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Privilege and Racial Justice: How to Have Difficult Conversations With Students

By Ask a Psychologist Contributor — July 29, 2020 2 min read
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Today’s guest blogger is Jamil Zaki, an associate professor of psychology at Stanford University and the author of The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World.

How can I talk with students about privilege and the fight for racial justice?

A few weeks ago, my 4-year-old daughter and I made a “Black Lives Matter” poster to hang in our window. As we painted, we talked about race, fairness, and equality. These were not new topics to us, but as a parent, I’ve chosen when and how she learns about racial injustice—a privilege not everyone has.

Since the killing of George Floyd, countless people have had their eyes opened in new ways to longstanding anti-Black violence in the U.S. This is a powerful movement, but why didn’t it arrive earlier, and how do we keep its momentum going?

One answer to both of these questions comes from the science of empathy—our ability to share and understand others’ feelings. We often assume that empathy is a trait: You either have it or you don’t. But it turns out, empathy is more like a skill, which you can work on the way you might build a muscle. This is great news in that the right habits are like an “empathy gym” that any of us can use to improve.

But there’s a dark side. In particular, status and privilege tend to sap social connection, and research shows that privileged people struggle to understand others’ experiences. Ironically, though they often have the power to help many people, they’re less likely to do so

Thankfully, this atrophy is not inevitable. When privileged people intentionally practice seeing others’ point of view, their empathy increases, as does their interest in justice.

Talking about privilege—in schools or anywhere else—can feel uncomfortable. It doesn’t have to. One way to shift these conversations is to describe them as opportunities for growth that will expand everyone’s empathy and understanding.

How do we help the empathic momentum of this moment last? One key is to ensure that our curricula feature diverse voices—both historical figures and characters in fictional stories. Hearing the perspective of traditionally marginalized groups can increase privileged people’s empathy, as can engaging with narrative arts such as novels and plays. A mix of the two can give all students the consistent “reps” it takes to not only feel, but keep, a wide-open empathic perspective.

Next week: How to build your own empathy


The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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