It’s hard to empathize if you’re not equal

It’s almost unbelievable to grasp what happened last week in Minneapolis when George Floyd was brutally murdered by police officers. Worldwide protests against racism were initiated in various countries demanding that governments take action.

This has fueled a viral outburst against racism on social media. While it’s great to see a social outcry on behalf of racially abused people, I question whether most of us who are privileged by reason of our birth, can really relate to what’s happening in another community. Why are people protesting in the streets in the midst of the covid19 pandemic?

All this buzz on social media is great because it does create food for thought and encourages open discussion. But, for most of us, it’s hard to empathize…until we realize how privileged we’ve been right from the moment we were born.

It’s hard to empathize if you’re not equal

So, let me share with you my personal story which awakened my world after living in rural Uganda.

Before leaving on a volunteer assignment in Uganda, I was asked by many worried about my safety. “Agne, you are female and you are going to be there alone. Aren’t you afraid?” I wasn’t afraid but sometimes those messages did trigger some doubts. But they quickly disappeared when I arrived.

A classroom in a public school in Ugandan Lwengo area.

You see, during my entire stay in a Ugandan rural village, there was never a moment when I felt unsafe. While I had good care from the local people, I also quickly had a sense I was being treated differently. I felt they were looking at me as this special person from Europe who is unique in so many ways.

During my whole Ugandan trip and even till this day I’ve struggled with that feeling of being seen as an “outsider.” I wanted so strongly to blend into that local life and be a part of the village community as an equal member. This was one of the main personal development objectives of the journey – to FEEL poverty. But, while I achieved my objective of experiencing rural living conditions in Uganda, I didn’t feel like an equal community member. Because, indeed, the village people were right – I was special in their context.

Why are we so special?

Hmm…special. Never thought about it. I always felt like I needed to work hard in my career to make my way. I never felt the advantages of being a female from a small former Soviet country working in a developed country such as The Netherlands. But life in Uganda changed my thoughts fundamentally because I got a perspective from another angle.

YES, I am special because:

–   I was born with access to electricity, safe drinking water, healthcare and free education

–   I grew up with parents who had enough time to show me their love

–   As a youngster I had enough time to study and the right environment

–   As a female I have an equal right to obtain land

–   I have freedom and access to family planning

–   I have job opportunities

–   I am entitled to access the social security system if I have a personal emergency

Kids typically at the age of 4-5 start fetching water. Uganda

If you tick at least one of these boxes, you, too, are special. You, too, are born in conditions which could be considered privileged compared to so many citizens in another corner of the world. Until you grasp how most of us lead privileged lives, we are simply blathering about racism blindly without any real insight.

A small action can lead to big results

The question today is: so what are we going to do differently tomorrow? How can we be exposed to those blind spots of ours?

Everyone needs to draft their own list of privileges so we can get into an open discussion to build our empathy muscle. We may not be able to change the conditions in which we came into this world: but we can acknowledge them. This may better help us get into someone else’s shoes and empathize with how life could look if at least one of those privileges were taken out.

Making that list might not be so easy because we take so many things for granted. So getting out of your usual bubble by traveling or meeting different people will always bring you into another perspective.

And, after you stretch your empathy muscle, don’t hesitate to act! Every small action matters. And never forget – giving is nicer than getting.

If you need some ideas on how to do good for others, I can always brainstorm with you how to help the Integrated Villages NGO.

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