More Thoughts on Othering and Empathy

Letha,

Your last post, in which you illustrated so well the harm of “othering,” named a topic that is more and more becoming a core theme in my studies at Yale. As you know, I’ve been studying U.S. history quite a bit (as I am considering going into American Studies for PhD work). It seems that the more I learn about U.S. history, the more I see how “othering” has always been used in order to buffer certain powerful groups. It’s as though “in-groups” are defined more by how they exclude and misrepresent others than by their own actual identity. Their identity is not being one of “them.”

For instance, this week I have been reading Jonathan Freedman’s Klezmer America: Jewishness, Ethnicity, Modernity. (It’s not exactly a quick or easy text, so I wouldn’t recommend it for a leisurely Saturday read!) While I won’t summarize all of his arguments here, one idea he developed quite well was showing how “whiteness” was often policed by casting aspersions on the supposed “sexual transgressions” of the non-white “other.” For instance, stereotypes of Jewish men have often cast them as either effeminate or hyper-sexual—and therefore outside the bounds of proper “whiteness.” It seems quite significant to me that attacking Jewish men’s masculinity and sexuality was part of racializing them as “other” to white. Freedman helped me see, once again, that race, gender, and sexuality are always inscribed on one another.

In fact, I am growing more and more convinced that within U.S. culture, gender and sexuality can’t even begin to be parsed out without also incorporating a thorough race analysis. But, because my education has been so lacking in studying race relations, I’ve needed to be intentional about doing that work while here at Yale. To be honest, much of my self-taught feminist studies up until a few years ago rarely incorporated a good understanding of race and gender. Now that I am in school studying feminism, I’ve experienced writers who are much more diverse. Yet, even here, too often the syllabi are still heavily weighted with white voices or male voices.

A Look Into the Classroom

For instance, at the beginning of the semester, I had signed up for a class on the U.S. Civil Rights Movement because, in particular, I was really desiring to hear the voices of black women writers talk about history. When I got to my first day of class, I saw that on the syllabus all the required textbooks were written by men. To be fair, there were important scholarly articles written by women, but not one book. When we buy books, we are supporting the authors, and we are encouraging publishing houses to publish these authors. I actually felt sick to my stomach looking at my syllabus. How many times have I looked down at a syllabus that is not supporting women writers?

I mustered up the courage to ask my professor, in as respectful a tone as I could manage, why we weren’t required to buy any texts by black women writers? He said, a bit annoyed, that if I read my syllabus more carefully, I would see that there were “moments” of women writers on it. He was right—there were moments—but my question went deeper than that. It is painful enough to me that black women are too often marginalized in my feminist theory class, but then to step into a class on the Civil Rights Movement and find the same thing happening was almost too much to bear.

I’ve always thought that looking at an academic syllabus is a good case study for recognizing whose voices get heard and whose voices are not given space to speak on their own, but must be represented by the more powerful group. I recently reviewed some of my syllabi from college and gasped out loud—it seemed I had majored in the thoughts of dead white men! Most of my classes were loaded with patriarchal, Euro-centric writers. This is how “othering” happens—select powerful groups get to define history, religion, science, etc., while other groups must be defined by the words of the more powerful group.

In the end, I decided not to take the Civil Rights class for this semester, and I signed up instead for a class in contemporary African American poetry. Needless to say, I am utterly in over my head. It is definitely the most challenging class I have taken at Yale, because I know so little of the history, the struggles, and the reference points these poets are writing about. In retrospect, I realize it was probably a sign of my white privilege that I thought I could step into a graduate level seminar on African American poetry! Every week when I sit in this class, I feel disoriented, anxious, and confused. I am experiencing what it is like not be in the “in crowd”—what it feels like to be a beginner. Perhaps most importantly, the class has helped me come face-to-face with how much of my education has “othered” the history, the theory, the experiences, and the art of African Americans.

The class has been particularly challenging because not only is the poetry itself difficult to understand, but also what I am learning from the poetry seems to “disrupt” quite profoundly the material in my other classes. For instance, when I am reading Gyn/Ecology by Mary Daly in my Feminist Philosophy of Religion class, what feels loudest in the text is her marginalization of non-white voices (and I realize that even using that category “non-white” is problematic language in itself). I really struggled to hear and understand Daly in that book, because my attention was drawn to how often she used “women” as a group and failed to articulate the differences among women. I kept thinking of all of Audre Lorde’s critiques of her! (See, for example, Lorde’s “An Open Letter to Mary Daly” in Sister Outsider.)

