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Empathy and Diversity

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I was raised to believe empathy was what made us human, and that it’s reciprocal: The capacity to stand in another’s shoes and feel for them is one of our great advantages. So I think we’ve got to try to understand why whites seem to believe they’re facing more bias than African-Americans, even if we’re inclined to roll our eyes and either hope it’s a research problem (which I did) or hold on until what whites believe doesn’t matter so much anymore. I trust the next far-more-multiracial generation to feel for older and younger people, whatever their race. I believe that makes us not only human, but American — and I think I have a lot of company in that belief.

That is the concluding paragraph of Joan Walsh’s excellent summary (via Jezebel) of research on the strangely common belief in anti-white bias. Walsh does a fantastic job of summarizing existing evidence. Citing one study, she posits that it may be a framing problem:

In an experiment known as “Me/Not Me,” respondents were asked to quickly rate whether a series of terms having to do with race, ethnicity and diversity had anything to do with them personally. It found that the white students related more favorably to the terms associated with “colorblindness” — equality, unity, sameness, similarity, color blind, and color blindness – than to words associated with “multiculturalism”: diversity, variety, culture, multicultural, multiracial, difference and multiculturalism.

What does this tell us? The study authors (as do I) take for granted that it matters — it would be a good thing — if whites embrace diversity and multicultural initiatives, whether in schools, workplaces and community groups, and they therefore suggest that people designing such programs consider that “whites’ reactions to multiculturalism … are rooted in the basic social psychological need for inclusion and belonging.” Stressing that multiculturalism encompasses the wide variety of white ethnic and class experiences might help. Emphasizing words with positive resonance like “equality” and “unity” might too.

Save “equality and “unity,” I imagine that the other “colorblindness” words could be pretty insulting to people of color. Colorblind suggests an attempt to ignore past and present inequality and disunity as forced upon America by a color (white)-centric society.

I agree with Walsh’s premise and find the concluding paragraph to be entirely on point. Americans must, and I believe will, find a way to accept diversity, variety, culture, multicultural, multiracial, difference and multiculturalism. Not just as words, but, more-importantly, the fundamental social construct that these words reveal.

Written by Niall

May 30, 2011 at 7:39 am

Posted in United States

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