EmoEmpathy: Where there is Story, there is Power
To Teach Empathy in a World on the Margins
A racial slur was once graffitied upon the walls of my school. Many saw it. Some laughed, some averted their eyes. But no one did anything about it until a teacher at our school came across it. She was shocked, as one can imagine. Everything this person of color had worked for, to obtain a life free of discrimination seemed to crumble at that very moment. While most educators would have set up a condemning assembly to talk about how writing slurs is incredibly wrong, she took a different path. One we will never forget.
She approached every class that afternoon. Every single one. And she did something so simple, yet so phenomenal; she told us a story.
She told us about her life growing up, how racism had impacted almost every aspect of her growth; school, ballet class, friendships – the very essence of her being. About how hard she worked to attain, without privilege, a life most white people take for granted.
This story was not one read out of a book. It was personal. It was emotional. And as every single one us in that room heard this story, our hearts and minds connected.
While discrimination did not miraculously disappear, things changed. You could feel it. People began to listen, to think twice.
All through the power of story.
It was a turning point for me, birthing EmoEmpathy, a 3-point, 3-principle concept based on the teaching of sensitive education through personal storytelling and pathos. EmoEmpathy is a practice of education – a lense with which we teach. It is based on three types of “story” omnipresent within all education, and must be focussed on as we dissect and reevaluate our curriculums to ensure they fosters empathetic learning. They are; the stories we read ( compositional ), the story of life ( historical ), and our personal story ( emotional, sensitivity ).
EmoEmpathetic teaching looks like this.
Step 1: To re-evaluate and expand our literary curriculums; the stories we read.
From just teaching the predominantly white literary canon, to including the voices of the marginalized, PoC, LGBTQ+
Step 2: To Re-evaluate and expand the perspectives with which we teach history; the story of life.
From teaching the history of slavery from the perspectives of just one party, to the perspectives, histories and experiences of all involved parties.
Step 3: To teach sensitive subjects via both objective and emotional means; our personal story. Teaching concepts such as racial injustice through personal storytelling, to share experiences, and make use of human vulnerability, just like my teacher did. Storytelling – the most powerful form of communication.
Storytelling is an ancient, time-tested tool. Yes, it has always existed. Yet, rarely ever is it used to teach empathy in an educational context. Why?
Scientific studies such as that conducted by Uri Hasson in Neuroscience proves, through Neural Coupling, that our brains react uniquely to stories. Upon hearing a story, our brain reaches a cognitive state known as ignition, also known as engagement. As humans, the cognitive state of neural ignition enables us to better comprehend and break down concepts and proceed to make connections, something that is critical in education. What this means, is that our brains are physically able to better function when we are taught via means of story – that verbal stories heighten our ability to comprehend and learn much more than lists, paragraphs, or any other kind of verbal presentation.
Stephens, G. J. et al. “Speaker-Listener Neural Coupling Underlies Successful Communication”. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, vol 107, no. 32, 2010, pp. 14425-14430. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, doi:10.1073/pnas.1008662107.
Perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate the way we teach, not via an objective lens, but an emotional one.
When we begin to put our educational institutions and real-world society side by side, we realize that schools are indeed microcosmic reflections of real world society. The parallels are astonishing. Our authority figures – governments, prime ministers, presidents, kings and queens, are at school our teachers, headmasters and staff. The “people”, who in the real world comprise of the rule followers and general economy-fueling citizens, are at school, our students, within whom the intricacies of social hierarchies and cliques naturally follow. The list of parallels could go on forever. When we begin to observe the correlations between school and the real world, we can understand that the significance of a school extends much farther than just the sole teaching of math, or english, but that schools serve as simulators to prepare us for living and collaborating in a society. Thus, if we want to raise culturally intelligent, empathetic leaders of tomorrow, we need to ensure that the reflection we produce within our schools is one of an ideal world. If that is a world of cultural and racial inclusion, a world free of the margins we face today, then that is the world we must reflect within our schools. For to make change out there, we must begin by making change in here, within our schools. That begins with what we teach and how we teach it.
Education is the foundation of life as we know it. With story-based EmoEmpathetic teaching, let’s create a world where no more little girls, no children, no men, or women feel cheated by their education – like I did.
So don’t tell your students what to, or not to do. The eternal prejudices of man cannot be understood objectively like 1,2,3 lists of mathematical equations. Tell them a story. Get your students to share experiences, and for just a minute, be vulnerable. Connect with one another. For our emotions are intrinsic qualities that define the human-kind, thus, don’t be afraid to use them. They are powerful.
So what are we waiting for? It’s time to tell a story.
