I Am An Empath. Here’s How We Cure Racism
(And All Other Prejudice)
First, a disclaimer. I am well aware that the title of this post may come across as arrogant and reductive. How can I, some random guy on the internet, claim to have the answer to something as huge as racism? What gives me the right to even claim something like that?
I’m going to answer those questions, but this isn’t about me, it’s about all of us, so think of me what you will, I ask only that you consider what I have to say.
Let’s start with something we can all agree on, but often forget. Your experience on planet Earth is affected by a number of different factors. Most of these factors are superficial. Not “superficial” in the sense of being meaningless, but in the sense of being on the exterior.
These factors include: your age, your gender, your size/body composition, how far you are from societal standards of beauty, and the color of your skin/visible ethnic characteristics. They also include the tone of your voice, the way you smell, your temperament, and the way you carry yourself. For your close acquaintances, the way you taste is on the list as well. All these characteristics are aspects of who you are that other people perceive them with their senses.
The senses. Ah yes. The five sieves through which our perceptions of other people are poured: sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste. That’s all we have to go on, until we get to know somebody, right?
At least, it’s not all I have to go on.
“You’re Too Sensitive.”
As a child, I was often told, “You’re too sensitive.” I believed it. I liked being around other kids, but I struggled to figure out things they knew intuitively: how to play together, how to find their place in the pecking order, who to accept and who to reject. None of it made sense to me. I just didn’t see things the same way. Or, more accurately, I didn’t feel things the same way. The things that were easy for them were hard for me, and things that were easy for me - like knowing who was trustworthy - were hard for them.
I struggled with my family in the same way. From the time I was born, there were certain people I couldn’t stand to be around. When I was a toddler, my family had to prematurely leave a party because the hostess made me so uncomfortable that I bit a chunk out of my water glass. In a few years, I would start warning my parents about some of their friends, only for them to find out later that they were criminals, backstabbers, or otherwise dangerous.
In middle school, I discovered that I preferred the company of girls to that of other boys. Even though I was firmly in the “friend zone” for all of middle and high school, it was easier for me to talk to girls than boys. I could relate more closely to their “feminine intuition” than to whatever process regular dudes use to navigate the world.
This intuition often mystified those around me. In college, one of my friends observed that I seemed to have a “mutant ability” to read people and avoid conflict. At my first job, I clashed repeatedly with the office manager. I was reprimanded for my bad attitude, until my employers discovered that she had been embezzling money from the company. She was fired, and I was vindicated. Years later, one of my wife’s associates gave me such a terrible vibe that I couldn’t even be in the same room with her. She turned out to be a professional con artist. I could list dozens of similar examples.
This ability to sense danger and deceit often made me uncomfortable, and created issues with people who didn’t understand why I was responding the way I did to individuals whom they perceived as appealing or attractive.
However, there were benefits too. Because I saw people for who they were, my judgment wasn’t based on superficial attributes. As far back as I can remember, I’ve had friends of all races, religions, and backgrounds. It wasn’t that I didn’t see those aspects of them - I wasn’t “colorblind” - it’s just that they didn’t determine the value I perceived in that person.
I’m gong to return to that concept of value in a moment.
In the last few years, I’ve discovered the concept of the “HSP” (Highly Sensitive Person) or Empath. Since I am a man, I seem to be in the extreme minority, even among HSPs, who are themselves an extreme minority of the population. It’s unclear whether intuitive sensitivity exists on a spectrum (like sense of direction) or is more of an “either you have it or you don’t” quality (like being able to experience sounds as colors). Either way, it’s hard for people who have it to explain it to people who don’t. In fact, it’s something I’ve always kept extremely private.
But, seeing that our society is being torn apart by people focused entirely on superficials, I feel compelled to try to explain my perspective, which uses discernment rather than assumptions.
People and Gemstones
A confession: I have a terrible sense of direction. Or, more accurately, I have zero sense of direction. I have lived in the same neighborhood for seven years, and I still have to read the street signs to avoid missing the road my house is on. In the days before GPS, I once drove off the road and knocked down a sign because I was trying to read a map I had spread out across the steering wheel to figure out where I was going.
My wife, however, has an amazing sense of direction. She can go somewhere once, and then not only find her way back, but somehow find alternate routes there. This is witchcraft to me. It’s as impossible for me to perceive where I am in relation to any other point on the planet as it is for me to flap my arms and fly there.
Conversely, my wife doesn’t understand how I can’t just tell where I am. To her it’s obvious.
In the same way, I struggle to understand why people judge each other by superficials. Imagine a shiny stone. If a regular person looks at that stone, they might assess it by its size, color, weight, or how pretty it is. Superficial attributes. But an experienced jeweler would glance at that stone and see it in its depth. He would be able to tell you what kind of stone it is, what its strengths and weaknesses are, and what its value is.
There’s that word “value” again. In my opinion, inaccurately perceived value is the crux of racism.
Superficial attributes are on the outside. Like the color of someone’s skin, or the color of a shiny stone, it is a quality, but it does not determine quality. In other words, it is a real, tangible characteristic that can not and should not be denied, but it can not tell you the value of that stone or that person. A tiny green stone might have more value than a big red one. Or it might have less. A fat, dark person might have more value than a thin, pale one. Or they might have less.
