Empathetic/Sympathetic Action: A Design Proposal

My design proposal veers away from my rhetorical analyses of Yes We Code. But the proposal relates to issues in race. The recent events on campus I blogged about last month is still on my mind. Madison is known for fostering progressive values although its own racial disparities are an obvious blind spot in the city’s liberalism. The universities bout with racist imagery in the past few months demonstrates the limits of the city’s political and social philosophy. In response to students of color’s demands that the university handle student misconduct, Chancellor Rebecca Blank started, among other initiatives, a “pilot program of cultural competency and community building” for incoming students in Fall 2016. The program would train students to recognize the differences in themselves and others and then cross those differences to interact with each other respectfully.

UW-Madison’s program focuses on a small group of students, so I’m wondering what the Madison community can do in promoting racial solidarity. How can we create cultural sensitivity in a way that doesn’t feel pedantic, that doesn’t make some students roll their eyes, and that truly promotes a discourse of—in the words of UW-Madison’s policy on underage drinking—responsible action? I write “responsible action” because the problem isn’t so much that microaggressions occur on campus and in the larger community (I agree with critical race theory’s argument that racism can never be eradicated), but that the response to microaggressions seem disingenuous, insensitive, or too extreme. It’s not UW-Madison’s lack of response that concerns me; it’s the one undergraduate who writes a Facebook post that dilutes the problem and turns our attention to a supposedly more important problem. My proposal suggests inspiring individuals to take responsibility for their own actions by admitting wrongdoing. An apology comes from shame or guilt, but these emotions focus back on the person who committed the wrongdoing. The offender centers themselves in the incident, I think. The apology must also come from having real empathy or sympathy for the victim, thus centering them victim’s experiences. I gives a somewhat convoluted term: empathetic/sympathetic responsible action.

To shift attitudes from downplaying racism and microaggressions to empathetic/sympathetic responsible action, the movement would need to set an example while also encouraging similar attitudes and actions from people outside the movement, their target audience. I call this a role model campaign. To begin a role model campaign, the movement must create a sense of personal investment in the campaign itself (Gladwell). Volunteers across identities—white and minorities—must see themselves in the work they do and understand the high-risk of the campaign failing. Participants would publically share their own stories of both inflicting and receiving some type of microaggression against their identity. These lived experiences indicate that they are not immune to these problems regardless of the privileges bestowed upon them.

Telling their stories produces empathy or sympathy toward people different from them in all identities, especially, specially students of color. Thus, participants personally invest in the cause. This “strong tie” should inspire the need to join and create a collective identity (Gladwell; Steward). “We recognize ourselves,” the saying can go, “as agents that can either perpetuate racism and discrimination while also promoting unity between races on campus. We recognize and admit the wrongs we have committed and consciously act to resist those wrongs.” What separates the volunteers from others is that they are always conscious of their biases and are always consciously rewriting their posture in their everyday lives. Activists not only “preach” responsible action, they do responsible action. They become witnesses for the target audience.

As one can tell, the movement puts affect and emotion (Švelch and Štetk) at the forefront of the campaign, and it taps into one of the most basic human needs, as described by Maslow: love/belonging. The movement cannot make any policy demands of the University of Wisconsin-Madison or the state government. No law or policy, I think, can enact empathetic/sympathetic responsible action; the movement strictly addresses people’s values (Castells). The limitations of desegregation demonstrates de jure tradition moves faster than de facto traditions but does not have an immediate effect on people’s attitudes. This idea runs counter to the argument that social movements are most successful when they fit the pre-set agendas of political actors (Castells). If the pre-set agenda of political actors is human decency, then the movement already appeals to that value.

