Empathy is a muscle

I wrote this post about a year and a half ago, but decided to publish it anyway. Might as well start 2017 by pushing the start button, right?

My family has had a book club since I was 15. Over the past 11 years, we’ve meandered across genres, from novels (The Color Purple, Ceremony, Go Tell It On the Mountain) and novellas (Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Black Water) to historical non-fiction (Overthrow, How Music Works) and autobiography (Clapton). The rules started out simple: none of us can have read the book previously; the book must be less than 400 pages; the person who selects the book will rotate; and we must all agree on the selection before diving in. My mother, who got through approximately 50 pages of Watership Down before exclaiming I am NOT reading a fucking book about rabbits!, amended the rules to include non-fiction books only (we have since broken that rule many times).

And so our book club went for its first two years, a golden period when everyone in my immediate family lived in the same city. Our proximity made it easier to stick to, or at least to attempt to stick to, a monthly reading schedule. I memorized the digits of my library card and could recall them like my own birthday.

We read and read together, though we all kept up with our own reading on the side. Left to my own devices, I mostly chose to read books by women. My mother had taken great care when I was a kid to fill my bookshelves with stories about girls and women, both real and imagined. I spent childhood afternoons poring over tales of our heroism, cunning, tenderness, and wit, spanning endlessly through space and time. And yet, when I hit high school, gone were the girls and women I’d grown to love and aspired to be. In their wake, a sea of books, plays, poems, and memoirs by, for, and about men flooded my classrooms. In those budding halls of academia, the message I heard was: It’s time to get serious about real literature, and only men write real literature (oh, and Jane Austen).

At 17, fresh out of high school and weary from the erasure of people like me from the annals of literature, I was finally back in control of my own reading list. And so I decided to throw my family a curve ball.

Shortly after reading Assata, I told my family that I was not going to read any books by men for a whole year, including for the book club. They protested slightly, then shrugged and elected to move on without me. They read Things Fall Apart and Heat while I sulked in my room, thumbing through The Autobiography of Angela Davis but feeling too slighted to give it my full attention.

As combative and unrelenting as I was at 17, I don’t blame my family for charging ahead without me. But it did sting. It seemed like making the investment to find books by women simply wasn’t worth it, which surprised me. Surely, I thought, it wouldn’t be that hard. Furthermore, the men would always be there. Why couldn’t we simply wait?

There’s something uniquely thrilling about reading a book by someone who reminds you of yourself, across all dimensions. As a child, I remember the subtle, sweet sense of affirmation that came from reading about girls as I knew them—daring, provocative, hilarious, self-conscious, angry, compassionate. It helped me to understand that the parts of my personality that often felt at odds with each other and with what others expected of me were, in fact, perfectly normal. The girls and women I got to know on the page each contained myriad versions of themselves, were constantly shifting and stretching into spaces both new and familiar. They were at once my refuge and my inspiration to grow, to fail, and to try again.

Reading whisked me across time and space, forming implicit and imagined friendships with people I might never know firsthand. Like most white kids, I grew up predominantly around other white people. There was a structural limitation, created decades ago through racist housing policies and predatory financial practices that persist to this day, that placed strict but unstated boundaries around who I could interact with; my family’s choice about where to live reinforced, however unconsciously, those boundaries.  My mom attempted to challenge these structures in some ways, predominantly through the types of media she brought into the house. I would flip through books she’d collected and magazines she’d subscribed me to, their pages filled with stories of girls around the world whose lives were at once notably distinct and similarly mundane as mine. I began to see the edges of my tiny corner of the universe in stark relief, and reading gave me a small opportunity to reach beyond them. As a young white girl, I learned that if we all contain multitudes, à la Walt Whitman, then our differences themselves are part of what comprises our shared humanity.

A few years ago, I was at a bar with my boyfriend, my best friend, and her boyfriend talking about Harry Potter. I had read the first two books as a child and gave up on the series, bored to tears by what I thought was too much work for too little payoff in terms of plot development. I suggested that maybe another reason I couldn’t stick with Harry Potter was because my mom had always bought me books about girls, and a book about a boy wizard just couldn’t hold my interest the way a book like Island of the Blue Dolphins could. (I have since read Harry Potter in its entirety and love it. The Chamber of Secrets is still boring, though.)