But what does “value” mean, in this context? And why is a self-professed empath making the problematic assertion that one person’s value can be higher or lower than another’s?
I’m glad you asked.
With both jewels and people, value is determined by what they can offer.
Stones are simple. They can either be used for some industrial application, or for ornamentation. Based on their intrinsic fitness for these roles, the marketplace assigns them an objective value. What is somebody willing to pay for these shiny rocks? That’s how much they’re worth.
People are more complex. Creativity, integrity, courage, dedication, humor, compassion, intelligence, patience, the desire to solve problems, the ability to communicate, the willingness to care for others: these are just a few of the wonderful qualities that human beings have to offer.
And none of these qualities are superficial.
The reverse is also true. Cruelty, selfishness, laziness, envy, the ability to manipulate, the willingness to deceive, the desire to harm, the urge to prey on the defenseless: none of these flaws are on the outside. Risk, like value, can not be assessed by a cursory examination with our five senses.
This particular problem has been a challenge since time immemorial. That’s why prejudice exists. For our primitive ancestors, there was safety in numbers. People from the same stone-age tribe would protect each other, so “sameness” meant safety (the fundamental criterion for value). Equally, visitors from other tribes often brought danger, so “otherness” meant risk.
In the absence of more detailed information, prejudice was an evolutionary advantage. The person who made a snap judgment and killed or ran away from strangers lived to pass on their genes, while the open-minded person sometimes got clubbed on the head. For most people, it was too difficult to tell if “the others” brought value or risk, and it was safer to assume they brought risk.
This is largely the same way we operate today. Whether in a school lunchroom or on social media, we instinctively seek our own tribe, whatever that may be. We feel safe around them, and we avoid the other tribes, because we perceive them to be threatening or undesirable. Prejudice is, and always has been, rooted in fear.
There have been plenty of historical figures who could assess value and risk intuitively. Sometimes, they became chieftains, shamans or spiritual leaders, like Moses, Boudicca and Geronimo. Sometimes, they were persecuted as witches or heretics, like Joan of Arc and Spinoza. Often, they became traders and diplomats, like Zhang Qian, Marco Polo and Benjamin Franklin. These were the oddballs who, rather than being limited by superficials, saw others - even strangers - as they actually were, and as a consequence were able to forge bonds between disparate communities. They were willing to fight when necessary, but their battles were based on principle, not prejudice.
It took thousands of years, but civilization eventually started moving in the direction that these people had been pointing. Through commerce, technology, and shared languages (including the universal language of mathematics), we were moving closer and closer towards the ideal of recognizing each other for what we offer, rather than what we look like.
As a global society, we spent the last five hundred years stumbling towards that vision, and now, tragically, we have started to move backwards. Once again, we are being separated into “us or them” groups, based on superficial characteristics like race, heredity and wealth, as well as self-identified tribes based on political affiliation and cultural philosophy. We are once again being told that “the others” are dangerous, harmful, and intrinsically less valuable.
The only way to counter this lie, this destructive narrative that threatens to tear apart the delicate fabric of our global civilization, is to admit something that is self-evident, but which has been twisted to form the foundation of modern racism and prejudice, and which, like a poisonous plant, has equal power to heal and to harm.
All people are not equally valuable.
It feels shocking to write those words. But I know it’s true. You know it’s true. Everyone knows it’s true. Charles Manson did not offer the world as much as Mother Theresa. Maybe as children they both started out with the same potential, but like a gemstone that has been cut, by the time their personalities were established, the risk that Manson presented and the value that Mother Theresa presented were undeniable.
The problem is that most people can’t assess value, so they use prejudice instead. Plenty of people thought Charles Manson was just a California hippy, and that Mother Theresa was just an Albanian nun. It’s hard to tell if somebody is selfless and compassionate, or if they’re manipulative and sadistic, but it’s easy to tell where they come from and what they look like. So, in the absence of accurate information, we use a heuristic based on a faulty premise like “are they one of us, or one of the others?” Just like our stone-age forebears, we perceive “sameness” as value, and “otherness” as risk.
This is why people of mixed-race descent have difficulty fitting into mainstream culture. They are perceived as “the other” by everyone. It’s also why people whose philosophical or political views are at odds with their group tend to be ostracized by that group. We still operate with a stone-age mentality that uses prejudice as a substitute for risk and value assessment.
Incidentally, this is also a major failing of the SJW movement. Whether you indict one group or another, you’re still inaccurately assessing both risk and value. You can not redress wrongs by using the same flawed thinking that created them in the first place.
Instead of primitive “us vs. them” heuristics rooted in fear-based prejudice, we must develop a better process for assessing risk and value.
The Cure for Racism
Prejudice is rooted in the stone-age fear of “stranger danger,” but it doesn’t actually work to keep us safe from danger. In the USA, over 70% of rapes and murders are committed by family, friends or acquaintances, with only 12% of murders classified as “interracial.” This means that, in most cases, the vast majority of attacks are committed by “one of us,” rather than “one of them.”
