Empathy and Compassion as Antidotes for Racism and its Psychological Effects

Doctor Robert Strayhan

Racism can be defined as follows

The belief that groups of humans possess different behavioral traits corresponding to physical appearance and can be divided based on the superiority of one race over another. I won’t belabor the truth that there is only one species of homo sapiens. We are all human with a shared origin and often shared ancestry. It is more appropriate then to recognize the differences that occur as a result of ethnicity and cultural setting rather than use the incorrect term, “race”. Anthropological and genetic research has shown that there is more inherited variety WITHIN ethnocultural groups than there is BETWEEN ethnocultural groups. In essence, we are more similar than different. All of us here in East Texas have more cultural similarities than not. We like to barbecue and eat it. We like the Cowboys and share the agony of another missed Super Bowl opportunity. We say ya’II and ma’m. We all say and believe the saying “Don’t mess with Texas”. We have seen heroes within and outside of the health fields putting themselves on the line to ensure the health of others that look different but share the same pain and discomfort induced by the direct and indirect effects of COVID-19. Most of us don’t stop medical evaluation and treatment of any illness and say, “I don’t want the black doctor to see me”. Nor do we say, ” I don’t want the white doctor to see me”. So, if we have so much in common, why do racist sentiments and behaviors still rear their ugly heads? The primary emotions associated with racism originate from fears, real or imagined, that are based on negative stereotypes. When this irrational fear takes hold, we fall into the psychological defense mechanisms that allow those who look different to become the “hated other”. The “hated other” becomes everything we fear. In the process, we lose the ability to be empathetic and compassionate.

Racism And The Loss Of Empathy

To make a concrete example, regardless of how you identify yourself, imagine, if you will, that your son is jogging in your neighborhood. He is pulled over by police because he looks suspicious. He tells the officers that he lives down the block but in spite of this, they place him in handcuffs. He protests and is frightened. He begins to squirm because the cuffs are on too tight. He is then thrown to the ground and one of the officers puts a knee on his neck. ln spite of your son’s saying, “I can’t breathe”, the pressure stays on his neck until he stops moving because he is no longer breathing. He has died at the scene.
What parent, regardless of whether they identify as Korean American, Mexican American, Italian American, Irish American, or African American, would want to get the phone call that their son died under such circumstances? How many of you know your son would feel that the death was justified and that your son “must have been doing something to make the police respond that way”. If one notices the connection here is the use of the word, American. We are all Americans. No lives can matter until ALL American lives matter. Brown-skinned people aren’t the only ones who die in police custody. This could happen to your son. If you can’t see such a thing happening to your son, then why would you be comfortable seeing that happen to someone else’s son? The only way that this can be justified for it occurring to someone else’s son is a loss of the ability to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes’. This is a loss of empathy and compassion.

Concrete Ways To Deal With The Effects of Racism

All policemen aren’t bad, any more than all of them are good. They too are human. Being reactionary does no good. Going out and buying guns to “protect” ourselves from other Americans does not make us ALL any safer. Defunding the police will not make us ALL any safer. We will all be safer when we face, in unison, as Americans, the history of slavery and racism in our country, learn from that history and make the necessary changes to ensure that ALL Americans enjoy the same rights to safety in our country. To that end, we must unite in demanding the police officer selection is based on adequate pre-selection screening, more extensive training in non-violent de-escalation of encounters with unarmed citizens, requiring that vest cameras be turned on whenever any encounter with civilians occurs and developing community liaison functions to review complaints of excessive use of force when engaging with civilians. These are concrete ways to deal with the effects of racism that can occur in our police departments and place us all at risk. This is, I feel a very good way to insure mental health and well being during these times of crisis for our country.
In closing, I would like for the reader to engage in one last exercise in empathy and compassion. It comes from the inspiration of the Lutheran minister in Germany during
WWll, Martin Niemoller. Read it and see if it resonates. If it does, let your conscience guide you accordingly

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out, because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak to me.



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