Talking History- Fantasies of Empathy in the Age of Trump

Alisha Gaines’ guest lecture on empathy in the age of Trump talked about the ways white Americans try to empathize with the daily struggles of being a person of color in America following the election of 2018. The belief that we as Americans are in a post-racial period because of the election of a black president is false. ‘Good whites’ feel that if they show enough empathy or sorrow for the lasting torrent of stupidity and racism felt everyday be a person of color. Following the election this empathy was shown in messages and declarations of marching and speaking out against what they see and asking what they can do to help; being an ally. By proclaiming themselves as an ally they are placing themselves away from the ‘other’ types of white who have not already come forward in apology to do what they can to help. Ally-ship and empathy relate to one another because there is no real danger in being an ally or various levels to it. Empathy was described as living in someone else’s shoes or entering into a country and forcing oneself to assimilate. But countries can be left and shoes changed, allowing the visitor to decided when they had had enough of the truth and want to return to the comfort then found before. This can be seen in the sadly large number of white Americans wanting to live as black Americans and Muslim Americans to see how bad life for them really is. Examples of these experiments include Ray Sprigle a journalist who used blackface, really a bad tan, to ‘turn black’ and live the black experience. Also John Howard Griffin author of Black Like Me where he understood blackface and a new identity in the south during the 1960s, who inspired Grace Halsell to also undertake this expedition after reading his book to see how the female perspective would change. More modern examples of this include Joshua Solomon and short-lived reality television show ‘Black-White’. The commonality of these shows is the want and need to see how bad the experience of the black American is because that is the only way to show sympathy for the way they live instead of asking an actual black person and listening to their experience and ideas of change. Instead skipping that step and going straight to the inversion method of learning about another person’s life. For many, after the ‘change back’ to white felt they were now able to speak on the black experience as an ally but unlike them, Racheal Dolezal, a white person who identifies as black would not ‘change’ because she felt it was her right to decided how she represented herself. Real empathy should be about recognizing another person’s pain. Cross racial understanding of how and why you, not personally, hurt of helped to facilitate the difficulties in their everyday experience, not getting offended or feeling attacked about it, and then discussing ways to solve the issue. As Gaines put it ‘empathy plus’ means real risk, shouldering the burden, and being able to know when to take the backseat and allow others to lead and voice their own opinions and feelings by giving them a platform to speak.

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