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?

Common Ground

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.

“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.

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.

Stone-Age Thinking

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.

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.”

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.”
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Digital media guru by day, writer by night.

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