Empathy and Breaking Down Binaries

After listening to the group presentations on Wednesday, I was really interested in Maria’s discussion of how binaries are used in literature, and in the group’s discussion question of how our conversation about civil rights relates to education.

Like many of my classmates, in some regards I’ve been critical of Baldwin’s limitations, especially surrounding gender. It’s frustrating to see how easily Baldwin’s female characters can be categorized into five tropes, as Faith mentioned. But I agree with what folks have pointed out in discussion: it’s not fair to expect Baldwin to do everything, tackle every civil rights issue. Placing him in his social and historical context is important as well, to take into account how Baldwin was shaped by his family life, experiences in France, and worldview as someone coming of age in the 1940s. 

That being said, I wonder if there might be some points of connection here with the points that Ryan brought up about education and empathy. I certainly agree with Ryan that more voices need to be included in American education. I also think that maybe teachers have a particular opportunity to break down the problematic binaries that we’ve been discussing, including disrupting the idea that power is a clear-cut binary. Our class conversations about intersectionality underscore the point that agency is rarely as straightforward as we sometimes portray it to be; rather, it depends on the particular circumstances of any person’s life, and it is not the same in every situation. Paying attention to nuance, especially recognizing the contingencies of agency, could perhaps be one way to begin to undo overly simplistic binaries of Black and white, oppressed and oppressor, female and male, and so on.

By fostering conversations that focus on intersectionality and look critically at the binaries we’ve all been taught, we can participate productively in Baldwin’s legacy of civil rights work. If we can honor the complexity of each other’s lives, then perhaps we will be quicker to have empathy for one another—the focus on love that Baldwin called for. Just as Baldwin invited Americans to move into new ways of thinking, so too are we called to the same work, which hopefully moves us to greater empathy.

2 thoughts on “Empathy and Breaking Down Binaries”

  1. I was also thinking about empathy in the context of racial tension today. I think it is nearly impossible for people to hold hate for an individual they have empathy for. So, when I look at the racial issues we have today, one thing I see is a lack of empathy. Professor brought up in class how children are taught to not be empathetic, and I wonder why that is. What’s so bad about being empathetic? In order to be empathetic, there has to be a level of understanding. I always think back to the educational systems impact on society. If school systems would provide more diversity in their curriculum, maybe students racially divided can be brought together through a common understanding for each other. After all, Baldwin does claim that ignorance is the right hand man to inequality.

  2. Thank you for this post Grace. I feel the same way about Baldwin. It both seems like he did his best to characterize and understand people, but the women he writes do seem lacking in some respects. Sue, for example is an object in the text, a tool for David to distract himself.

    One way to think about the solution to this problem of blindspots might be an interconnected web of empathy. It seems wrong to place all of the burden on one individual to come to a full understanding of humanity. Rather, through empathetic conversations, education, and relationships, everyone can lift each other up.

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