Earlier this weekend, writer, professor, social activist, and feminist Roxane Gay wrote an Op-Ed for the NYT titled “Of Lions and Men: Mourning Samuel DuBose and Cecil the Lion.” I enormously respect her message, and it is an important one that has been echoed by many recently – yet I found some of her more peripheral statements to be especially eloquent and meaningful to me.
Often, when I write about race or gender, people offer apologies.
They say, I apologize for my fellow white people.
They say, I apologize for my fellow men.
I understand this desire to say, “We are not all like that,” or, “I wish the world were a better place.”
Sometimes, saying sorry is, at least, saying something. It is acknowledging wrongs that need to be addressed.
These apologies, however, also place an emotional burden on the recipient. You ask the marginalized to participate in the caretaking of your emotions. You ask them to do the emotional labor of helping you face the world as it truly is.
In these words, Gay was able to articulate a discomfort that I have always felt upon hearing others apologize on behalf of their race/gender/social class. A feeling that I have had to dismiss or that even later led to guilt because I could never explicitly justify what made me feel so uncomfortable about what was a sincere apology.
Even worse are the discussions in which I have expressed frustrations about personal struggles I have faced growing up as the daughter of conservative and patriarchal Chinese immigrants, or as a female in a male-dominated field, or as someone who feels fierce loyalty to their LGBTQ friends, when my conversation partner has felt the need to address that while they may be any combination of white, or male, or heterosexual, or from a privileged economic background (which is 100% ok! Many of my friends fall into these categories!), they personally do not fit the negative stereotypes of “their label” and that they are open-minded and sympathetic. I am literally NEVER blaming that particular person for my past problems, and that they get defensive only makes us both uncomfortable. I wonder if they’re missing the point.
When you hear, “black lives matter,” don’t instinctively respond that all lives matter, as if one statement negates the other. Instead, try to understand why people of color might be compelled to remind the world that their lives have value.
When others share their reality, don’t immediately dismiss them because their reality is dissimilar to yours, or because their reality makes you uncomfortable and forces you to see things you prefer to ignore.
Avoid creating a hierarchy of human suffering as if compassion were a finite resource. Don’t assume that if one person says, “These are the ways I am marginalized,” they are suggesting you know nothing of pain and want.
I agree with Roxane Gay that it can be difficult to have discussions about race or gender, and it can be difficult to empathize with those who are different from us. But we can always make the active choice to listen and empathize. Compassion is not a finite resource.