When the toothpaste exits the tube

Bottom line — it’s not going back in. So the big question for our times for those of us who identify as white — how to gain sufficient e...



Bottom line — it’s not going back in. So the big question for our times for those of us who identify as white — how to gain sufficient empathy so that there is no “going back in” when it comes to actively working for racial justice?

In so many ways the structure of our society — from institutions to workplaces to neighborhoods — makes gaining empathy for people of color in general, and Black people in particular, challenging. Despite numerous civil rights legal victories, laws that seek to desegregate and promote equality, and workplaces and universities that have more people of color, ours remains a deeply divided country along racial lines.

The continuation of the wealth gap between Black and white people, as well as the maintenance of segregation in housing and education, have left us with schools and a society that are more segregated than they were before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Black Lives Matter and the murder of George Floyd focused attention last summer on racial injustice, but white privilege has enabled too many of us to lose that focus since.

How to overcome the resulting inertia? There are numerous ways to be inspired to take action — in your adult world and perhaps more importantly in your role as a parent, if that applies. As a white man who has entered the realm of activism, here’s some of what worked for me as I traversed this country’s racial divide.

It was the 1960s when the undeniability of racism’s all-pervasive impact was first made crystal clear to me through literature — for example, Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” Richard Wright’s “Native Son,” Eldridge Cleaver’s “Soul on Ice,” and Imamu Baraka’s play “Dutchman” — and outspoken activists including Angela Davis, Fred Hampton, Malcolm X and Dr. King.

But it took working in the inner city in Hartford while at Trinity College and then at an Upward Bound program for Black and brown high school students from Hartford and New Haven at the University of Connecticut for 19 summers to cement my commitment. These experiences enabled me to develop deep and meaningful friendships with young Black people. Being able to translate my appreciation for their lives and their struggles into support and action was imperative. Empathy had been created, cultivated and nurtured, resulting in the necessity to become a co-conspirator in seeking justice.

But there are other avenues available. Thankfully, with discernment, it is possible to educate, enlighten and generate empathy through magazines, books, television and film offerings for ourselves and the children in our lives. One show that richly deserves mention is “Queen Sugar,” on the Oprah Winfrey channel, but also on Hulu. Now in its fifth season, created by Ava DuVernay (director of “Selma” and “The 13th,” both excellent resources) and directed by a different woman each episode, the series is the closest one can come to witnessing — at times even being — in a Black extended family.

For white people it is a window into a world filled with emotional moments, none more poignant than the current season, focused on COVID and the murder of George Floyd. Hearing Ralph Angel, one of the extraordinarily compassionate and loving Black men, and his wife, Darla, give “the talk” about police profiling to their 10-year-old son is a toothpaste moment that engenders empathy and there are many.

The quality of television has never been more impressive. Watching age-appropriate programs including documentaries and even animated films like “Soul” with our children, can provide education and jumping off points for discussion. I would also encourage folks to check in with their children’s school curriculum to discover what is being taught pertaining to race and history.

As a retired sixth grade teacher who had had many “toothpaste moments,” I felt it was incumbent upon me to provide such opportunities for my students. The African proverb, “Until the lion tells the tale, tales of the hunt will glorify the hunter,” was on my social studies bulletin board. Inquiring what our children are learning that would encourage empathy and knowledge of the true history of the country — both the achievements and the injustices — is essential if we are to emerge from centuries of inequality.

We are at an inflection point with so much at stake and the polarization threatens our democracy as well as our planet. To avoid despair while encouraging hope, engagement and empathy, we would all do well to look for opportunities to take action. The aforementioned ideas are ways to enhance the likelihood that we will. For many more ideas, check out this article at medium.com, “103 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice.”

Tom Weiner, of Northampton, is the author of three books and a retired teacher at the Smith College Campus School.



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Newsrust - US Top News: When the toothpaste exits the tube
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