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Empathy and Racism

The role of empathy in the conversation about racism.

By Madeleine Rogin

Madeleine Rogin has been an educator of young children for the past 13 years and currently teaches at Prospect Sierra School in El Cerrito, CA. Madeleine developed the Peaceful Changemakers Curriculum as a way of teaching about Martin Luther King Jr. and social justice to young children. She can be reached at madeleine@prospectsierra.org.

October 1, 2013

Leading educational theorists such as Howard Gardner and Tony Wagner have written about the importance of cultivating our students’ abilities to communicate across “networks”—skills that are crucial to success in our new global reality. And indeed, there’s already been a popular acceptance that teaching around the topics of race, racism, and communicating across differences is an essential part of education in the 21st century. But in many classroom conversations, racism is framed as something of the past rather than a present reality. In addition, white children often think of slavery or the Jim Crow laws as something horrific that happened to “them,” but do not see these events as something that is bad for “us” as a whole. To avoid this mistake, we can focus on empathy in the classroom as a way to prevent exclusionary behavior and “othering,” which may move students to stand up against bias and prejudice.

Looking towards the future, the next step is to ask ourselves, as educators and parents: how do we go about these conversations in a way that promotes values such as inclusivity and empathy?

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As a white Kindergarten teacher and mother of biracial children, I have sensed a disturbing pattern around the discussion of the Civil Rights Movement in schools, and especially in classrooms where children of color are in the minority.  Children of color can feel put on the spot, embarrassed, angry, or ashamed following Martin Luther King Day, often because the teacher or other students singled them out in some way.  For example, a teacher points out the African American student in the room as she talks about Dr. King, asking him if he’d like to say anything. Or an African American Kindergartener feels like everyone is pointing at her when the teacher reads a book about Dr. King. Or a mixed race 1st grader is told by a white student that she wouldn’t have been allowed to go to their school because she’s black. None of these examples indicate malignancy, but rather a failure to structure a conversation about racism that is inclusive of all the voices in the room.

To illustrate the complexities around creating inclusive, empathetic conversations about racism with young people, consider Sara, a second grader, and the only black girl in her class.  The teacher teaches a lesson to the class about slavery, and, afterwards, a group of Sara’s white classmates comes over to give Sara a hug.  Sara is made so uncomfortable by this display of affection that she does not tell her mother about it until she is in the 5th grade, at which point she reflects that she couldn’t wait for that classroom conversation to be over.  What was it about Sara’s classmates’ hug that made her so uncomfortable?  Their compassion felt to Sara like an expression of pity, rather than empathy; though the gesture was sweet, it was misguided in that the children did not themselves feel affected by the history lesson.

To build empathy around these topics we need to ask: how do we share in these experiences of injustice?  How do they affect all of us?  How can we work together to build just, inclusive communities?

These are discussions that are missing in many classrooms, even those that are rich in many different kinds of diversity. Inequality exists today, but we have the opportunity to offer explanation and deeper understanding in the classroom. In my own attempts to create more inclusive conversations about race and racism in my Kindergarten classroom, we confront the themes of justice, equality, and inclusion multiple times throughout the year. We learn about many people who fight for positive social change—both famous and personal, true-to-life and fictional.  We discuss skin color differences, learn to communicate across our differences, and explore and celebrate these differences through stories, poetry, imaginative play, and art activities. 

In addition to teaching about key African American figures in the Civil Rights movement, it is important to teach about white people in history who fought against racism, such as Morris Dees, Virginia Foster Durr, and Myles Horton.  We must also consider present day examples of racism and what is being done to fight it.  At my school, we invite family members and friends to come into the Kindergarten classrooms and share their own stories of working towards social and environmental justice. We ask our students to honor a “changemaker” they know by putting their photos and a short description of their work up on a wall. We also have another wall that is dedicated to a diverse representation of famous changemakers we have studied—people of different races, ethnicities, cultures, and genders.
 
My goal is to structure each conversation with my students in terms of how our shared history around racism is devastating for all of us. For as Dr. King said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”