Futurity.org – Strong racial identity intensifies empathy

May 13, 2010
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This article highlights some interesting research into empathy and offers a strategy that may help us develop empathy towards others.

According to the research, our “ability to identify with another person dramatically changes how much we can feel the pain of another and how much we’re willing to help.”

The case in point is the ability of African-Americans to more fully empathize with the victims of Hurricane Katrina, a large portion of which are African-American.

One of the study’s authors, Joan Chiao, provides a universal concept that she believes should be taken from the study:

“We think this is really interesting because it suggests mechanisms by which we can enhance our empathy and altruistic motivation simply by finding ways in which we have commonality across individuals and across groups,”

As teachers this study should really be a call to arms.  Since I teach history and cultural studies, this statement resounds intensely with me.  Developing empathy in my students requires that they find commonalities with the people we are studying.  That may be a person from the past or a person from another culture.

In one professional development session it was explained to me as a Venn Diagram.  Imagine two circles in a Venn Diagram, with one circle containing items and values that are important to you.  Now imagine that the other circle contains values that are important to a person of another culture or time period.  What items could you imagine in the shared common area?  What items would you consider strictly your own that may not be shared by another person?

It is through this process that we began to question the methods by which we study “cultures”.  One common form of cultural awareness, “diversity training”, stands out in particular.  Why would we focus on the items that are not shared across cultures?  Shouldn’t we be focusing on those items that we share in common?  And according to this article, focusing on the differences between people will not help us to understand them at all.  By focusing on common traits and values, people become more empathetic.  And as Dan Pink points out in A Whole New Mind, it is this quality of empathy that will be essential to the future success of our students.

How can they work in a multicultural environment if they have not developed empathy for others?  And how can they create meaningful products and services if they lack the ability to understand the need?

Futurity.org – Strong racial identity intensifies empathy.

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