It’s easy to let a sexist joke slide. But it’s difficult to confront ourselves and these small battles. And sometimes these battles are more harmful than good. Sometimes we lose friends. Sometimes we need breaks. But if we’re concerned about bridging the gaps that have made America feel so divided, we have to do the work and that’s where the work is. Don’t say I never warned you.

Lester Asamoah is a graduate student at American University.

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Why We Still Need Feminism

By Kaileen McGourty

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The feminist movement has never been unanimously popular – whether due to honest disapproval of gender equality, like that experienced by the Suffragettes, or a disbelief that feminism is still necessary today. And that’s why I’m writing this article, because of the recently blooming opinion that we don’t need feminism anymore. There are a significant number of people in this country, and possibly throughout the world, who believe that we ended sexism and gender discrimination (Yay! We did it apparently!) and therefore see feminism as redundant or even causing victim-hood among women. But that’s simply false. Discrimination based on sex is still very present in the US (and the rest of the world); those who do not see it either aren’t women or aren’t looking very hard. A good way to expose the ever-present sexism in our society is to examine dominant versus popular culture.

Dominant Culture

Let’s being with a definition. The dominant culture is made up of established societal aspects like language, rituals, or social customs. These aspects maintain dominance through institutions like the education system, law, politics, and business. This is the layer of society where first and second wave feminism focused – attacking where the most obvious and detrimental acts of gender discrimination existed at the time. The lack of women’s right to vote or own property, unjust pay, discriminatory educational practices, and workplace sexual harassment all were obstacles in the dominant culture. As a result of strong feminist efforts, we have seen great improvement in this sphere of society – this is what some are referencing when they claim that feminism is no longer necessary. Women won the right to vote and hold land. Laws punishing sexual harassment and encouraging workplace safety have come into effect. Title IX was created to insure educational institutions treat female students equally.

But have we really improved gender discrimination in the dominant culture as much as some may think? Let’s say we’re going to measure the presence of gender discrimination in dominant culture with wages. Over time, in the U.S. it is very clear that the average wage for women has moved closer and closer to that of men (see the graph below). However, we’ve yet to actually reach wage equality. As Harvard economist Claudia Goldin explains, if you calculate the average annual earnings of all full-time working women and divide that by the equivalent calculation for men the result would be around .77 – meaning, on average, women earn 77% of what men earn. So we can’t quite say there is gender equality in pay yet.

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But is this a fluke? Let’s try a different measure. How about the portion of political positions held by women? According to the World Bank data-bank, in 1990 women held a mere 6.6% of political seats in the U.S. and as of 2015 women held 19.4%. That is a huge improvement across time; however that number pales in comparison to the other one-hundred and eighty nine reporting countries in 2015. Ranking from highest percentage to lowest, the U.S. finds itself, just barely in the top 50%, at number 96 – below countries like Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, nearly every “developed” country, and many more. So, sadly, we can’t claim political gender equality either.

Popular Culture

We have to accept that our country has not reached gender equity in dominant culture. That does not mean we’ll forget the huge improvements women have seen in our country’s history – something both genders should be proud of. But there seems to be a final obstacle preventing real equality and an end to gender discrimination. I believe that it’s the sexist foundations of popular culture standing in the way. Popular culture is more than the who’s who and what’s what. It’s defined as the sum of attitudes, beliefs, ideas, and values within the mainstream or dominant culture. It’s the culture of how we interact and what we believe. This is where those who believe sex discrimination has vanished lack an understanding or haven’t connected the dots, so to speak. Our popular culture is built upon the sexist cornerstone that women are not equal to men – this holds back gender parity in dominant culture and perpetuates potentially harmful attitudes. These attitudes account for things like street harassment and catcalling, “mansplaining”, and even rape culture. Let me give a few examples:

I asked twenty women I know, all of different ages, sizes, and locations, a question: how many days out of the week do you experiencing catcalling or other forms of street harassment? Accounting for how many days they actually walk on the street or use public transportation, on average they experienced some sort of harassment approximately 5 out of 7 days – and that’s not considering how many times it happened each day! And if you don’t believe me, ask the women in your life.

I am a huge hockey fan (go Blackhawks!), probably more knowledgeable on the topic than the average fan. But I cannot count with all my digits the number of times a man has tried to explain rules or aspects of hockey to me, based purely on the assumption that because I am a female I must not know about sports. Nor can I count the number of times someone, knowing my academic and professional experience, began explaining topics in my field of expertise because the intelligence of women is constantly challenged in our culture.

While those examples may seem harmless, and on the surface they mostly are, they are representative of a dangerous attitude – what women know, want, or say doesn’t really matter. And when that attitude gets applied to something more complicated than hockey knowledge, like sexual consent for example, heinous violations of women occur.

