Listen Up! A crash course in empathy

Understanding others can be done in two steps: First, you have to understand yourself, your privileges and your oppressions. Then, you shut up and listen.

Pedro, a Chilean, first realized his “whiteness” while working at the Melton Foundation’s Deep Dive in Haiti in 2013.

By Pedro Poblete Lasserre, Melton Fellow

This text is an adaptation of Pedro’s talk at the conference “Us vs. the Others? Our future belongs together!” which took place at Jena University in Germany June 17th-18th and was organized by the Melton Foundation.

When was the last time you felt safe talking about sexism? When was the last time you felt safe talking about your own sexual orientation and gender identity? When was the last time you felt safe enough to talk about racism?

Was it with your family? Was it with friends? Was it with someone at work or university?

Can you imagine yourself having such a conversation with someone you’ve just met?

It’s weird, no? These are issues that matter deeply to all of us: they deeply define our identity and relationships to others, we all have our own personal stories of discovering them in us an others. Yet, we so rarely speak about power, privilege, and oppression. If someone opens up about sexual violence in their life, or when they have faced racism, it shocks us, it makes us feel uncomfortable, it’s worse than cursing.

We feel uncomfortable having these conversations, and we feel even more vulnerable if those topics deal with our own stories. We go through our days avoiding uncomfortable situations. We don’t analyze our emotions, we don’t talk about things that really matter to us, we don’t smile or frown from the heart.

And in the same way, we show no passion, because we are afraid of offending others, because we are afraid of being judged and ridiculed. We hide our true self in society.

We go through our days having mostly hypoallergenic, menial conversations that are low in calories and with no added sugar. We go through life having a “diet version” of real connections.

Societies in Change

When we look at the world today we see a society in crisis: migration has become one of the main discussions in Europe, hate crimes committed recently in the U.S. have shocked us all, and the Global South faces more and more issues of inequality, environmental sustainability, and poverty.

Most of us agree that in order to reach a solution, we have to act together. The UN in the declaration of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development highlight the importance of having partnerships with all social actors. But, what does togetherness mean? Can we really be together if we hide ourselves, our passions, our values, our stories, our sufferings?

Pedro presenting his talk at the “Us vs. the Others?” conference at Jena University in Germany, June 17th.
I want to argue that in order to reach togetherness, in order to really create a partnership for sustainability, equality, and development, we need to go beyond menial conversations among one another. We need to do more of one thing: listening.

We need to listen to ourselves and to listen to others, to analyze critically who we are and where we come from, and to do the same for other people.

For me, the process of listening started when I left my country for the first time.

Enter (the real) Canada

Seven years ago, age 22, I moved to Canada to study and work.

Canada is a weird country. It has the reputation of being a fair country, very advanced in Human Rights, migration, civil liberties, etc. And for the most part, I have to admit it, it felt like that. To quote the protagonist of The Life of Pi, written by Yann Martel, “Canada is a great country much too cold for good sense, inhabited by compassionate, intelligent people with bad hairdos”.

Now, I was working with aboriginal communities at the time, so I was able to see the “not so nice” part of the country: the structural discrimination and oppression that indigenous people face there.

And I was experiencing all of these as a cultural outsider: I wasn’t Canadian, I wasn’t aboriginal; I was Latin American. And this made it difficult to feel like I belonged somewhere.

What helped me to adapt was the conversations I had with Canadians, both aboriginal and non-aboriginal. People were, for the most part, interested to understand where I came from, and this interest didn’t seem to come out of morbid curiosity, but rather from a pure desire to know who I was.

This was for me incredibly important, and I’ve never experienced it in any other country: people wanted to know where I come from because they were trying to understand me.

While reflecting on my Canadian experience, I was struggling to define why Canada felt so different as a migration experience compared to the other countries that I live in. I went through my Canadian mementos and I remember the book “A fair country”, written by the Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul.

In this book, the real identity of Canada is not a French, British, or European at all, but an Aboriginal one. In Ralston-Saul’s perspective, Canada’s identity is métis, a French word for mixed-raced and one of the three officially recognized aboriginal peoples in the country, along with the First Nations and the Innuits. In the author’s words, the country’s ideas and institutions are shaped by the original and ongoing interaction between the European immigrants and the First Nations who were running things when the white men arrived.

Before explaining why exactly the idea of an aboriginal identity is so important to understand migration in Canada, let me quote the Grand Chief John Kelly from the Ojibway, who in 1977 spoke before the Canadian government like this:

“As the years go by, the circle of the Ojibway gets bigger and bigger. Canadians of all colours and religions are entering that circle. You might feel that you have roots somewhere else, but in reality, you are right here with us.”

While most countries struggle to define a unique and single identity, Canada embraces the ambiguity of multiple identities. If you ask a Canadian what it is to be Canadian, chances are he or she will tell you that Canada is a “cultural mosaic”, in which different identities come together, without losing themselves, to create the “Canadianness”.

And this is deeply rooted in aboriginal worldviews, in a different epistemology and ontology.

