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Class Notes
Building empathy for others
(Published April 22, 2002)

By H. WELLS WULSIN

"Whassup-which-’ew, Mr. Wulsin!!?"

Latanya gave me an exceptionally jubilant greeting when she walked into physics class one day after lunch. Pretending not to understand her slang, I queried, "What is up with me?" – enunciating every consonant as articulately as possible.

She giggled at the stiffness of my "translation." Any attempt of mine to master street lingo would surely be futile, and we both knew it. I am as white as they come, with Anglos on both sides of my family tree as far back as any of my relatives can trace.

Here at H.D. Woodson Senior High School, out of a thousand students, three are Hispanic and the rest are African-American. On a faculty of about 80, there are six white teachers. As a white protestant male, I am now for the first time in my life squarely in the minority.

Race, depending on how it is defined, may be only the color of one’s skin, but ethnicity — the amalgam of heritage, genetic traits and cultural practices — certainly is much more than a pigment. Ethnic groups are fluid, without strict boundaries, and within any group there is considerable range in the personalities and attitudes of the individuals. But to ignore the cultural differences between a black sophomore in inner-city Northeast Washington and a white sophomore from residential Cincinnati, Ohio, would be to neglect some of the most important characteristics that shape the kinds of people we are.

Slowly over the course of this year, I have learned more about my students’ lives. They have introduced me to native-D.C. go-go music, the most popular models of high-top sneakers, free-style rapping and copious street jargon. At the same time, they’ve learned some things about me: that I’m a fan of the Beatles and the Four Tops, that I love playing soccer, that I bicycle to school, and that I memorize poetry for fun.

Last summer, during seminars for new teachers, race was an issue that recurrently arose in our discussions about teaching in the District.

One comment that shocked me was made by another new teacher, who said that she, as a black woman, would never want her children to be taught by a white teacher instead of another equally qualified black teacher. It struck me immediately as a racist, insensitive statement. How could she make such a blanket generalization advocating separating her own children from teachers of another racial group?

Now, eight months later, I still disagree with her, but I think I understand better where she was coming from. If I had grown up in an environment similar to my students, I could more effectively prepare them for the kinds of obstacles they would be likely to encounter. The fact is that many of the issues they face as adolescents are different from the issues I confronted in high school. Black students need to have mature black role models and mentors who intimately understand the sorts of situations they are facing.

But surely we do not want children to be educated only by people who are like themselves. I consider to be a real deficiency in my own education the lack of any teachers of color at any point in grade school or high school. Exposure to an Asian or Latino or black teacher would have offered me a new outlook on school and my community. So I hope for my own students that they will be exposed to as many different perspectives as possible, broadening and stretching their minds in a multitude of directions.

In my classroom, there is only one rule posted on the wall, the Rule of Empathy: "In every word and deed, consider the perspectives of all people affected." If we are to survive as a nation, as a species and as individuals, we are going to have to learn how to look at the world through someone else’s eyes. Catholic-Protestant feuding in Ireland, Taliban oppression of women in Afghanistan, Hindu-Muslim violence in Kashmir and escalating violence between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East all result from a failure to see things from the perspective of another.

To empathize is not easy. It requires climbing into someone else’s skin and walking around in it for a while. To learn to imagine yourself in a foreign situation requires being exposed to lots of people with varied backgrounds and viewpoints.

I remember that when I visited a predominantly black school in south Boston last year, I felt disturbingly out of place. The fact that almost everyone around me was of a different race from me was very present in my mind. As a college graduate, I was for the first time experiencing the same feeling that almost all people of color in this country encounter repeatedly from an early age.

This spring, I took an education course at Howard University, as the only white student in the class of 20. I remember realizing this fact sometime in the middle of our first session. A year earlier, the race of the people around me would have been one of the first things that I would have noticed, but this time the skin color of the other people in the room only consciously registered in my mind hours later.

A teacher different from oneself is an opportunity to practice the vital skill of empathy. Winston Churchill is said to have quipped, "Education is the process by which people learn to live comfortably with those who are similarly educated." No, a good education will accomplish the reverse: it will enable us to live comfortably with those who are not similar to us. To this we must commit ourselves if we have any hope of living peacefully in a diverse, multicultural society.

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Send stories, advice, or questions to H. Wells Wulsin at wulsin@gwu.edu.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator