On Empathy and Action

By Melissa Dolan


How might we be inadvertently reinforcing racial inequality in our community?

Why is “niceness” sometimes problematic when issues regarding race emerge in our community?

How does your self-awareness inform you in your approach to how and why you teach?

My eyes scanned these and other questions posted on the whiteboards around the room during a recent professional development activity. I immediately gravitated toward the last one, knowing I had an answer for it. Reviewing the responses other teachers had written on the whiteboard around this question, I saw that a number of white teachers acknowledged a lack of awareness of how their racial identities in particular might influence their teaching practices. Responses from teachers of color, on the other hand, reflected an acute awareness of their own identities in a classroom space.

As a civics teacher navigating hot-button political issues in the classroom, and as a member of the LGBT community, I often take into consideration not just what I teach but how I teach it to avoid the perception of political bias. With that in mind, I began writing, perhaps a bit too eagerly, about these teaching challenges. After a minute or two of quiet self-congratulation (“I get it. I’m a member of a marginalized community, too.”), a less positive feeling started to creep in to my mind. How would I answer this question if I were looking at it through the lens of my racial identity? And why wasn’t I doing that? Words in response to those questions escaped me. 

I started thinking back to other times in which our faculty community explored issues of identity during professional development. One activity, a year earlier, involved us checking off boxes related to our status in various privileged and marginalized groups. I felt a certain level of satisfaction that day knowing I could check some boxes in the marginalized column. As some of my colleagues around me had humbling “a-ha” moments about their various positions of privilege, I thought to myself, “for once — being marginalized is a positive!” I could think with specificity and nuance about the many ways in which my marginalized identities have shaped my experiences navigating the world around me. Yet, again, I did not spend much time thinking critically about how my privileged identities have also shaped my experiences. My colleagues were doing the hard work of deep self-reflection and awareness — and I was not. 

The ability to empathize is a critical skill when we are aiming to dismantle racial inequalities. In my case, however, I realized I was allowing my empathy to shield me from a certain level of self-reflection. In Teaching While White’s podcast interview with Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility, DiAngelo identifies a similar dynamic, noting that white women often use patriarchy and sexism as a way out of supporting women of color as opposed to using it as a way in. 

I do not intend to downplay the realities of injustice that members of the LGBT community experience on a daily basis. What I need to do, though, is make sure I can speak with just as much fluency about how my privilege shapes who I am in my classroom and the larger world. That journey, I realize, is only just beginning.

As I have stepped into this process, I have already learned a few key lessons:

Lean in for the long haul.

At the start of this process, I kept looking for easy answers and teaching strategies I could put into place right away. For example, I would ask those who have been doing this work for some time how I might structure individual check-ins with students of color before starting a unit in which race played a central role (such as a unit on enslavement and Reconstruction). The answer was always, “Well... it depends on the context.”

A bit frustrated, I turned to other resources. I began reading Ali Michael’s Raising Race Questions: Whiteness and Inquiry in Education only to encounter in the early pages that “[a]lthough some race questions have answers, the ones that are most worth pursuing lead to a process rather than an answer” (Michael 21). I almost gave up on the text soon after reading those lines. I didn’t, however, and the further I progressed through the book, the more I started to understand why there are no easy answers. Educator Andrew Watson, in his work about the ways in which neuroscience can inform teaching practices, often states that teachers need to have a “think this way” mindset when interacting with his resources; if teachers are looking for “do this thing” advice from him, he will not be providing it. The work of racial identity development for educators is similar in that way; there is no quick fix.

Make this work a priority.

In order to take a “think this way” approach to racial literacy, I have to keep the work at the forefront of my mind daily. For me, this includes stating my aspirations in my yearly teaching goals and end-of-year reflection. It has also meant finding people who will help me hold myself accountable. I have informally partnered with other teachers doing similar work. We can serve as each other’s sounding boards and exchange honest feedback as we reflect on and learn from difficult moments in the classroom. As Jen Cort has recommended in a past TWW blog entry, “It’s Not About Being Liked,” I also plan to ask a peer to observe me in the classroom.

As for reading materials, I try to have one book lead to the next, moving from Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility to Eddie Moore, Jr. and Ali Michael’s The Guide for White Women Who Teach Black Boys to Ali Michael’s Raising Race Questions and, most recently, Matthew Kay’s Not Light but Fire. Additionally, I printed out the Teaching While White blog (which, helpfully, prints out as one continuous document), took notes, tried out some of the advice, came up with new questions to pursue, and identified contributing writers I might want to reach out to so that I can learn more from them.

I’m working to build my network of resources both within my school and beyond it. I also try to ensure that my professional development choices involve continuous opportunities to develop my racial literacy as opposed to a “one-off” approach.

Embrace humility.

This is not new advice in the scholarship of racial identity development for white people. For me, it played out like this: Over the past few years, a colleague and I have been working to transform our interdisciplinary civics course into one in which students can more effectively use their knowledge of history to make sense of the present. The course has always focused on civil and human rights, but following the shooting death of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, I realized that students were not using the subject matter of the course to make sense of the current events that were unfolding. Bewildered at first, I began to realize that it made sense; through the structure of the curriculum, I was implicitly sending the message that the fight for civil rights was a series of events that happened a long time ago and had a successful conclusion.

My colleague and I set about restructuring the content of the course and updating a number of teaching strategies as well. The course is now titled “Systems of Justice and Injustice” and delves far more deeply into the history and current realities of systemic racism and other issues. The course content is awesome, and I’m really proud of it (clearly I have not reached the humility part yet). My colleague and I spent the last couple of years feeling as though we were making progress with the course redesign but that we had a ways to go.

This fall, the pieces finally started to synthesize. I was ready to pat myself on the back and say, “I feel like the course is finally where it needs to be.” But just as I was preparing for my victory lap, I started in on Raising Race Questions and allowed Ali Michael’s words to sink in yet again: “You can have a multicultural curriculum and still not have an antiracist classroom.... Understanding that we have a racial identity... is the most critical step in building antiracist, whole classrooms” (Michael 2-4).

I began to realize that, no matter what content I am teaching or what themes we explore, if I do not take into account the impact of my identity as a white woman in the classroom as I facilitate that content, I can inflict stress on students and create an unsafe feeling in the classroom — the exact opposite of what I am striving for.

I have a lot more work to do. 

I look forward to this next phase of growth in my role as an educator. I have a lot to learn. Ultimately, I need to remind myself that while empathy might be a good starting point, taking action is the only way to start making a meaningful difference.

Melissa Dolan teaches humanities and serves as middle school curriculum leader at The Rivers School in Weston, Massachusetts. She can be reached at m.dolan@rivers.org.