The empathy symbol is defined by the line between the two halves of the symbol, portraying two groups who would benefit by reaching out to each other and opening up to understand one another. The reaching-out and opening-up aspects of empathy are defined by the two Y’s in the symbol, lines that pass through the divide and then open up.

Two recent events, one in Duluth and one in Florida, highlight the tendency of some to reinforce the barrier between the two halves of a group–in this case, the racial groups White and Black. The Florida event was the killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black youth, by an armed self-appointed neighborhood watch man, George Zimmerman. This has spurred many articles by black people relating how they have to have “the talk” with their sons when they are as young as 5 or 6 years old. “The talk” has nothing to do with sex–it is about how to more safely “walk while black”, because many people will assume a young black man is hostile and dangerous, and will react to him accordingly. This is not something most white people have ever thought about discussing with their sons, nor are most white people aware of the need for such a talk in black families. This is a perfect opportunity for white people to expand their empathy toward black people, to better understand what it is like to be black in America, even in 2012.

And yet, the reaction to this has been hostility from some white readers, rather than increased empathy. Which brings me to the other event. the one in Duluth. A group called The Unfair Campaign put up billboards in Duluth, as well as elsewhere, that said, “It’s hard to see racism when you’re white.” This produced a surprising amount of backlash from whites, who claimed it was reverse racism. The comments on an MPR story about this campaign were pretty shocking, with many equating anti-racism with being anti-white. The article does say that follow-up discussion groups have been organized. Perhaps this face-to-face discussion will help–if people can open up the barrier between each other, rather than clinging tightly to it while trying to reinforce it.

It is a fact that being white can still be an advantage in 2012 America–an advantage that most white people don’t have to think about. It just is. Perhaps the white people who react defensively to this don’t feel advantaged. Perhaps they feel that life is against them, and that many people, including those of other races, unfairly have it better than them.

50 years ago, John Howard Griffin wrote a book about his experiences when he chemically darkened his white skin, and traveled through the deep South as a black man in the 1950’s. The book, Black Like Me, shook up American society. Talk about the ultimate exercise in empathy! Of course, if a black person had written the same account about his experiences in segregated America, it would have dropped like a stone in a pond, without a ripple. It took a white man being shocked by the experience, and sharing it with his fellow white people, to create a splash.

Maybe it’s time for white people to finally let down the barriers, put away the defenses, and actually listen to and understand it when black people tell them that yes, being black in America can still have an impact on one’s life in unfair, and even sometimes deadly, ways.