Letha, perhaps you might have some advice on this for me? I feel as though I am in a rich stage of learning, but everything feels disrupted. I don’t know so many of my new reference points. I do know that gender must be studied within the complexity of so many other things—racism, heterosexism, classism, colonialism—and yet the task can feel overwhelming to me. There are ever so many moments of feeling like a beginner all over again.

More Thoughts on Empathy

To close this post, Letha, I wanted to re-visit your ideas in your last letter on empathy, particularly as they applied to the man who wrote a letter to you asking for you to understand his struggles. If there is something else I am learning from this poetry class, it’s that I want to be the type of person who can make space for others who feel like beginners or who I might perceive (fairly or unfairly) as beginners.

For instance, I will often encounter men and women who seem to be in the earlier stages of a feminist journey, and who might not feel understood by those who have been thinking about these issues for longer. (Not that the man who wrote to you was necessarily a “beginner” at feminism—your reception to his letter just reminded me that people are coming to this topic from very different places and need kindness.) I felt like his letter carved out a courageous space for him to share exactly where he was at, and that process itself seems so important to genuine growth. I admire him for writing you that letter and sharing so vulnerably his own struggles; and, of course, I have always respected how willing you are to meet people just as they are. I think that it is in the midst of that mutuality that we learn from each other.

Perhaps in the last few years, I wasn’t quite sure how to show empathy to men who were struggling with egalitarian ideas. I am realizing in retrospect that too often my attempts at empathy were more often a subtle coddling, if that makes sense. I didn’t want to offend them or make things uncomfortable. I was afraid of speaking honestly and directly. I was also wanting to avoid conflict because I was needing to protect myself a great deal. My feminist ideas were still tender, and I was still quite tentative in being able to see and name the harm that comes within systems of male entitlement.

For instance, in my last graduate program, I had many moments with one particular male professor who I knew at the time was dismissing my voice, but I didn’t know how to negotiate the moment. I admired and respected him, and it was hard for me to believe that a man who had been such a blessing in my life could also be living out such harm in a patriarchal system. But, the truth was, he was living out harm! And while I know that he is a good man and a brilliant teacher, over and over again he lives out patterns of male entitlement by marginalizing feminist perspectives. His interpretations of the Bible, in particular, seem to not have engaged any feminist scholarship in the last 20 years!

My point is that I want to learn how to have a strong voice, while simultaneously showing genuine empathy and grace, in order that people might feel comfortable being who they are around me at the same time that I would feel comfortable being who I am—with all my feminist convictions!

Final Words

I better finish up this letter. It’s a lovely rainy day in New Haven, and I need to get going on my study of poetry for the day, as well as write several papers whose deadlines loom. Before I close, though, I wanted to thank our readers for their comments on the last post. I really wish I had time to offer individual responses here, but even though I can’t do that right now, I want our readers to know that you and I read their words carefully and always appreciate all of the insight and diverse perspectives.

Your friend,

Kim

Kimberly George
Kimberly B. George directs Critical Social Theory Consulting, an innovative business that brings specialized academic theory on power, privilege, and social justice (including the tools of feminist, critical race, and queer theory) into spaces such theory is not traditionally taught. Kimberly holds an MA (summa cum laude) from Yale University, where she was a Merit Scholar from 2009–2011, and a Postgraduate Associate in Gender Equity and Policy from 2012–2013. She’s currently a doctoral student, where her scholarship focuses on structural violence, psychic life, and creative pedagogies. Kimberly is also a writing consultant, supporting both creative and academic writers. Her own writing has appeared in such publications at The Feminist Wire, NewBlackMan (in Exile),The New Haven Register, The Washington Spectator, Feministing.com, and The OpEd Project’s ByLine Blog.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Kim,
    Great post as usual. I particularly liked what you said at the end about wanting to learn how to have a strong voice, while showing empathy…letting other people feel comfortable being who they are at the same time that I feel comfortable being who I am. So tough to do!
    I certainly can get frustrated and impatient with others that I think are mostly oblivious to the imbalanced power structures playing out. I need to empathize with where that person is coming from, who is just at the beginning of that journey, as you said.
    As far as the empathy working both ways… the so called “norm” empathizing with the “other”, as well as the “other” empathizing with the “norm”… I will say that I think the “other’ has a leg up in that regard. The “other” already has had to be mindful of the point of view of the “norm” in order to operate successfully in the system. The “norm” must be mindful of boundaries, but also has more power to change or set boundaries. They don’t have to worry about how their behavior affects or is received by the “others”.

