Speaking Truth, Facing Bias and Promoting Empathy

Ex haero iusto natu quidem.

July 14, 2016


It has been a rough summer as the topic of guns, violence, police and bias scream across the news headlines and our smart phones.

Still reeling from the June 12 massacre of 49 people at a gay nightclub in Orlando, a few short weeks later we watched on video the back-to-back shooting deaths by police of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, LA and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, MN.  Just a day later, as cities across the country engaged in protests over these deaths, we witnessed the horrifying sniper attack of white police officers Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith and Loren Ahrens, and the wounding of seven others.

For most of the country, school is out but that doesn’t stop parents and families from wanting to answer questions and find meaning in these deaths while they discuss the tragedies with their children. Nor does it prevent teachers from reflecting on how they will address it with students when school resumes.

What can we learn from these events and what can we teach children about them?

The words of Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, in the wake of the Dallas shooting, are insightful and instructive:

“We need this to mean something to this community and this country. It’s a senseless act of hate but if it can mean that it’s an opportunity to open that dialogue so that white people think about what a Black family goes through as they teach their children a different set of rules than a white family will teach their children. So that non first responder families think about what a first responder family goes through wondering if their loved one is going to come home.”

What this means is not only do we all have to try harder to listen to and hear the perspective of one another--perspectives that may be difficult and uncomfortable to take in—we also need to engage in a dialogue where we can concurrently speak hard truths and listen with compassion and empathy. It is also critical that we listen to and accept the strong feelings people may have about these and other incidents—whether it is anger, fear, shame, sadness and disappointment, but also the triumphant feelings of making a difference.

As parents, family members and teachers who are responsible for educating the next generation of citizens and leaders, how can we translate the hard truths of racism, violence, inequity and a need for empathy into how we talk to young people about these issues?

First, it is critical that we promote understanding of identity, culture, differences and develop skills in how to respect those differences. These are concepts and skills that need to be taught in a methodical way, especially if there isn’t racial diversity in the schools and communities in which kids live.  But even if there is diversity, these skills and concepts have to be taught, nurtured and modeled on a regular basis.

Second, from an early age, we need to talk with children about prejudice and bias.  As they get older, we can teach young people about discrimination, implicit bias, injustice and the ways in which people have overcome oppression. We need to also talk with them about the intersection of racism, violence, inequity and the criminal justice system. At a time where 69% of Americans perceive race relations as “mostly bad,” open and honest dialogue across differences must be a priority, both for young people and adults.

Finally, as Judge Jenkins asserted, we need to “respect one another, show compassion for one another and see things through each other’s perspective.” Racism exists and especially for Black and Latino men, bias can have dangerous and even deadly consequences when interacting with the criminal justice system. Police officers have a demanding job that provides an opportunity to positively impact communities but also requires them to face danger on a regular basis. Promoting empathy means helping students understand different perspectives and the lens with which others see the world.

When we do this, we help young people tap into their humanity, build their empathy skills and feel more connected to one another other.