What I propose does not replace those policies; the campaign supplements them. This movement for responsible action can strengthen UW-Madison’s ethnic studies curriculum, for example, while still demanding a more rigorous ethnic studies curriculum. Christine Sleeter’s literature review demonstrates that ethnic studies courses rooted in interrogating the relationship between whiteness and marginalized people have reshaped white students’ attitudes on race. The movement then can demand that the university’s cultural competency program shape its work on existing models at other universities. Chancellor Blank is “seeking a partnership with students, faculty, and staff who have ideas and initiatives that address cultural and behavioral change.” Thus, the movement already fits UW-Madison’s concerns and can easily begin a dialogue with the institution, instead of using other tactics like coercion and persuasion (Steward). Although relying on another institution contradicts what we take to be a social movement, we must recognize that not all institutions work for its own ambitious, that in some scenarios, the institution truly works to better a community (Graeber; Castells).

To engage others, I continue some of the strategies UW-Madison students have used in the past and still remain fresh in the campus’s memory. For example, after the recent events on campus last month, students of color used #theRealUW to share their encounters with microaggressions on campus and to demand that the university do something about other students’ racism. Another example occurred two years ago: white and minority students held die-in protests around the UW-Madison campus to make white students aware of microaggressions and racism on campus. These online and offline protests, although not necessarily related to each other, demonstrate action in hybrid spaces; in other words, they make protest an embodied practice digitally and physically (Castells; Bratta).

I recommend that the movement continues working in this hybrid space by creating another hashtag where people can create an ongoing narrative of sympathetic/empathetic responsible action invite like-minded individuals within the Madison community to. Joining the movement is informal; simply adding your narrative of inflicting and receiving a microaggression puts you in the movement. But you must live out the principles stated above. Social media also becomes a way to resist and curtail narratives from the media that might misrepresent the movement’s efforts. Although the campaign targets individuals and not established institutions, the movement would still need to be aware of how they conflict with those established institutions. What can result from that conflict is a misrepresentation of the movement’s efforts (Graeber).

Offline, the campaign shifts to individual actions—what are participants doing and witnessing in their everyday lives as it relates to racial attitudes? They become reporters, taking photos and videos and tweeting these and other narratives to social media. Often we hear reports on what the media would consider bizarre, current, and relevant to the local community, sidestepping smaller events. But this campaign would treat even the smallest of actions as if they were as important as a presidential election. The idea is to make visible the everyday, because every day experiences—not the exceptional event—has the most impact on people (Bakardjieva). It is not the celebrity in California but rather the neighbor who can have infinite influence on other people. When working as a group, the movement can collaborate with key members of the Madison and UW-Madison communities to host events that push for empathetic/sympathetic action—artists exhibits that require attendees’ interaction with the pieces, staged theatre performances in public spaces (State Street, perhaps?) that appear to display real acts of racism (similar to ABC’s What Would You Do? segments) (Bratta).

The actions and strategies widens its audience and participants, unlike UW-Madison’s cultural competence program, which targets incoming students. The cultural program trains three thousand students, but the movement could call in more numbers across social media networks. The campaign meets all members where they are—on Facebook and Twitter—and uses existing protests that students are familiar with. Using familiar tactics will draw in people previously presented in the die-ins and the #theRealUW tweets. They can see that the movement continues the efforts they and others originally set for last month and two years ago in Fall 2014. The movement has some appeal to the values of the Madison community and thus would probably attract different kinds of people. I’m imagining borders falling as scholars join students and members of the local community in raising racial consciousness; this collaboration between public and academic reinforces (and some would even say revives) the Wisconsin Idea.

First, I’m thinking about the persistence of a problem despite the efforts to fix it. For example, UW-Madison has been, from what I understand, dealing with racism and cultural insensitivity for years. What did the die-ins in 2014 do? Based on the events of last month, the protests did nothing? Castells argued that the campaigns at Wall Street and in Spain raised people’s awareness but nothing really changed. How do you measure the success of a movement that fights racism? Second, we spent most of the semester, I think, looking at national and international movements. I guess that’s why I thought about a campaign that demands action from individuals in a small community. Are small, local movements more effective than national or international social movements?


Published by aabyrd

I'm the instructor for WCATY's Media Studies in a Digital Age course for Summer 2015.

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