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Using White Imagination: A mystical path toward empathy

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For this piece, I need you to turn on that magical imagination part of your brain.

You know, the one you used as a kid. The one that transformed you into a superhero. Created imaginary friends. Let you pretend you were camping, when really you just took bed sheets and made massive tents in your parents’ living room.

Let’s go to another imaginary world.

Only this time, we’re going to head to a planet where every time you get in your car, you pray you don’t get pulled over. Or when you’re late to something, you’re too scared to speed.

Imagine that many times when you go shopping in a department store in this pretend world, security guards follow you or employees stare at you with suspicion.

What if you transported to a place where people crossed the street when they saw you walking in their direction?

Try to imagine going to work, only to have other people get credit for ideas you suggested first.

What if at least once a week you were in a place where someone you interacted with was nervous or otherwise exhibited fears about you?

Think about living in a world where you’re mistaken for someone else at least once a week.

How about a place where people are surprised when you do something really well? Or where people regularly assume you’re not smart?

Imagine if you received poor service at restaurants. Not once, but once every few times you went.

Or a place where your children were disciplined more harshly than others for the same behavior.

Take that imagination part of your mind to a place where you might have to work way harder than someone with the same talents to achieve the same level of success.

Now, this place you’ve created in your imagination — it’s also a pretend place where one or more of your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents were either enslaved, beaten, raped, hosed down, forced to live in separate areas and drink from separate drinking fountains, or put in prison.

Now pile those imaginary experiences and history on top of more imaginary experiences.

Then pile that on top of that the regular human stresses like making enough money, dealing with a sick family member, or navigating a child having trouble in school.

Nobody would be surprised, after all that, if you were stressed out in this imaginary world. Or if you lacked sleep. Were depressed or had anxiety. Got headaches often. We wouldn’t be shocked if your mental health was pushed to its limit.

I know this exercise wasn’t pleasant, so you can come back from the pretend place.

But now consider its similarities to the 1995 movie, “White Man’s Burden,” which grossed only $9 million. This, despite being produced by the same people who brought us “Pulp Fiction” and despite featuring stars John Travolta and Harry Belafonte.

The film presented an imaginary America where the social and economic positions and experiences of Black and white people were reversed.

In one scene, one of the main white characters is apprehended by police who mistake him for a bank robber. “He fit the description.” White.

In another scene, a white delivery boy is suspected of wrongdoing simply for performing his job in a wealthy Black neighborhood.

The movie title was inspired by the famous 1899 Rudyard Kipling poem with the same title, in which Kipling suggested white nations were superior to Black nations and were morally obligated to impose their values on them.

Of Travolta’s nearly 50 movies, “White Man’s Burden” ranked near the bottom among audiences and reviewers. It simply was too difficult for white moviegoers to stomach the alternative reality.

There’s good news for you, though. After taking your tour through the pretend world in the exercise above, now you’re ready to empathize with what far too many Black Americans endure in our real world.

A real world that is strikingly similar to the imaginary one you just visited.

Try on the two-sizes-too-small shoes and see how you like the fit.

Then practice empathy.

Written by:
Jeffrey Kass

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