If you still aren’t sure that our popular culture is built on a foundation of gender discrimination I have a dare for you: in this awards season, watch all the red carpet (whatever color carpet) interviews. The presence of sex discrimination is thinly veiled at these events and is most apparent when comparing how male artists and female artists are interviewed. Compare the types of questions – are women being asked about their love life or beauty regime, while men are asked about their role preparation or inspiration behind a song? Of course, you already know the answer. This type of sexist interviewing goes undisguised in every sphere of pop culture, just watch how absurd the questions for female athletes are in this video by #CoverTheAthlete.

So What?

The reason I had to tell you all this? Gender discrimination is not done. Women are still fighting everyday to be treated with respect and equality. Our culture still does not truly value women’s intelligence, work, sexuality, or opinions. While our dominant culture has made great strides in the past towards gender equity and the fair treatment of women, society as a whole is being held back by the final obstacles – how we think, how we act, and what we value. To truly reach gender equality and an end to sex discrimination in our dominant culture and in all of society we cannot leave behind a popular culture built upon sexism. We need to rally around feminism and women. We need to examine how our individual participation in popular culture is impacting the existence of sexist attitudes. And we need to say “enough is enough pop culture, get it together!” I think it’s about time.

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Kaileen McGourty is a Graduate Student at American University’s School of International Service.

The Case for Black History Month

By Lester Asamoah

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Black History Month, like beauty, is sometimes in the eyes of the beholder. Stacey Dash’s recent comments reignited the debate as to whether Black History Month should exist or not. And Ms. Dash is not the only prominent black celebrity to speak out against the month. As we wade through another February, we are left with another year of questioning if a month “belongs” or not.

I would argue it belongs. You, the reader, are left to have your opinion. But the idea of having a month of history dedicated to African-Americans is not a bad thing. The first counterargument that should be immediately addressed is “why isn’t there a White History Month?” My question to counter is: what would we put in a White History Month? This isn’t a coy response. I would actually welcome a White History Month. But how would famous white people be honored in ways they already aren’t? More importantly, how would we assess the history and accomplishments of black people within the existing asymmetric power dynamics in America? The question isn’t, and has never been, how to leave white people out. Rather, it’s how to bring black people in.

There are three brief reasons behind keeping and appreciating Black History Month: Representation, Celebration, and History. Assessing the debate to keep Black History Month through these three lenses paints a little more of a picture as to why the month is important.

Representation

The question of “why isn’t there a White History month?” is a good starting point to point out why a Black History month is necessary. Representation. It’s not so much that black people haven’t invented things, broken records, or started major businesses. It’s that we don’t often hear about these people. Whereas, we are well-acquainted with what white people have contributed to history. Moreover, it’s that American society—in a time frame that is much closer that people realize—actively kept black people from inventing things, breaking records, and starting business. Black History Month really is a pittance compared to the cruel underdevelopment of black neighborhoods and individuals that previously took place.

Celebration

Despite the important acknowledgement of the terrible wrongs that were dealt to black people, there needs to be room for realizing the success of black people. Another common counter-argument against Black History Month is that a month is not enough. And that is true. But, as is commonly said, we don’t want to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.” The increasing limits that standardized testing places on American history and the subsequent lack of interest in black history—doubled with the recent crusade against anything that isn’t American exceptionalism—is a perfect storm for knowing shockingly little about the achievements of black people. Black History Month is a celebration, but a lot of people seem to take it as a “make white people guilty month.” I would argue it’s possible to celebrate the achievements of black men and women who have contributed to history in a purely positive way. It should go without saying that black people taking pride in something is not an attack on white people.

American History v. Black History

Another common discussion point when talking about Black History Month is that it’s American history. First and foremost, someone who is enslaved is not an American citizen. And the US Constitution counted black people as 3/5ths of a person, keep in mind. Black History, as it relates to American history, is really black people either being non-citizens or highly marginalized second-class citizens for what is the majority of the existence of America. All of that being noted, a unique discussion as to what it means/meant to be black in America is warranted.  It is a limited space to contemplate what black people have experienced in America and where the future lies. These conversations can, and really should be done in conjunction with white people. And people from all creeds and races, of course. There is a strange phenomenon in the American psyche that makes people deeply suspicious when black people have their own thing. But with an open ear and an open mind, there is a lot for everyone to discuss and learn. Black History is something that goes in tandem with American history, but the discussion must be honest.

This debate, like history, may repeat itself. But at least we’ve briefly covered a few arguments that make Black History Month important. Whether it should exist or not is contentious at times, but we can certainly derive positive lessons from it while it is around.

Lester Asamoah is a Graduate Student at American University’s School of International Service.

