Eight years ago, shortly after I launched this blog in 2010, I reached out to Ariana Huffington with samples of my work, hoping to interest her in my writing for The Huffington Post. In a rare and wonderful anomaly (how many big CEOs respond to those kinds of emails?), she wrote back—in a writing style echoing her very unique speaking voice—to say she would love to have me onboard, and so I leapt. I was there from February of 2011 until January 2018 (when they shut down the program), and it was a fascinating and pivotal turn in my writing career, one for which I’ll always be grateful.
Fast forward to almost a decade later. I’m approaching the pub date for my latest novel, and in enters Sara Connell, an author and writing coach out of Chicago, who invites me to participate in an interview with her for… Thrive Global, Ariana’s new endeavor. A karmic moment, indeed, so of course I did.
It was a provocative, far-reaching interview, covering everything from issues of racism, white privilege, my goals in writing this new book, The Alchemy of Noise, to my perspective on the writing process and the power of fiction to illuminate essential themes and inspire activism. It was meaningful to get that deep into topics that pull my attention on a regular basis, so I hope you enjoy the conversation we shared:
From Sara: “As part of my series about ‘How to write a book that sparks a movement’ I had the great pleasure of interviewing Lorraine Devon Wilke. An accomplished writer in several genres of the medium, Lorraine Devon Wilke, a Chicago native and one of eleven children, has built a library […]
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share the “backstory” about how you grew up?
My particular backstory started in Chicago, where I was born the third child of a Greek-American father whose parents emigrated from Turkey, and an Irish/German/American mother who was raised by an extended family of rowdy Irish Catholics after her mother died and father absconded. This dramatic starting point infused my own upbringing with some rather stunning polarities on all fronts, from religion to politics to sex to how to raise children, and I became a very opinionated child as a result.
While still formulating my character, however, my parents fled the city, relocating to as disparate a place as one could imagine: Richmond, a tiny (population 350 at the time) farm town in northern Illinois, bike-riding distance from Wisconsin, as homogenized and white as Chicago was diverse. Too young to grasp the impact this would have my worldview, I reveled in the insular charms of small-town life until I grew old enough to realize I’d be fleeing in reversal of my mother and father…
Or maybe, more accurately, too many white people are afraid of black people.
They don’t “get them,” (as one fellow confessed to me); they find them mysterious, unknowable, different; less than, fear inducing. They blame their cultural ignorance on, “what I see in the news every day,” or “this black guy who was weird to me once,” or “they are known to be more violent” or “but they hate most white people too” (all things said to me out loud). And with that litany of presumption and stupidity, empathy is lost and the “privilege” of white fear is allowed to call the shoots, turning, say, Starbucks into a cultural flashpoint.
Why are we so afraid of each other?
For blacks, it’s not a difficult question to answer: deep historical precedent, and contemporary bias, prejudice, and lack of equal treatment. In the justice system. The economic system. The medical system. The education system. Probably every system existing in America today. Strides have been made since overtly racist pre-civil rights days, but when, on an almost daily basis, there continue to be indefensible police shootings of unarmed black men, overzealous prosecutions and disproportionate imprisonment; endless forms and manifestations of every kind of bigotry and intolerance, it’s not hard to fathom why a black person might fear a white person, particularly one with a gun, a badge, or a judge’s robe; particularly when white people still hold the keys to most (all?) centers of power in this country.
What’s the excuse for white people? What are they so afraid of? Beyond generalized prejudices like being anti-affirmative action, or holding erroneous presumptions that blacks are government-sucking “welfare queens” (when the greatest number of welfare recipients are white), what are they so fearful of? Why the lock-your-car-when-one-gets-too-close, cross-to-the-other-side-of-the-street-if-one-approaches, shoot-before-taking-other-tactical-deescalation-steps, call-the-cops-without-considering-ramifications kind of racial fear?
Given the ubiquity of facts and studies on race, given the statistics on both white and black perpetrators of crime and violence; given the benign interactions most whites have experienced with black people; given the incalculable contributions the black community has made to American life, it’s hard to put that fear down to anything other than “the fog of white privilege mixed with lack of empathy.”
