Empathy is a lifelong process.
Anyone who knows me knows I’m an outspoken feminist. But once upon a time, I scratched my head and questioned why we needed feminism. “Shouldn’t we just advocate egalitarianism—equality for everyone?” I asked. I wasn’t fully aware of the multitude of issues specific to women, both overt and internalized, facing me and all women in society (and how feminism benefits men, too).
In another instance, back in high school, I remember using the phrase, “That’s gay,” as a way to say “That’s not cool,” at the dismay and horror of my gay friend. It was a phrase I heard a lot and repeated. At the time, I didn’t think about how it could be hurtful and problematic. My friend calling me out really made me rethink how I chose my words.
Developing social awareness and empathy takes time, effort, intention, and choice. No one is born with the ability to be perfectly informed and sensitive when it comes to the many complex social issues in our world. Being empathetic isn’t always intuitive, as we are so often caught up in our own problems and it can be human nature to be selfish.
It takes energy to extend ourselves to others, to see things from their perspective, and to provide support and solidarity. But once you start to educate yourself and learn about the various issues facing marginalized communities, you start to grow as a human who can positively interact with others—especially those different from yourself.
Empathy is the ability to understand what another person is going through. It’s the ability to really put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and to feel what they are feeling. It’s about being respectful and standing in solidarity with marginalized groups, including non-white, non-men, and LGBTQIA communities. You hear them, validate them, and help fight for them. You’re an ally.
As a cisgender straight woman, I’ve never had to deal with discrimination when it comes to my gender identity or choosing who I love. While I’ve never personally dealt with the struggles that face the LGBTQIA community, I can understand the pain and frustration of someone who has been judged by society, their loved ones, and their peers for simply being who they are. I can empathize.
On the other hand, as a woman of color, I’ve experienced discrimination for my identity in other ways. I have been teased, tokenized, and fetishized. I’ve had strangers, especially back in my Midwestern hometown, make assumptions about who I am. A shop owner once told me he was surprised I speak fluent English. I’ve had people ask me where I’m from (expecting me to name some exotic Asian country rather than Ohio). I’ve had dates fetishize me for my race and appearance.
The hardships I’ve dealt with—while certainly traumatic at times—helped shape who I am. They’ve made me a stronger, more outspoken, and more informed person. While I’ve learned to forgive others, especially those who don’t necessarily have bad intentions, I always speak up. If someone makes a problematic comment, I will calmly explain to them why they are wrong or how their words can be offensive. I challenge them to be more open-minded and to reflect on their behaviors and comments.
As I mentioned earlier, we all have to start somewhere when it comes to social awareness and building empathy. I don’t let people off the hook, but I also try to educate rather than shame. Being socially conscious is not about purity, and it shouldn’t be driven by a fear of saying the wrong thing. People mess up. Allies should be allowed to ask questions and openly communicate. On the same token, they should be willing to take constructive criticism and constantly better themselves.
My identity as an Asian-American woman is the fabric of who I am. I appreciate when others are empathetic to my struggles but also validate me as a whole, complex person. In a world that perpetuates stereotypes, it’s imperative that we see people for who they really are, beyond identity and appearance. This takes research, self-educating, reading the works of diverse authors, taking classes, and incorporating the works of marginalized people into your everyday life. It’s a constant work in progress, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
By: Karen Li