In an aboriginal framework, reality is seen as a series of relationships: relationships between people, relations with land, relations with the cosmos, and even relations with ideas. This is similar to the South African concept of Ubuntu: “I am because we are”.

The Circle of Life, according to Canadian Aboriginal culture. Source: The Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan

Knowing a person, then, is to know where this person comes from, and understanding your own relationships with his or her story. Reality is interconnected, knitted by the relationships of people and territories.

If I were to ask you to draw me a picture that represents social structure, what would you do?

Most of us will draw a pyramid, with an elite at the top and most of the people at the bottom. Aboriginal cultures, however, are circular, not triangular. The circle represents connectedness, and a circle can always expand, you just need to open it with every new member.

A framework for understanding

Since 2010 I’ve been working with what’s called the “anti-oppression framework”, using it to facilitate workshops with people all over the world, teaching it and guiding my own work with communities. It is hard to tell exactly where this approach started, but it seems to have an origin in social work in the US and Canada, branching from feminism.

Anti-oppression, in short, gives us a framework to analyze ourselves and others in light of our privilege and oppression.

Oppression is what the system does to certain groups of people based on certain prejudices. These prejudices become institutionalized and perpetuated over time, taking many directions: white/non white, man/woman, rich/poor, able-bodied/disabled. The system of intersecting structures of oppressions is called “kyriarchy”.

Privileges, on the other hand, are unearned benefits conferred upon members of mainstream groups. Dominant group members may be unaware of their privilege or take it for granted. Privilege tends to be more invisible to our eyes, as it is, in short, how all human beings should be treated, regardless of their identities.

Understanding my privilege

I never understood my privilege better than when I was in Haiti, when I was “white”, for the first time. People made it very clear every day… “eh, blanc, blanc!” — white, white-, “eh, ban mwen kob!” — give me money, “blanc, blanc, ou gen mennaj?” — white, white, do you have a girlfriend?

Never was I more aware of my whiteness than this one afternoon at the Sylvio Cator Stadium in Port-au-Prince. I was collecting stories about the camp relocation process, when a thirteen-year-old orphan approached me to talk. He spoke some English, I spoke some Creole, and after a fifteen-minute conversation, he asked me if I could adopt him.

Mind you, I was only 10 years older than him, and in no condition to give him a better life on my own. I said no, trying to explain why I couldn’t, and he seemed to understand and allowed me to continue with my work.

However, I couldn’t focus in interviews or pictures right away. That brief conversation we had stuck with me, because it allowed me to see myself in his eyes. When he asked the question, my perspective shifted, for a minute there it was an out-of-body experience in which I saw this Chilean twenty-something psychologist, working for an international NGO, under the wing of the Chilean embassy, with a loving family that called every now and then, and with enough savings to plan a much needed holiday break.

He, of course, didn’t knew all that. He just saw me as a white guy taking pictures, yet, it was enough for him to see my privilege.

Then, a few years later, I moved to the Netherlands, and I was not white anymore. My girlfriend at the time, European, would make fun of me saying that I was her first “exotic boyfriend”, and her mother was at first concerned, because “Latin American boys are violent”.

Intersectionality is a feminist concept that describes how the interconnected nature of social categorizations apply to ourselves and create overlapping systems of oppression and privilege.

I am Latin American, but I am also white, heterosexual, and male. These identities mix in me, and make my experience of migration unique. Privilege and oppression intersect, but don’t negate each other. They just make our experiences different. I cannot fathom what story I would share with you today if one of my identities were different.

Why I am writing this

Here’s what I want to say: understanding the others can be done in two steps.

First, you have to understand yourself, your privileges and your oppressions. You have to see what society sees in you, and be aware of how that influences your experience.

Once you’ve done this, the second step is much easier: you shut up and listen to the other person’s story. Try to understand his or her identities, how they mingle together, how they connect with systems of oppression and privilege. To quote an American activist, it is not about being “color blind”, but about being “color competent”. It is not about being “gender neutral”, but being “gender understanding”.

And if you are at the sharp end of oppression, it is about understanding the difference between privileged people in your life and the systems of privilege and oppression.

Rita says it better

Before I finish, I want to you to read a poem by Rita Joe, an aboriginal poet from the Mi’kmaq people in Eastern Canada.

I lost my talk
The talk you took away.
When I was a little girl
At Shubenacadie school.
You snatched it away:
I speak like you
I think like you
I create like you
The scrambled ballad, about my word.
Two ways I talk
Both ways I say,
Your way is more powerful.
So gently I offer my hand and ask,
Let me find my talk
So I can teach you about me.

This poem is about her experience in the residential school system, a policy designed to remove children from the influence of their families and culture, and assimilate them into the dominant Canadian culture. These children have been called “The Lost Generation”, and prompted the government of Canada (and Australia, who implemented a similar policy) to ask for forgiveness for the practice.

For me, it is one of the clearest examples of why it is important to listen to the other person.

This article is not aboriginal people in Canada. This article is not about displaced people in Haiti. This article is not about me.

This article is about what you feel when I talk about race, oppression, privilege, and sexism. This article is about how you will approach other people in your life after reading it. This article is about your own role and responsibility in building a fair society for all.

Good luck.