I also mentioned that I didn’t really like fantasy novels as a child, preferring historical fiction, and had only discovered classics like The Golden Compass as a teenager. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series had the added benefit of being about a deceptive, arrogant, and sensitive adolescent girl who runs away to the arctic to lead an inter-universal war against an oppressive god. What’s not to like?

My friend’s boyfriend quipped back that he didn’t like The Golden Compass, largely because it had a female protagonist. He felt he just couldn’t relate to her, and then gave up trying. On its surface, it sounded like he was mirroring back what I had said about Harry Potter, only in reverse. But not until that moment had anyone challenged him on his admission that he couldn’t empathize with a female book character; I had been hotly chastised for my relative apathy toward Harry Potter since I was a child. As a young girl, my inability to connect with the male protagonist of the world’s most popular book series was a personal flaw, a sign that something was not right with me. As a young boy, my friend’s boyfriend’s inability to connect with the female protagonist of the book series that topped Harry Potter in the U.K. sales charts was simply the status quo, and thus, wholly unremarkable.

Our society takes for granted that marginalized people can and do see themselves in white, male protagonists, too. We often have to by necessity, given how male-and white-dominated school literary curricula are, both in terms of subject and author. We expect girls, women, and people of color to relate to boys, men, and white people because we assume that the latter are always the standard-bearer, that their thoughts, feelings, and experiences are universal. We do not, incidentally, expect boys, men, and white people to relate to girls, women, and people of color whose thoughts, feelings, and experiences are too often seen as ancillary or fringe (particularly for girls and women of color).

There has been some research done on the unique power of narrative to generate empathy, particularly for people who belong to a social “out-group” (back to Harry Potter!) because it can challenge our prevailing notions of what “other” people are like. On a physiological level, reading creates new neural pathways that continue to build even after we’ve put down a book. Our brains are constantly at work processing, analyzing, and making connections between new information and that which we already know. They will stretch to encompass unfamiliar or novel ideas and concepts so that we may understand them better the next time we encounter them. In other words, empathy is a muscle and it becomes stronger the more we use it. But like any muscle, we must regularly find new ways to exercise it lest we plateau or go soft. Ask anyone if you can get and stay fit simply by doing sit-ups forever and they’ll laugh in your face.

If we only ever ask children to read books by and about men, or by and about white people, we are demanding the intellectual equivalent of bicep curls and nothing else, ad infinitum. We are robbing girls and kids of color of the opportunity to have their experiences heard and validated. We are denying all children the opportunity to grow both as thinkers and as human beings who are empathetically attuned to others’ experiences, whether they look the same or not. We are, in essence, rewarding children for becoming lazy.

Focus on strengthening one muscle in isolation and you automatically begin to favor it. Your body will start following the same patterns unconsciously–that’s what muscle memory is. If we only exercise our ability to empathize with men and with white people, we will reinforce the notion that they are the standard-bearers of human experience. We will reflexively view their opinions as more credible and trustworthy, sometimes in spite of our own first-hand experiences.

There is, of course, a structural and material component to all of this, too. Teach children that only books by men and white people are worth reading, and they will become adults who only buy books by men and white people, however unconsciously. That translates to bigger book deals, higher paychecks, better publicity, and more critical acclaim for men and white people, which in turn convinces us that these writers are, naturally, the best of the best. And so we choose, once again, to read their stories.

It should come as no surprise, then, that white people and people of color view racism through dramatically different lenses, or that men and women have vastly different perceptions on issues like sexual assault and abortion. People in positions of relative power are not taught a complex, nuanced version of the world around them, and consequently tend to lack the social-emotional skills to interpret other people’s experiences as inherently valid. This has dramatic implications beyond the classroom; despite comprising only 31% of the population, white men hold 65% of elected offices in this country. If they don’t have the muscle to relate to the remaining 69% of the U.S. population, how could we expect policies that prioritize, let alone take into account, the needs of women and/or people of color?

Reading works by women and/or people of color is not about becoming an “expert” in anyone else’s lived experiences, creative processes, or perspectives on society. Reading also does not replace the immense value I place on interpersonal relationships with people whose lives diverge from (but often, delightfully intersect with) mine, nor the need to dismantle the institutions and structures that maintain racist and sexist oppression. But, it is one way to celebrate the talents and experiences of people far too many of us, by and large, have been taught not to care about.