“What the study of complete genomes from different parts of the world has shown is that even between Africa and Europe, for example, there is not a single absolute genetic difference, meaning no single variant where all Africans have one variant and all Europeans another one, even when recent migration is disregarded.” ~ Svante Pääbo, a biologist and director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany [emphasis added]
In other words: we’re all made of the same stuff; the color of our skin, location of our family’s ancestry; ethnicity of our DNA notwithstanding.
But some refuse that information, that reality. They’d rather conjure a world categorized by castes, orders of ethnic importance; pyramids of racial superiority, chains of command built on the possession of wealth… fomenting a human history rife with wars, genocide, conflict, fear, and ignorance, based, irrationally, on race, that thing that doesn’t actually exist. Illogical, but persistent.
Here in contemporary America, for example, the last person to “win” (yes, in quotes) the title of POTUS did so by appealing to the fears of white Americans who reject shifting demographics; resent the impending loss of majority status, the influx of diversity, and the widening influence of people of color and diverse religions and ethnicities. “Make America Great Again” was the rallying dog whistle for a message of, “let’s keep things nice and white,” and that message resonated with a dispiriting number of fearful white folks.
And fear is the foundation of modern racism. I say “modern” because back when plantation owners tormented slaves, post-Civil War America treated freed blacks like sub-humans, or Jim Crow laws saw sociopathic bigots inflict white-sheeted terror with impunity, it wasn’t fear driving the train; it was power. White patriarchy. Ignorance, ingrained hate, embrace of false narratives, and the pervasive certainty of superiority. The only fear that existed was that of blacks whose very lives could be snuffed out with the flick of a rope-wielding wrist, the trembling accusations of a mendacious white woman, or the bilious hate of white men immune to basic decency.
Still, in these modern times, when we now have laws protecting blacks from such abuses, racism remains, still ingrained, still wreaking havoc, but driven and perpetuated by—yes, all the above—but also, most overarchingly, by fear.
Fear of other. Fear of who or what isn’t known. Fear of presumed danger. Fear of what one has heard or read about the feared group. Fear of losing perceived power or status. Fear of change, of diversity, evolution and progress. Fear, unexplained. Fear that leads to race-based overreaction.
Like when a white Starbucks manager gets so rattled by two black men waiting for a friend before ordering that she’d call the police and get them arrested rather than behave like a savvy service professional who knows how to treat customers of every race, creed, color, or orientation.
Like Jeffrey Zeigler, a white man who—when young, black Brennan Walker knocks on his door after getting lost—picks up his shotgun and, rather than helping the child find his way, attempts to kill him.
Like the two white Sacramento cops who, rather than using their training to accurately assess a situation and manage their fear before responding with deadly force, follow Stephon Clark, a black man, into his grandmother’s backyard and shoot him 20 times before ascertaining it’s a cellphone in his hand.
The list goes on. We know it well. It’s daily news fodder. Why?
Remember the equation above? Fear metastasizes with the lack of empathy. We can’t care about what we don’t know or refuse to learn. We can’t comprehend what we haven’t taken time to understand. We can’t respect what we’ve deemed less than. We can’t treat with care and concern what we’ve chosen to believe is dangerous. We can’t empathize when we don’t have the first clue of what life is like for a person of color. And so white people continue to believe black people are a threat, a danger to them, and from there, fear reigns and racist acts persist.
Of course I am speaking in generalities. Not all white people. Not all cops, not all people answering doors; not all coffee baristas.
But when there is enough evidence, both anecdotal and scientific, to educate and convince us of our commonalities as members of the human race, any white person continuing to blame “fear” for their reactive behavior is abdicating responsibility for their part in perpetuating racism. Fear offered as an excuse is exactly that: an excuse. It is not a solution. Empathy is. Empathy is the solution to fear.
It’s likely every person has had the experience of having their perceptions, opinions, and feelings about something or someone change after they’ve had more interaction or spent more time with that person or thing. Empathy is engendered when we make those connections, get past ingrained beliefs and knee-jerk responses, to learn something new andcreate points of commonality and kinship with those we’ve feared.
If you asked any white person who (consciously or unconsciously) fears blacks how much time—with depth, regularity, and emotional intimacy—they’ve spent with black people, odds are good you’d find a deficit. In communities with little diversity, which is much of rural and suburban America, those deficits run deep. So how do you induce greater empathy when the opportunity to connect isn’t easily there? Or in more diverse communities where it’s too easily avoided?
