The Truth about Sympathy, Empathy & Race in America: A Black Man’s Perspective

“I have no need for your sympathy, I welcome your empathy, yet require neither to grow into the highest version of human being the Creator would intend me to become.” –Dr Juneau Robbins

I am an optimist by nature, the blessed second son of a father who was humbly raised in a small African Canadian town near the border of Detroit, Michigan.  My father never knew his father, yet he strived, matured and developed to become the kind of man every fatherless child looks up to as a strong male role model and father figure.

Now, at forty-three years of age, my wife and I are raising a Black son in the United States of America…and the optimism is waning.  We live relatively well.  I practice my passion as a natural healthcare provider, we are business owners, giving and striving to be the best examples of success we can be in an urban setting of a major U.S. city.

From the outside looking in life is good, with a beautiful family, comfortable home, and solid social ties…but from the inside looking out, as a community-vested Black man in the United States, life is an everyday battle pitting individual and group self-worth against a society repeatedly showing disdain, disrespect, and ultimately contempt for the lives of young black men.

The air of racial tension in the United States is burdensome; a heavy and ever-extant cross to bear that is present in every waking facet of life.  As a Canadian growing up near a border city, I used to marvel at the change in racial climate and energy the moment we crossed the border.  Not to say racism and prejudice do not exist in Canada, they do, but in the United States these negative elements are super-juiced and ever-present, like a destructive cancer on steroids spreading to every vital element of an aging and illness-infested body.

The recent high-profile legal injustices against several young black men in the country, the Trayvon Martin case, the Mike Brown and Eric Garner grand jury dismissals, are self-evidence against perhaps the most famous sound bite from Martin Luther King Jr’s most famous speech, in which he proclaimed, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”  Such occurrences are recurrent themes and happenings in a nation warped and wrapped around racist traditions, doctrines and beliefs at its core; the only truth self-evident regarding young Black men in America is that their lives are not regarded equal.

A look at the reactionary protests of the disenfranchised, suffering, and moral minority striving to find effective voices and means to express their frustrations hurts my heart and enrages my soul.  I look at the reactions of the rest of America, even well-intended individuals of other races joining with the protestors, and see a plethora of pity posts or inflammatory rants, sympathy gestures, pure hatred and/or disdain, but very little empathy or true desire for change.

The difference between sympathy and empathy is major.  Both are acts of feeling, but only one constitutes a true act of compassion.  Sympathy is an act of feeling sorry for another individual or group without the ability to truly understand what they’re feeling.  Conversely, empathy is a shared feeling – the ability to mentally and emotionally place oneself in another person’s shoes, to have an accurate sense of what they are experiencing and feeling.

Empathy requires mental work and imagination, or a similar life experience, to attain.  Sympathy requires lip service and a brief acknowledgment, but no real feeling.  Empathy is active, while sympathy is passive.  By its very nature, the word “active” implies movement; the word “passive” implies stillness.  Movement is necessary for change, and change is necessary for progression.

As a nation, the United States needs to embrace the ideals of empathy, not sympathy, if its ever going to turn the corner on race relations….and there’s where my optimism ends.  In 1903 W.E.B. Dubois wrote, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” 

It’s nearly 2015, and it appears the problem of the 21st century remains the problem of the color-line.  How’s your level of optimism regarding race relations doing today?  Or do you even possess the desire or capacity to care?

Leave a Reply