Empathy, Prejudice & Structural Inequity

I’ve written often about the importance of reading for the development of empathy. I believe developing empathy is essential to address the deep divides and problems we face in our society.

But I also know you can’t fix structural inequity and intolerance by addressing individuals. If your strategy to overcome prejudice is to change the minds of prejudiced people, then you’re going to fail.

These convictions contradict each other. But I’m certain both are correct and necessary.

In his speech for the Book Award Celebration at the 2020 ALA Virtual Conference, Jerry Craft said:

“We can’t change the way the world sees us if we don’t first change the way we see ourselves.”

This perfectly encapsulates my division over this issue.

I’ve witnessed and experienced the transformative power of changing how you see yourself. It’s good and healthy and empowering.

Mr. Craft made this statement in reference to the need for more diverse authors and characters in our fiction. Everyone deserves to see themselves in the stories of their community. This is the founding principle of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement and it’s one I support without reservation.

I also believe everyone deserves the opportunity to learn what it’s like to be someone different. This is especially true for people who aren’t regularly exposed to difference. This is the heart of empathy.

But the first part of his statement—”We can’t change the way the world sees us”—sounds an awful lot like a call for uplift suasion. As Dr. Ibram X. Kendi’s research has shown, uplift suasion never works. The powerful will just keep moving the goalposts. It leaves the dominant group with all the power to decide others’ worthiness and does nothing to redress the power imbalance at the heart of prejudicial systems.

You can’t change how the world sees you.

We can’t hold individuals responsible for fixing systemic issues. Fixing the system doesn’t require any uplift suasion at all.

Empathy is one of the worthiest goals we have for self-development. It’s a road to self-empowerment. Empathy can repair relationships between individuals and within local communities. Promoting empathy can do a great deal of good on a personal and interpersonal level.

Empathy helps us attain the best versions of ourselves. Empathy can resist prejudice among individuals.

But individual beliefs and actions won’t be enough to fix fundamental structural inequities. These problems require rebuilding the structure of society itself.

I believe if we can rebuild our social structure successfully, in the process we’ll also create a society that can do a better job of teaching and promoting empathy more diversely and inclusively. We can create a world that’s more structurally just and stable, and also empower better relationships at a community and personal level.

Empathy is essential for us to be healthy people. But empathy on its own won’t be enough to fix society. We must deal with the structure first.

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