It has to become a priority. Schools, churches, town and city leaders have to make it so. There has to be intention and respondent actions that welcome black families into schools. Hire black teachers and bank tellers. Attract and encourage black-run businesses. Organize diversity seminars, bring in sensitivity trainers, engage speakers and mentors who work in the field, people of the very races and ethnicities most feared. Where it isn’t endemic or immediate, circumstances have to be created in which racial empathy can be explored and engaged, where hate and fear can be disassembled, and new ideas formed.
With connection, empathy grows. We learn more about the lives and rich cultural heritage of people we feared. We listen and gain greater understanding of how life hits them, what they have to deal with; what particular obstacles are in their paths that are not in ours. We expand our thinking to realize the world seen through our prism of white privilege is vastly different and less fraught than the world seen through theirs, and with that greater understanding, we are more capable of putting ourselves in their shoes, that most basic definition of empathy.
Once in their shoes, we should be better able to respond and react with consideration, respect, and basic human decency. Which makes sense, since science tells us—and I believe in science—that we’re all made of the same stuff.
When I get up in the morning and sit down to my computer, I typically scroll through selected news sites to see what’s happening in the world before I start my work. Per my own advice, offered in Want to Feel Better, Really Better? Step Away From the News, I’m picky about my media sources and make sure to avoid most comment threads for the sake of my sanity. But still…
It’s impossible to completely block out the tone and tenor of our cultural view of each other – of “regular” people, of celebrities, of politicians, of… anyone. And the prevailing sentiment I see all around me – in the news, in comments and tweets, in Facebook threads, in blogs and shared stories, even simple conversation – is judgment. The unrelenting flow of criticism. Of condescension. Of arrogance. Of snide, sneering, dismissive, just sort of snitty characterizations of anyone and anything beyond ourselves, our particular groups; our own little worlds. It bothers me, kind of like the trash barge bothered Andie MacDowell’s character in Sex, Lies and Videotape, and like her, I don’t see any way to solve the problem of that floating debris. Except one.
I know… such a airy fairy, la la, positive-thinking concept. Would it help if I said what the world needs now is some fucking empathy?
However you say the word, it is, as mentioned in my piece on bullies, the antidote. To everything. To resentment, hate, crime, bigotry, trolling, abuse, violence, intolerance, passive-aggressiveness…. all of it. Think about that: one THING that could solve all the problems of the universe. And yet we humans, instead, spend our time circling our fierce fleets of wagons around the identities with which we align ourselves: political parties, religions, nationalities, ethnicities, countries, states, neighborhoods, clubs; even the way we eat (have you ever seen a vegan and bacon-lover go at it on Facebook??).
It’s absurd, really, the degree to which we create separation and the “us vs. them” mentality, but that impulse to divide and distance is at the heart of every single problem in the entire world and has been since the dawn of time. It’s only the most enlightened, the wisest, the most loving and spiritual, who’ve realized that we’re all of the same cloth; that we’re all here on this earth to do basically the same things: live, evolve, connect, contribute, and hopefully learn something of value before we pass off this mortal coil. And yet, despite that shared mission, we humans seem compelled to see our differences more than our most basic similarities. That impulse has gotten us into a lot of trouble over time, and it remains the single-most driving force behind the snarling, angry culture of today.
Now, let’s be clear: the reason I say “culture of today” (as opposed to any other time) is only because it’s the moment we’re in… and the one in which the ubiquity and reach of technology has made the minutia of every day life known to everyone worldwide, making us all aware of the dark turns of culture on a global scale. Certainly issues of empathy-lack were just as rampant when Vikings were slaying their conquests, the Brits were invading Africa, and Manifest Destiny was wiping out the Natives; we just weren’t hearing about it in minute-by-minute tweets (let’s face it: the “express” behind “pony” may have been a misnomer!). Nowadays, the sheer bombardment of seething examples drives the point home.
Empathy: The power to understand and enter into another person’s feelings. The willingness to walk in another’s shoes. The ability to imagine or experience the feelings, thoughts and attitudes of another. The sense of compassion derived from the Golden Rule of “do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.”
