Empathic Knowing

I’m not Native American and my husband is not African-American.  But 23 and Me has stated that hubby is 1% African and I am 1% Native American – both of us having respectively, a full-blooded African and Native American relative some generations back.  Move over Nelson Mandela and Elizabeth Warren, here we come.  Just kidding.

My husband taught Jazz at a traditional black, land grant university.  I taught a Sociology class called Contemporary Native Americans at a college steps away from the Navajo Reservation.

Were we illegitimate?  The schools that employed us certainly trusted that we had the expertise to carry out our jobs with professionalism.  My husband was well-respected for his development of the Jazz program, by students and teachers, administrators and the community.

As for me, the aforementioned Sociology course that I taught was already on the books when I was asked to teach it.  I considered the offer to teach the class, with trepidation.  But I really felt I could improve upon the extant lesson plans which focused on field trips to trading posts, pow-wows, fry bread festivals, and arts events – just a tad “fluff” as to the sociological nature of those plans, in my opinion.

Having taught quite a few Introduction to Sociology sections already and loving Sociological Theory, I restructured the course around such concepts as bias, racism, prejudice, and contemporary examples of these toward Native Americans, in our regional media (the Four Corners of NM, UT, CO, AZ).  The Hispanic Dean of Students sat in on one of my classes, apparently to check if the white girl teaching it was legitimate.  He shook my hand on the way out.

Like everything else I’ve ever taught, I learned more about the subject matter having organized the course material, than the students did hearing it.  But how does one teach something you haven’t experienced?  How I did it, was in a small way my educational preparation, but in large part, it was EMPATHY.

Sort of like walking in someone else’s shoes, and just short of psychic knowing, is an acute psychological and imaginative experiencing of a place or people, vicariously not literally.  It’s empathy.  By the way, have you ever tried to walk in someone else’s shoes?  This is especially evident with a worn pair of shoes and if your pattern of walking is opposed to theirs.  It is a striking experience if their weight is more on the outside of their foot (supination) and yours is pronation, which is when your weight is more on the inside of your foot.  It feels literally like you’re wearing the left shoe on the right foot and vice versa. Awkward, but you get a minuscule sense of how it is to be them.

I’ve been fascinated with Greece for years but I’ve not been there yet with my feet.  Acquaintances may think I’ve been there because I talk with such empathic familiarity about the culture.  I promise, it’s not a fake it ‘til you make it exercise.   It’s like faith, the conviction of things unseen and it’s as sure as what is observed with one’s eyes.  It’s empathy.  I intensely feel like I’ve been there, I know the place.

In fact, in my first demonstration speech in college, I explained how to make baklava.  It was student days and we were married students on a student budget so I cracked black walnuts from a tree on Uncle Vaughn’s property for my sample baklava for my teacher.

Have you ever cracked black walnuts?  Well first of all it was a miracle that we had any to crack since a whole team of squirrels confiscated nearly all that we gathered to dry on the driveway.

A hammer and a resistant surface are the tools I used to crack those hard-as-a-rock nuts.  I managed to retrieve enough nuts for the Greek nut and honey filled pastry.

The problem, I learned, with using those free black walnuts was, the nuts and the bits of shell look alike and my hammered nuts were the same size as the obliterated shells.  Uh-oh.  My teacher nearly had a dental emergency from my black walnut filled baklava.  But I got an A on the speech!

Before I’d been to England, I spoke with familiarity about the place having read so much English literature – empathy.  I loved Italy through the magic of television, primarily PBS travel shows – Rick Steves Italy, and food shows – The Frugal Gourmet, long before going there.  I read and loved A Room with a View, uniquely and wonderfully English and Italian, and Under the Tuscan Sun, until the books tattered.  I even managed the niceties of the language enough that the locals thought from our dialect that we were from Canada, at least it was the right continent – empathy.

I’ve traveled the world and in many an era, through books and films.  I feel like I’ve been there – empathy I’ve traveled so much more with my imagination than I have with my feet; but traveled, I have done nevertheless – empathy.

There is no excuse not to “feel” for another.  Everyone can “know” what it’s like to be in another person’s shoes, through empathy, if we only care to.  Take care, y’all.

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