    One frustrating scenario that often seems to occur when I’m talking to somebody about feminism is a conversation along these lines:
    Me: “The reality is that we still live in a society of male privilege/entitlement/preference.”
    Other person: “I disagree. It seems to me that men are the ones who have it harder. They have a lot more responsibilities and expectations. Women have it way easier.”
    Hmm, miscommunication. Finding a way to better communicate that by “entitlement”, etc. I mean that the preferred group’s needs are, first of all, recognized and then, deferred to above the other group’s needs… isn’t always so easy to get across. So often I just don’t go there and I just let it go. But I’m not going to get better at communicating these ideas that are so important to me if I don’t get out there and risk flubbing it by trying!

    And of course, like you have mentioned, this is much bigger than just the categories of male & female.

    Thank you for what you are Letha are doing by keeping this dialogue going!

    P.S. Sorry my comment is super long! Hope you don’t mind.

  2. Kimberly,

    This post particularly interested me. I was reminded at a couple of points of a book I have begun reading (recommended to me by one of your peers at YDS): Race, Nation and Religion in the Americas edited by Henry Goldschmidt and Elizabeth McAlister. The introduction points to their attemp to feel out not only the intersection of these three points (and gender/sexuality while taking a backseat) as though they were separate entities that went bump in the night but also their work to “disrupt the supposed boundedness” of these categories “by showing…[they] are inextricably linked; by demonstrating that they are, in fact, *co-constituted* categories, wholly dependent on each other for their social existence and symbolic meanings.” I am pleased with the intricacy and scope of thought in what I have read and hope the rest of the book proves to be as compelling. It sounds like you are in a journey similar to these authors in formulating your feminist theory/method/definitions.

    Best,
    Deb

  3. I feel so excited that I discovered this site. I am an Australian/Sri Lankan currently in Sri Lanka for an extended time. I am feeling so deprived of sharing sacred feminine spiritual spaces with people at the moment and looking for opportunities for being touched.

    This maybe tangentially opposite to what is being written here. My experience in reading it as this great sense of utter exhaustion from decades of taking an oppositional stance to these issues and experiencing the marginalization you speak about. I feel I need a respite from that right now. As Christianity does not have powerful enough divine feminine images I have journeyed with images from other cosmologies. Hestia – she who constantly renews the sacred space, with no involvement with the other deities, and holds the centre is one that I have journeyed with a lot and gave me a great sense of inner ground. Reading what you wrote and what is going on in my life right now the image that came was that of knowing Hestia can hold a light in that marginalizing oppositional place, without it needing my will in this moment and I need to stay with what can shift and grow in that place. I realized how much I have tried to use my will to push through these unseen rigid places. I have tended to trust these spontaneous emergings and they have helped me. It is heartening to know that while I take this repite (sometimes the ground becomes shaky – and thoughts of ‘are you giving up’ comes in, but I don’t internally really feel this) you are taking a different stance. Yet at the end of the day our purpose is the same. I can feel a hand holding all of it, they mystery I honour.

  4. I just recently found your blog and how thankful I am! For the sake of brevity, I won’t share all my feminist journey here, but I will say that much of what you wrote in this particular post has much to do with it! Race, Gender, Sexuality, must be seen in light of each other.

    Your postings are, at risk of sounding very cheesy, feeding my soul! I especially resonate with this comment:

    “My point is that I want to learn how to have a strong voice, while simultaneously showing genuine empathy and grace, in order that people might feel comfortable being who they are around me at the same time that I would feel comfortable being who I am—with all my feminist convictions!”

    Thank you for sharing – your thoughts are helping to dispel my loneliness in this area!

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