What would our world be if we actually had true empathy for each other?
Big themes include:
Race-hate and bigotry would be impossible, as we’d all understand that the color of skin, the ethnicity of one’s birth, have nothing whatsoever to do with the intrinsic value of a person.
Religious intolerance would be eradicated because we’d all be aware that while each of us has the right and freedom to believe as we choose, those personal beliefs cannot and must not be judged, imposed, or legislated upon anyone else.
Sexism and misogyny would be extinct, as men would recognize that gender has no bearing upon the worth, intellect, value or viability of another person.
Sexual violence and abuse would end because no one would find it acceptable to rape or assault another in service to compulsions for control or power.
Ageism and elder abuse would disappear, as we’d all realize that each and every one of us – if we’re lucky enough to live that long – will one day be the aged, and our ability to grasp and understand the continued desire of that community to contribute, participate and experience life would be inevitable.
Political vitriol and partisan bullying would be abolished, as each person involved would grasp why another feels as they do and, even if in disagreement, would allow true respect and decorum to govern how governing is implemented.
Gun control would be a desired conversation and goal for both the gun lover and the gun control advocate, because all parties would see the wisdom in making gun use saner and safer for everyone.
Mental health issues would get necessary attention and funding because people would be less inclined to dismiss and disparage, understanding it as an affliction that can affect anyone in any age, economic, ethnic and religious background.
Homophobia and intolerance would be banished because we’d all accept that humans come in many different varieties and each is deserving of the same rights, freedoms and respect.
But even in the smaller, more secondary arenas, true empathy would make a significant shift in cultural discourse:
Media users would acknowledge and show respect to those who’ve taken the time and done the work to learn something, compelling them to – rather than snark and troll as a matter of habit – share, discuss and maybe learn something themselves.
With the endless click-bait about celebrities in our midst, the more empathetic would recognize that those who’ve gained fame via talent or circumstance are actual human beings with flaws, feelings, families, and a right to privacy, and wouldn’t assume that ugly, incessant media scrutiny is “part of the package.”
Fellow citizens would grasp that not every needy person is or considers themselves “entitled,” not every subsidized American is an “aggrieved victim,” and showing compassion both uplifts our country and improves our economy rather than burdens it.
Members of the electorate would – even if they disagree with the President – see value in doing so respectfully, understanding that the sheer weight and enormity of the job is something NO ONE outside of the office can truly comprehend.
Neighbors, friends, co-workers and family members would solve problems without vitriol and anger because they’d have the ability to see the issues from the other’s point of view.
Marriages would survive to a greater degree because the parties involved would have the wherewithal to see beyond their own needs and wants to grasp those of their partner.
And so on.
Empathy may sound like one of those idealized concepts that reads well in print but is, in fact, too high-toned and elusive to be effective against tangible, earthbound problems in our society, but it’s not. It starts with one person. It’s what we teach our kids, it’s how to turn a bully, it’s what should guide each and every one of us in every single decision we make. Simply ask yourself this question before you write a comment, take an action, speak a piece, place a vote or… do anything:
How would I feel if this was done to me? This intolerance, this judgment, this criticism, this bigotry and lack of compassion. This mischaracterization, this act of violence, this condescension, insult, denigration, separation, or annihilation. The big things; the little things, the things in between. How would I feel if any of those were done to me?
Once you know how you would feel… you know. You know exactly what to do, how to act toward another. Do that.
Thankfully all is well with me, my family; my closest circle of friends, and the Seahawks did win the Superbowl, but the larger collective, the community, the great mass of humanity with which we engage, took a few hits this weekend, from the sickening death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, to the aching letter of Dylan Farrow, to the snarling response of bigots to a multicultural Coca Cola ad, right down to the thousands of Tweets, Facebook posts, comments, and debates that have roiled around each one of these events.
There is clearly no one more exhausted, more truly affected, than the people intimately involved: Hoffman’s family, the Farrows and Allens; the millions of ethnic Americans sick to death of xenophobes defining our country as a place where only English-speaking white people exist. Each are, respectively, suffering horrible sorrows, deep anxieties, and tremendous rage.