Nothing brings this reality into sharper focus than the 10 million American children and spouses who suffer mental, physical and emotional abuse at the hands of family members. Our families: those who are closest to us, those whom we rely on to protect us from harm, those whom we expect to recognize our value, are - for millions of people - far more dangerous than any stranger.
At the same time that prejudice fails to inform us of risk, it fails to inform us of value. Virtually everyone can share an experience they’ve had in which they were under-utilized, unappreciated, or overlooked because of some superficial characteristic. In addition to the well-documented disparities associated with ethnicity, research has found that people who are considered physically attractive achieve greater success in their careers, while the shorter candidate has lost 20 of the last 30 Presidential elections.
Clearly, our tribal heuristics are not helping us make sound decisions based on either risk or value. Here’s how we can start changing that.
- Regard people as individuals, not as representatives of a group. Pattern-recognition is hard-wired into our DNA, and divisive rhetoric either in support of or in criticism of “identity groups” - whether ethnic, political, religious or otherwise - exploits this weakness by “othering” everyone who falls into a particular category. This perpetuates our stone-age mentality, and makes it more difficult to overcome prejudice.
- Use discernment, not assumptions. It’s unfashionable to be considered judgmental, but being able to correctly judge the intentions of others is crucial for survival. Prejudice undermines accurate judgment by making assumptions based on superficial characteristics. Discernment (AKA common sense) allows for accurate judgment by providing an objective assessment of value and risk, based on context and behavior, rather than superficials. Discernment requires more effort than assumptions, and sometimes provides undesirable information, so many people avoid it.
- Recognize that people are what they do. “Actions speak louder than words.” “By their fruits shall you know them.” “Trust everyone but cut the cards.” Traditional wisdom is full of aphorisms that remind us to pay attention to people’s behavior. Yet, again, it is easier to rely on snap judgments based on superficials than on discernment based on rational observations. This problem is compounded by the second-guessing that accompanies identity politics, as well-meaning individuals attempt to compensate for their prejudice by deliberately over/under-estimating value and risk, solely based on superficials.
- Don’t ignore your intuition, inform it. After dismissing intuition as superstitious nonsense for many years, neuroscientists realized that intuition is actually a form of unconscious cognition. Simply put, intuition is your brain’s way of telling you something that you haven’t figured out yet. Subtle cues like tone of voice or body language often go unnoticed by our conscious minds, but are rapidly processed by other parts of our brain, which then translates that information into “hunches” or feelings of comfort, discomfort, or fear. This is great when it works, but prejudice often tampers with intuition by feeding the brain false or irrelevant information. This can lead to “false negatives,” such as when policemen point guns at innocent motorists during traffic stops, or “false positives,” such as when women are assaulted by good-looking men who “seemed nice.” The subject of informed intuition is beyond the scope of this post, but there are several excellent books on the topic, including “The Gift of Fear” and “Left of Bang.”
- Don’t let sympathy blind you to risk. Charles Manson had a terrible childhood. If he hadn’t, maybe he wouldn’t have grown up to be a monster. But he did, and he was. Similarly, most toxic individuals are the way they are in large part because of their heredity and/or environment: neither of which they had any control over. While this is tragic, you can’t allow this to influence your risk assessment. A jeweler doesn’t make excuses for the flaw in a gemstone, he works around them. In the same way, while you may feel sympathetic for the tragic chain of events that led a person to become a danger to himself or others, underestimating the risk they present simply because they had unfortunate circumstances in the past, or because they might behave differently in the future, is inadvisable at best and suicidal at worst.
- Don’t let ignorance blind you to value. When we think of injustice, it is often the injustice of unrecognized value. The kid with talent and drive who doesn’t get a chance, because he’s from the wrong side of the tracks. The gentle giant who wants to love and to protect, but who is so scary that he never gets the chance. The single mom who loses her job because she has to care for her sick child. These stories tug at our heartstrings, and yet in our daily lives we so often dismiss people without considering what they have to offer, simply because we haven’t made the effort to find out.
Prejudice is a lazy and ineffective shortcut. It is based on a primitive worldview in which “we” are safe and valuable, and “others” are dangerous and worthless. As long as we put people into categories, and judge them accordingly - whether to their benefit or detriment - we are perpetuating prejudice. Racism may be the most violent and pernicious form of prejudice, but any time you make a judgment about somebody based on superficial characteristics, rather than on thoughtful discernment of the risk they present and the value they offer, you are thinking prejudicially: literally, you are “pre-judging.”
The opposite of pre-judging is not the absence of judgment, nor is it compensatory judgment that clumsily seeks to balance the scales from prior injustice. Not judging is not the answer. Ignoring intuition and risk is not the answer. The opposite of pre-judging, the opposite of prejudice, and the only viable cure to racism and all other forms of prejudice, is discernment. Whether highly sensitive or otherwise, we must learn to perceive our fellow human beings not as mere parts of a group, but as unique, multi-faceted, individual gemstones; each with its own structure, strengths and flaws. Some are one color, some are another; some are bigger, some are smaller; some will turn light into rainbows, and some will cast nothing but shadows; but each and every one - regardless of how similar or dissimilar they appear at first glance - has a depth and an identity all their own.