There has been a level of presumption in Spectator op-ed pieces lately regarding the definition and exercise of empathy. In his piece “Legacies of trauma” (Oct. 21) Gerardo Romo wrote very candidly about the pain that he has experienced while at Columbia as a queer student of color. He pointed out that, in many ways, the structure of the institution feels not only too rigid to include him in a way that makes him feel part of its community, but also often feels specifically designed to exclude him based on the identities he holds and the body he inhabits.
There have since been several pieces that have directly and indirectly addressed his piece and its general subject, and across them a disturbing trend has arisen. Though a few of these articles make reference to Romo’s piece in passing, their main focus has nothing to do with the problem that he is actually trying to highlight. Instead, they focus on the authors themselves—who, by their own admission, face few or none of the specific challenges that Romo attempted to start a dialogue around. A conversation which began as one revolving around the difficulties faced by a queer student of color—and the ways in which Columbia does not adequately address his needs—has quickly become centered around the feelings of people who acknowledge that those issues of structural, institutional inequality do not apply to them.
None of this is to say that students who do not face certain forms of institutional oppression should not be allowed to discuss things that matter to them and that cause them pain. I only think that, relatively speaking, there exists a lot more space for these conversations—not just on Columbia’s campus but also in society at large. There are far fewer campus-wide discussions about the ways that racism, sexism and homophobia present unique mental health challenges to the students who must face them on an everyday basis. It is telling that this specific conversation started by Romo barely got off the ground before it was derailed by another conversation entirely—one which rejected the validity of that initial discussion and did not genuinely seek to engage with the idea that there might be students here suffering in unique ways.
Instead, these writers have bemoaned the fact that they aren’t allowed to speak freely about an oppression that they’ve never experienced. It is hard to believe that any of these authors take seriously the claim that racism and homophobia are distinct and deeply harmful realities for certain students—not just abstractly in the outside world but also in concrete terms at this very school. If they did, they would not treat identity politics as though it were a gimmick or based on arbitrary categorizations.
At least one of the authors of these op-eds stresses that he has the ability to empathize with people who face institutional oppression. He seems to make the assumption that empathy is something with which every rational human being is endowed, and that the fact that he has privilege should not blind any of his peers to his humanity.
But empathy, as opposed to sympathy, is predicated on understanding another person’s experience, and such understanding is learned intentionally over a lifetime, it is not instinctual. To me, meaningful empathy on this campus would require an awareness of how seldom students with marginalized identities have actually been allowed to speak to their experience and be heard—without their classmates accusing them of launching a moral attack on the students here who do not share their challenges. Empathy would require understanding the vulnerability involved when discussing personal experiences of institutional discrimination and violence. It would mean understanding that you can’t make a conversation about racism and homophobia about yourself and your feelings and at the same time admit that you face neither of those oppressions. Empathy would acknowledge that building community by continually highlighting the sameness of our experiences only makes sense if we do not continue to face challenges on the basis of our differences.
And perhaps most importantly, empathy involves listening. It involves listening much, much more than you talk—especially to people who haven’t had the space to be heard before.
The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in English.
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