Me? I’m only involved as a questioning observer, a member of the community, a woman, wife, mother, friend, and thinking/feeling human who has been stunned, saddened, angered, and left drained by the responses of so many to this list of tribulations.
It’s not just a matter of having opinions; I have opinions… plenty of them. As a writer, I often put those opinions into words that fly across the internet and garner either agreement or spittle-flying hate and denouncement. Opinions are like… well, you know how that goes.
The problem is not the opinions (well, some of them maybe); it’s the way people choose to express them, the seething, judgmental, arrogant, aggressive way in which sides are taken and lines are drawn. I have read utterances that have made me shake my head and wonder how we got so goddamned superior and all-knowing, when we became so convinced that our experiences dictate the reality of everyone else’s, and why we think it appropriate to decide that compassion and empathy are “enabling” when dealing with either addicts or damaged daughters… probably even Coke drinking immigrants.
A great actor who seems to have been loved by everyone who knew him died of a heroin overdose and someone suggested I might be too “kind” in my assessment that compassion was in order. “Ass kicking” was considered a better prescription for an addicted person. Others felt it necessary to point out, with great vitriol, that Hoffman was an “absolute douche… a piece of shit who would rather get high than fulfill his responsibilities”… as if orphaning his children had any part in the decision to stick a needle in his arm. The degree of judgment and disdain exhibited by far too many in response to Hoffman’s death has itself been sickening. As if humanity couldn’t find a way to deal with grief without drowning it in denigration and revulsion. Couldn’t witness the weakness of an addict without seeing it as permission to be imperious and condescending. We all have our stories, our experiences with alcoholism and drug addiction and so, yes, certainly, we are allowed to be superior, right?
Then there’s Dylan Farrow and the matter of child molestation and our view of the women – and men – involved. Holy hell. As I write this, article after article is being posted, tit for tat, for or against, pro and con, everyone deciding who should be believed and who shouldn’t. It’s almost as if the bookmakers have jumped in: Whose side are you on? Who’s winning in the court of public opinion? Should we boycott Woody Allen films or decide Dylan is a patsy whose strings are being pulled by her fire-breathing mother? Is there any way to believe a woman who came forward 20 years later to finally tell her side of the story or is she to be categorized, as some have, as a calculating, relentless pawn? Should Allen’s celebrity be a shield against the accusations or has the addled Mia Farrow sacrificed her daughter for the sake of revenge?
I don’t know, you don’t know, but do you realize we have made a parlor game out of the life and death of people we don’t even know? Yes, these are worthy topics to discuss and there are many who’ve done so with grace, empathy, and an awareness that there are truths we may never know. But far too many have done so with smug, moral certainty that they are right, angrily, judgmentally right, and these strangers they’re discussing are worthy of their disgust and moral superiority.
Are they? I have my opinions; you, no doubt, have yours. But at the end of the day, to put it bluntly, who the fuck are any of us?
As a friend of mine put it, “Being judgmental and selfish is human, being an asshole about it is a choice.” Okay, but how about this? How about choosing to be human enough to NOT be judgmental and selfish? Human enough to express opinions with civility and whatever logic you can summon up. Human enough to realize every single person you are judging is human, too. And hope that if you ever need the humanity of compassion, empathy, and non-judgment, those around you will have the humanity to extend it.
As for Coca Cola… I don’t drink the stuff but damn if I didn’t appreciate their view of the humanity that is the “real America.”
We humans are a competitive bunch. From time immemorial we’ve found every reason known to man to beat and bludgeon each other in the name of tribes, regions, countries, religions, even political parties and we don’t seem the least bit inclined to stop. It’s somehow burned into our DNA to set up stakes and draw lines meant to keep us separate and superior, except, of course, when imperialism raises its uppity head and pushes one group beyond the lines of another to prove “survival of the fittest.” This may have worked for the Huns, it had much to do with the assemblage now known as the United States, but when it comes to contemporary culture and the discourse between human beings currently inhabiting our planet, all this line-drawing, head-bludgeoning, chest-puffing aggrandizement is literally beating the hell out of us.
