Letter to the Editor: Sympathy, Empathy and Action

Associate professor Stephanie Shonekan stands firmly with Melissa Click.

Sympathy is nice. Empathy is nicer. But they are both inadequate for real change. They are feel-good emotions for the suppliers, but they change nothing for those in need of real tangible support. I know we think very highly of ourselves when we sympathize or empathize with those who are struggling. The truth is that neither sympathy nor empathy require more than a sad shake of the head, an earnest shrug of the shoulders, a deep sigh, and maybe a few dollars in a basket. Bottom line, expending sympathy or empathy costs us very little. We do the “good deed,” we pat ourselves on the back and we return to our normal lives. The “good deed” rarely changes anything substantial.

It is when we advance from sympathy (that deep moving of the spirit) to empathy (putting ourselves in the shoes of others), and arrive at meaningful action that we can truly change the course of people’s lives. Our 2016 Martin Luther King Day speaker, civil rights activist Diane Nash, would call that “agapic energy.” On Jan. 20, she spoke at our annual MLK celebration and described agapic energy as the kind of force that emerges from a love of people to drive the kind of action that moved mountains in the 1960s.

Since last week I have been thinking a lot about this in the light of the student activism on our Mizzou campus last fall. It was agapic energy that caused our black students and their allies to raise awareness about the racial climate on campus and beyond. It was agapic energy that moved a group of faculty, staff and community members to support these students. We wrote letters, signed statements, provided food and provisions, and tried to surround them with love and support. And it was agapic energy that caused my colleague Melissa Click to spend time at the campsite supporting the students. Nobody asked us to do it. Something moved deep in our spirits, moved us from sympathy to empathy to action.

I have always thought that when we get to a stage where 21st century racism is condemned with as much vehemence by white people as by people of color, we will have crossed an important threshold. I know it is more difficult for people who do not experience blackness every day to understand that existence. This is why we black folks have spent time and energy explaining what that experience feels like. That is why our student activists pushed hard last year. That is why Melissa’s actions should be examined with this threshold in mind.

Most of the reports on Melissa Click at the campsite have misrepresented her because they have omitted the context that put her in that place, at that time. None of the reports have captured her journey from sympathy to empathy to action. I did not know Melissa prior to November 2015. But she was one of few faculty and staff that spent time at the campsite. If you did not spend time there, you would not understand the deep resolve in the heart of that vibrant student movement to drive for change; you would not comprehend the tensions, uncertainties, emotions, and deep exhaustion in the midst of long dark and sometimes freezing nights.

On that fateful Monday morning, I was not at the campsite or I may have been standing right next to Melissa, trying to protect our students who had reached a fragile state, having spent weeks carrying a heavy load for the rest of us. There were indeed other faculty and staff there. She was part of a group of supporters who were not there simply to observe a spectacle. She had invested too much agapic energy. She understood that our students needed a moment to themselves to regroup, to take a breath, to compose themselves. Melissa has apologized for her spontaneous actions that morning, and many of us understood what happened because we knew the full context. Most of the reports of Melissa’s actions that day do not paint a complete or accurate picture. It is as if the larger movement has been eclipsed by that moment. While the media and others rush to judge her on her momentary interaction with two students, they ignore the corollary reality that she was also acting in support of a larger group of students and their mission.

In the final scene of John Singleton’s “Boyz n the Hood,” Ice Cube’s character Doughboy watches grimly as the television newscaster reports on shootings and police action in Compton. He wonders where the help will come from and then concludes, “Either they don't know, don't show, or don't care about what’s going on.” This has too often been the posture of our mainstream society towards people of color. It appears to me that Melissa Click did show up because she did care about what was happening. She stood up for our students; I wish more of us would stand up for her now.

So I stand firmly with Melissa Click. I may be biased because as a proud Mizzou faculty member, I hope that we all stand up for our students, that we all care enough to build classrooms and a research campus where all our students feel equal and safe. I may be biased because as a mother of three black teenagers who could have needed tangible support in that camp that day, I would hope that there would be faculty and staff like Melissa Click who do more than sympathize and empathize from far away. I would hope that they would feel that agapic energy, that force that is born of love and the push for social justice.

Thanks to our students, things are shifting. Many faculty and staff are moving beyond sympathy and empathy to adopt actions in their curriculum, in their programming, all with a unified purpose of achieving a better environment where diversity, inclusion and equity are true pillars of this land-grant campus. I am proud to be a member of a growing multi-racial collective of faculty and staff that are determined to work together to help our campus adjust to the charge from our students to become a better space for us all, where social justice is more than just a nice aspiration.

Stephanie Shonekan Associate Professor, Ethnomusicology and Black Studies

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