 

The Praxis of Social Justice Dialogue

By Lester Asamoah

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“Human existence cannot be silent, nor can it be nourished by false words, but only by true words, with which men and women transform the world. . . But while to say the true word—which is work, which is praxis—is to transform the world, saying that word is not the privilege of some few persons, but the right of everyone…” – Paulo Freire, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed (p.88)

This opening quotation from Paulo Freire’s work is a great starting point behind the philosophy of dialogue. And, more importantly, why dialogue is so important and urgent. We, or at least those interested in social change, must be involved with the praxis of dialogue. But how can we do this effectively? What are the steps? Clearly, there’s a lot of discourse that is unproductive, and even unhelpful.

I will establish simply how we can begin to think about the praxis of dialogue. Next, I’ll discuss how to create meaningful dialogue. Finally, I’ll discuss what I believe is ineffective and effective. To my audience of social justice advocates: I must stress that this is only a glimpse into a certain philosophy and up to critical debate and interpretation.

What is dialogue?

What is meant by dialogue? Dialogue is a back and forth process between two people in learning about or analyzing the world in some way. Largely borrowing this definition from Freire, I want to make it clear that is a two way process. Its importance in being a two-way process is vital in a world where we conduct a great deal of our communication of ideas either by social media, or listening to people who are experts in a certain field speak on their experience. How can we understand the plight of homelessness by never speaking to someone who is homeless? The simple answer is that we cannot. And we wind up with policies where we “know” how to engage with these issues by marginally dealing with them.

Our means of conversation and dialogue have evolved. We can chat online, or on Skype. We have more diverse communities than ever before. There’s no limit to what we can learn about others. We have a unique way to take advantage of our technological and cultural placement. But before we talk to people and try to develop understanding, we have to remember one critical fact: every person is capable of cognition by the virtue of being human, and we should never assume that anyone is below us or unable to express complex thoughts about something. People doing the opposite of that sentence have brought great ruin to the world from their hubris.  

How can we think about meaningful dialogue?

Meaningful dialogue is about listening. That’s not a secret. Why doesn’t it happen this way? It’s because privilege and power dynamics exist. While these dynamics exist, we have to acknowledge this: If you’re reading this, you likely have some sort of privilege and power. Now, I don’t have the magic formula to get the most powerful people to the table, but Freire notes that we can make a difference with oppressed people to help them realize they’re oppressed. Note that he does not say to lecture people, but he says engage with dialogue. And also note that people that are oppressed are able to express their opinions and take action.

For those of us that are concerned with social change, there’s hope in a bottom-up approach. But we will not be the heroes. I repeat, we will not be the heroes. Empowerment cannot be taught by lecture or monologue, Freire says. But active discussion with those that are oppressed, Freire claims, will help people realize that oppression does not have to be permanent. In dialogue with people of similar or higher privilege than us, we can discuss in a hope that it leads to the understanding they can be empowered to be in the solution. This process is slow and requires patience. Freire’s work is called The Pedagogy of the Oppressed – pedagogy means the practice of teaching. This is at odds with certain ways to invoke social change. But, this is one of many ways to invoke change; a way that can be simultaneous with others.

What has worked and what has not?

I alluded to what doesn’t work – the notion of assuming that we have a higher cognition than others. We have different experiences, perhaps different values, and come from different walks of life. But by virtue of being alive—thinking, therefore they are, as Descartes would say—means we should get to know what people are thinking by hearing it firsthand. The process of dehumanization assumes that people have no cognition. People sometimes act irrationally, and may be even unfavorable to talk to, but all of us have cognition. We see people taking food stamps draw comparisons to animals, or students of Islamic background face discrimination for their creativity. People believe(d) that if one is on food stamps, their cognition is desperately dependent upon the government, or a young man’s cognition is limited and dependent on his religious background.

What works? There’s no surprise that the opposite of assuming we are better than others works. We, as individuals that care, must be open to the idea that everyone deserves human respect. And when we see others treat individuals as less than human, we have to challenge their thinking. Most importantly, we must seek to love the individuals that feel less than human. This, as Freire says, is a constant praxis of action and reflection. We have to be reflective of what we are saying, and we have to take action as people of consciousness to increase the level of consciousness. Most importantly, we have to realize that people have different ways of interacting with the world, and that must be respected. Though, if someone interacts with the world in a way that is destructive, we have to respond.

In terms of covering the philosophy of dialogue, much less the overall work of Freire, this is incredibly limited. However, it’s a starting point for us to think about how we interact with the world, the people in the world, and what we can do to empower each other instead of suffering though one-way dialogues that are ineffective, and even harmful. We have a great societal challenge ahead of us. American and global history has been marred by unthinkable marginalization and violence. However, violence does not have to be our destiny moving forward.

Lester is a Graduate Student at American University’s School of International Service.