I’m not just talking about the combatants in the Middle East, tribal Africa, Communist China or drug-lorded Mexico. I’m talking about the more mundane crowd right here in our own back yards: the cable pundits, tea-partiers, neighborhood politicians, party opinion leaders, religious zealots, and Americans who seem to think some are more “real” than others. It’s an eclectic group that’s narrowly focused, blindly competitive and deeply bereft of empathy. Which is a shame.
Empathy is defined as the capacity to recognize and share feelings that are being experienced by another person, a necessary component to the ability to feel compassion. To reach out to help others. Offer service. A shoulder. A hand up. A modicum of understanding. Compassion and empathy…they may not be the only things that there’s just too little of, but they’re surely at the top of the list.
For a moment, let’s focus on the more personal aspect of human relations, those exchanges and reactions that exist between people. One on one. The way we treat each other. The way we consider (or don’t) each other’s viewpoints. The way we fight our battles, leave our comments, debate our issues; get our points across. In our hyper-competitive society, where we are groomed from Day One to “be the best,” “knock the opponent down,” “win the prize,” “be right,” “get to the top,” often at the expense of anyone or anything in our way, the capacity for empathy is highly devalued. Boys who exhibit it are considered pussies. Girls who exude too much are relegated to girl-tracks, not tough enough to compete with the boys. Woman with empathy have lots of friends and run a hell of a PTA but don’t expect anyone to nominate them for Chairman of the Board. Men…well, men aren’t even supposed to consider empathy a part of their emotional palette much less feel it. It’s an emotion not particularly admired in these contentious times and we, as a society, are suffering for its lack.
There are those who think anyone in need of compassion or help is a freeloader, those who call a government that feels some obligation to its needy socialist, and those who think anyone who is different in any way, shape, form, color, creed, belief system or political party is simply wrong…less. Less of a “real American.” Less of a patriot. Opponents snarl, slam, insult and demean and it’s all done in the name of winning. Being right. Feeling superior.
1. A First Lady starts a healthy eating and exercise initiative and instead of everyone getting on board because it’s simply a good idea in this obesity-burdened society, women of the opposing party impugn her and it; even going so far as to suggest that more walking has resulted in more pedestrian accidents. Damned if they’ll get behind a good idea if it’s from the other side!
2. Instead of eschewing political differences to work together to forge an insurance bill that’s universal and protective, partisans push and shove and make up idiotic names like “Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Bill” as a way to whip up fear and debase opponents. God forbid we should concern ourselves with common folk who aren’t even our responsibility.
3. The needs of one group can’t possibly be understood by another because that would require a willingness to walk in another’s shoes, understand their plight and consider workable solutions to their problems. That’s impossible when we’re too busy closing our minds to anything except our own bias. Please see The Dream Act.
4. Ethnic generalities and inflammatory insults are commonplace in a country where Muslim equates terrorist and bigotry and intolerance are accepted and applauded by many, some of whom claim to have the Christian God and the Marines on their side. Just ask Councilwoman Deborah Pauly from Orange County, CA.
5. Political debates, conversations, and campaigns can’t possibly include collaboration or focus on issues, remedies, or solutions because the participants are obligated to lie, cheat and obfuscate in their effort to not just win the argument, but demean and denigrate the opponent. See too many Republicans and most Fox News talking heads.
6. Issues such as immigration, gay marriage, and women’s rights continue to be fodder for the screaming and yelling of zealots, racists, and sexists who find it impossible to consider the point and purpose of what drives these issues and makes them important to others. See placard-carrying protestors everywhere (and don’t get me started on the Phelps family).
There are obviously many more examples but these make the point. Intolerance, bigotry, hate, fear – the summation of all these is lack of empathy. I swear, in each and every one of these cases, if the parties involved were to honestly put aside their opinions and beliefs long enough to listen and really consider the WHY behind someone else’s, there’s no telling how much peace and harmony could be found in the valley.
We may not be conditioned that way. We’re imprinted to hold our opinion, shut out our opponent, win at all costs; prove the other guy wrong. But I can hope. Because I do see change. I see Don’t Ask Don’t Tell get repealed. I see young people plant community gardens and rally in support of their neighbors. I see negative politics rejected by some. I see expanded concern for even our international partners in the fight for democracy. I see love sweet love in unexpected places. It all gives me hope.
Empathy. It’s there to be had. No, not just for some. For everyone.