Race, culture, and empathy

Earlier this evening, I was putting off searching for jobs/sprucing up my cover letters and paroozing the interwebs when a friend of mine posted this link on Facebook.


The Facebook share has been posted for about an hour, and there have been a variety of comments made. Some thanking my friend for sharing the “powerful” article, others criticizing the writer for referring to the tragedy in Boston as a “white” tragedy and insinuating that the writer is over-reacting to to societal racism and the significant lack of untold stories of non-whites in the media (side note: every single commentator on this Facebook post was white).

As a counselor-in-training, the part that stood out to me the most was this woman’s waning ability to empathize with the suffering of white people – rather, the events receiving a lot of media coverage that have featured primarily white victims (i.e. the elementary school killings in Newtown and the Boston Marathon bombings). I had a visceral and raw physical reaction to the Boston bombings. There was shaking, nausea, and uncontrollable weeping. Horrendous things have happened abroad and in the US that have not been met with that same reaction. I did not think of my reaction as having anything to do with race. To me, it was more about the fact that the bombers attacked a something I held so near and dear to my heart – running.

But I didn’t have to think about race when I reacted to this horrific tragedy.  I didn’t wake up the next morning worried that the color of my skin and my outward appearance would be associated with acts of terrorism. My ancestors may have faced large-scale scapegoating and horror, but I have been fortunate enough to live in a world where people like me are not globally persecuted.   There are the occasional sexist or anti-Semitic comments, but overall, I live in a world where I have undeniable privilege. I live in a world where the news covers stories of people like me. As a white person, I don’t have to be concerned about my story being untold. I don’t claim for one second to be above white privilege – that would be irresponsible and not conducive to productive counseling.

As people, we tend to empathize more with people like us. It explains my strong reaction to the Boston bombings, as I identify with the community of runners. It’s why, in general (though not applicable to everyone), clients have better results with counselors of their own race. It’s why, in general, white people struggle to empathize with people of color, particularly on a large-scale (i.e. when we see stories of bombings in Afghanistan and don’t even wince). Don’t believe me? There’s research (of course, one should not make sweeping generalizations based on one research study, but I digress).


Race is not a topic that’s discussed very often, particularly among white people, and even in the field of counseling and education. In my program that boasts cultural sensitivity and diversity, there has been one required class devoted to socio-cultural exploration in the counseling field. One class where students were required to reflect honestly on their own personal stereotypes regarding different groups of people, acknowledge their internalized beliefs, and become aware of their own privilege in relation to their race, age, gender, sexuality, SES, ability/disability status, etc. Yes, awareness of your own attitudes towards others will undoubtedly make you a better counselor. Knowledge of issues surrounding particular communities of people will make you a better counselor. But that’s not enough.

In the mental health field, we need to actively continue building empathy. Of all the interventions, the therapeutic relationship is the one that best helps clients. The client needs to feel supported and listened to, and no amount of homework, dream analyses or behavioral interventions will help if the counselor can’t empathize with the client. I can’t speak for all counselors, nor can I speak for all people. But the answer is as simple as it is complicated. Just listen. Empathize (but don’t sympathize, pity parties never helped anyone). Know that you may not be able to fully understand or identify with the stories because you don’t have that shared experience. But know that listening and caring will help, even on a small scale.

And on a larger scale, making sure the stories of all people are heard. Tweeting them, Facebooking them, blogging them, talking about them. And maybe requiring another socio-cultural class /trainings in master’s level counseling programs and emphasizing empathy. One class doesn’t ensure cultural competency.  Granted, more classes don’t ensure cultural competency, but it’s a step in the right direction.


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