What a Simple Conversation with a School Girl Taught Me About Empathy

“Does it hurt your feelings?” It was a simple question, and yet these five words taught me the gravity of choosing empathy, always.

Let me begin by saying that I have never, and will never, experience the inexcusable oppression that people of colour all around the world have experienced for years.

Sharing this story below is in no way an attempt to try and compare an experience I have had with the prejudice against all people of colour that has happened, and is sadly still happening today.

Instead, I want to highlight how this simple, yet profound conversation I had with a school girl has shaped my view on empathy and the significance of showing love to everybody at all times, not just some people when we feel like it.

As we waited for our safari guide to return to our car, my sister and I were approached by a group of about 15 young school children in Tanzania, Africa.

They pointed at us, calling out ‘mzungu’ with huge smiling faces and waved, as they walked over to where we were standing.

We waved at them, smiling back – completely aware that the term ‘mzungu’ is translated in English to ‘white man’.

The conversation began with their school excursion for the day, before one girl among the group suddenly asked us, “do white people like it when we call them mzungus?”

I looked at her smiling and said, “to be honest, no – not really.”

She asked further, “Why is that? Does it hurt your feelings?”

My sister and I looked at each other, incredibly impressed by her interest in this subject. “It doesn’t make us feel good, that’s for sure!” we replied.

Her next response was so simple, yet so profound.

The young school girl looked around at her friends and said, “Well if it hurts your feelings, I don’t know why we call you that then.”

She paused and looked back at us, “It’s mean! I’m not going to call white people mzungus anymore.”

Wow, right. Honestly, I didn’t realise the depth of her words until right now.

That was it. She didn’t need any further explanation from us. The fact that this single word was hurting our feelings was enough for her to decide that she needed to do something about it.

At the core of what she was saying, this young twelve-year-old had a complete understanding of what it means to show empathy.

And I don’t know about you, but right now, amidst the global conversations that are taking place – I think there is an incredibly powerful lesson in that.

As I said, in no way am I trying to compare this conversation I had to what is happening in our world right now.

But white friends – I want you to seriously take on board the lesson that I learnt from this conversation.

We need to acknowledge that there is a problem.

We need to listen to those who have experienced, or are experiencing, oppression.

We need to learn from one another in order to further our understanding.

We need to actively empathise with those who are hurting.

As a Christian, I strive to live as a reflection of Jesus and that means choosing empathy, always.

Here are just a small handful of my favourite verses regarding this empathetic nature we need to adopt daily:

  • Romans 12:15 (ESV) says, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”
  • 1 Corinthians 12 refers to the body of Christ having many parts. Specifically, verse 26 says, “if one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, and if one part is honoured, all the parts are glad” (NLT).
  • And of course, the heart of Jesus’ ministry encapsulated within John 13:34 (ESV): “to love one another, just as I have loved you.”

The conversation that is taking place right now regarding Black Lives Matter is incredibly important. However, the injustice and racism that people of colour have experienced is something that has unfortunately been happening for many years.

I can honestly tell you that I have not taken this issue of race as seriously as this before.

I have always known that racism occurs, not only in America, but here in my own backyard too. But to what extent exactly – I have not taken the responsibility on myself to listen and learn more about.

And for that, I want to apologise. I am listening and I am learning.

In today’s day and age, with the online world, every person with a platform has a voice that can share any message they wish, to an audience ranging from one to one million and beyond.

As Will Smith succinctly put it in his Instagram post, “Racism hasn’t gotten worse. It’s just being filmed”.

So I want to encourage you, simply posting on social media does not permit us to adopt the mentality that it will be okay to address this, share about it and simply move on once the hashtags stop trending.

Similarly, [and to be honest, more importantly], these conversations need to continue happening in our homes, workplaces, friendship circles and churches – just as much as they are occurring online right now.

As a young white woman, I want to acknowledge the privilege that I have [and have always had] purely because of the colour of my skin.

And to my white friends reading this, I also want to stress that white privilege is not something we should feel guilty or be ashamed about.

We did not choose the colour of our skin and the subsequent privileges that are associated inherently with that.

But we CAN choose to acknowledge white privilege for what it is.

We CAN choose to listen to those who have suffered injustices time and time again.

We CAN choose to stand up for our black brothers and sisters in Christ.

We CAN choose to actively and intentionally fight against racism, discrimination and injustice.

It has happened in the past, and as much as I wish we could, we unfortunately can’t change that.

But it is also happening right now, all around us.

And right now? We have an incredibly powerful opportunity to write the future.

We CAN choose empathy. We HAVE to choose empathy.

It won’t be the solution, but it is absolutely a part of it.

Keep smiling. x

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