These reflections were written in reaction to the tragedies that took place over the summer, but they are especially relevant given the recent bombings in NY/ NJ and the deaths of Tyre King, Terrance Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott.
My clock stopped shortly after July 4th with the murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, two African-American men killed by police officers.
After reading and reflecting on these headlines, I immediately felt vulnerable. I was reminded how quickly my life can end with one “wrong” move. The combination of my skin color, my gender, and this country’s history of oppression make it exceedingly easy for me to be labeled as a threat and killed. My worst moments would be broadcast to justify my killing. My killer would likely not be convicted, much less indicted. To prevent this outcome, I make sure that my Harvard crest is visible and smile when I see police officers. But the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the countless other black men gunned down by those sworn to protect and serve are constant reminders that there is no amount of “good behavior” that can guarantee I won’t meet this end. This can happen to me. It can happen to my brother, my dad, and any other black man in America at any time and in any place.
After the vulnerability, I felt numb. My numbness stemmed from the constant barrage of stories on social media highlighting the deaths of black men and black women who have been killed with little or no rationale. In order to function, I have created a coping mechanism: read a few articles, process and compartmentalize my emotions, post something semi-thoughtful on social media, and move on. Through this process, I have subconsciously accepted the murder of other African-Americans as normal.
Finally, I felt and continue to feel heartbroken. I’m heartbroken because I know this will happen again. I’m heartbroken because so much of the conversation following these tragedies focuses on the individual occurrences rather than the structural problems. I’m heartbroken because much of the blame for these murders is placed at the feet of rap music, baggy clothes, and black-on-black crime rather than on racism. I’m heartbroken because the same implicit biases that lie beneath these tragedies also lie beneath inequalities in other areas such as hiring, affordable housing, and public health. I’m heartbroken because the solutions to these issues seem to be beyond the reach of our current political discourse. And I am devastated that if and when I have a son, he will have moments during which he feels vulnerable, numb and heartbroken for this same reason.
At times of emotional distress, empathy is what I desire most from others. However, I often do not meet this need for those around me. On the other side of the world, there was a terrorist shooting in Dhaka, Bangladesh, the hometown of one my classmates; 20 hostages were murdered. I saw that headline, paused briefly, and moved on. Not until I saw my classmate a few weeks later did it hit me that his family and friends could have been affected and that he was probably in a similar emotional state as I am when an instance of police brutality occurs in the United States. Even though fortunately, he and his family were safe, I could have and should have paused longer than one second, moved the abstract into the real and into the individual, and reached out to him. Too often, I am too focused on what affects me to notice what is affecting others. This summer’s tragic events made it abundantly clear to me that only noticing what affects us individually is not enough.
Our natural instinct is to withhold empathy only for special situations. When a family member or friend is diagnosed with a disease or our hometown is hit with a natural disaster, we naturally summon up reserves of empathy to support those in need. However, when a tragic event happens outside of our natural scope of relationships, we guard our emotions. When we scroll through headlines and view lives as abstract statistics rather than deep, meaningful existences that can never be replicated, we hoard our empathy for good reason. If we internalized every headline, dissected the implications of every story and summoned empathy for every tragedy, we would be emotionally exhausted unable to operate and live fulfilling lives. Our instinct is to stockpile our empathetic tendencies for when we will truly need them. However, by doing this, we sell ourselves short. We discount our capacity for empathy and we underestimate the situations that require our compassion. In truth, there are many large and small interactions that would be improved if we extended our capacity to be empathetic. We have that power. We have the ability to transcend our instincts and show empathy to others.
“empathy is simple but it is also extraordinary”
After the latest rounds of police brutality, while processing my emotions through conversations with my black friends and keeping it together during my internship, a hopeful thing happened. A few of my non-black friends sent me a text message saying “I know this week has probably been really tough for you. I don’t know what I can do, but I’m here if you need anything”. And I would always respond “Sending me this message means so much to me… thank you”. This act of reaching out mattered because empathy is simple but it is also extraordinary. When everything is going well in your world, it matters when you simply take the time to stop, take notice of the pain and suffering of others, and reach out.
Empathy matters. It enables us to recognize and understand the emotions of others when happiness occurs and when tragedy strikes. It pushes us to reach out when someone is in need. It impels us to speak less and listen more. I need more of it. We all need more of it.
Empathy impacts the bottom line. A recent study by businessolver, a supplier of employee benefits solutions, showed that 60% of CEOs say that they are empathetic but only 24% of their employees agree. 56% of employees say that they are more likely to stay with a company when management shows empathy. Additionally, the study showed that 42% of customers have refused to buy products from non-empathetic organizations.
Empathy is vital. Empathy asks the question “How does this make others feel?” and then asks “How can I help?”. When a group of people feels the need to state “Black Lives Matter,” empathy does not respond by shouting “All Lives Matter” in response. Empathy instead asks, “Why does this group of people feel the need to state that their lives have value?” When people riot in the face of injustice, empathy does not lecture them about “better ways” to make an impact. Empathy asks, “Why does this group of people feel like this is their only avenue to gain attention and bring about action?” Instead of relying solely on our own understanding, we should shift our stance to one of empathy by allowing ourselves to reach out to others, opening our ears to listen, and learning from their experiences. If we can do this, if we can live with and act with more empathy, I am hopeful and confident that we can become the leaders that we aspire to be.
In order to collectively build more empathy, please join us on October 5th at 7:30 pm for the first Student Association Campus Conversation to hear student perspectives on the recent tragedies of global terrorism, police violence, sexual assault and violence against the LGBT community and join in a broader discussion on how we can be there to support each other in times of tragedy. Submit your reflections on these topics to the Student Association in advance of the event here.
Duwain Pinder is a 3rd-year joint degree student at Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School.