“The human species thinks in metaphors and learns through stories.” – Mary Catherine Bateson
“Where there is a story, there is the power to teach” – Mehar Suri
- Hasson, Uri, et al. “Speaker–Listener Neural Coupling Underlies Successful
Communication.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the
United States of America, 26 July 2010. National Centre for Biotechnology
Information, doi:10.1073/pnas.1008662107. Accessed 15 Oct. 2020.
- “How To Use Storytelling To Effectively Market Your Brand | Brand Marketing”. Echovme – Blog, 2017, https://echovme.in/blog/use-storytelling-effectively-market-brand/. Accessed 9 Apr 2021.
- Stephens, G. J. et al. “Speaker-Listener Neural Coupling Underlies Successful Communication”. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, vol 107, no. 32, 2010, pp. 14425-14430. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, doi:10.1073/pnas.1008662107. Accessed 9 Apr 2021.
Mehar Suri is a 16 year old ethnic-Indian global citizen studying at the International School of Amsterdam. Working with organizations such as the Anne Frank Huis, Stories that Move and AIELOC (Association of International Educators and Leaders of Color ), she is passionate about searching for and developing anti-discrimination tools in education. The founder of Care4buddies, a 45 member animal welfare organization founded in 2016, she is a lover of animals and a big advocate of vegetarianism. She is credited with the development of the principle EmoEmpathy.
We recently read your article entitled DEI & Me: An Opinion. Thank you for sharing your unique experience as a leader in an international school. As educators ourselves, we think it is crucial to continuously reflect on our craft and educate ourselves – this is how we can provide the most inclusive and equitable environment for our students.
As a Head of Early Years, we believe that you have a high level of influence and responsibility for how students understand and view a world that could truly be anti-racist. For that reason, we would like to ask you some questions about some of the opinions you stated in your piece. We would like clarification on your thoughts and self-reflection process:
1. ”As I reflect on my personal journey and experiences with regard to racism and sexism as an educator in international schools around the world.”
What is your experience concerning racism and sexism? How did that shape you as a leader?
2. “The fact that we continue to label each other as “white,” “Black,” “Asian,” “male,” “female,” etc. is a practice that concerns me for two reasons. For one, it oversimplifies who we are and therefore disconnects us with the cultural uniqueness and many personal perspectives that we bring with us.”
White Supremacy is the source of these labels. Racism is a social construct created hundreds of years ago to justify the enslavement of Africans. Ibrahim X. Kendi does phenomenal work explaining this painful history in Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Here is a synopsis.
The acquisition of gender labels is also a social construct that has very real consequences on people’s lives. The problem is not the way we label each other but the fact that we refuse to acknowledge the serious consequences these social constructs have had on the way humans perceive themselves. We completely agree that each human is unique and brings their own perspective. However taking a color-blind and gender-blind approach renders the experience of historically marginalized people invisible and invalidates the oppression they face regularly. White Supremacy has been, to use your words, pitting “one group over another and therefore perpetuating the Us vs. Them mentality.” Acknowledging the presence of these labels in our societies first is the only way to dismantle the systems of oppression. Due to the hegemonic spread of American culture and curriculum in international schools, we suggest that you read the 1619 Project. It is brilliant in explaining how the remnants of slavery manifest in the racist world in which we currently live.
3. “I did such a great job at assimilating as an American”
Could you please explain what you mean here? How do you perceive the assimilation of an immigrant to the United States? Your statement also reminded us of a segment John Oliver did on Last Week tonight. White Supremacy often creates this illusion of POC exceptionalism to, as you mentioned earlier , “pit one group of people against another.” This article talks about how skillfully that was established with one marginalized group in the United States.
4. “as an American expat experiencing a foreign land myself.”
Could you provide more details on how you used this lens to self-reflect on your experience and to reflect on the anti-racist work you are doing?
5. “Growing up in the U.S., you were either white, black, Asian, or other. But, outside of the US, people did not think in terms of the color of their skin.”
We perceive this statement as a generalization. We realize that this could have been your experience – could you elaborate more on that? As far as the second sentence is concerned, it is simply not accurate. Please browse the Global Census website, which demonstrates how other countries around the world categorize people by race, ethnicity, or ancestry.
6. “To group people from all different backgrounds and countries into their skin color is stripping away their identity and over-simplifying the complex issues of -ism. (racism, classism, sexism, etc.)”.
We completely agree that people should not be reduced to their skin color. It seems as though you are advocating for a culture of colorblindness (please correct us if we misunderstood your point). These two things are not mutually exclusive. Unfortunately, this is what White Supremacy has done for centuries. Historically marginalized people have attempted to reclaim their identity by reclaiming these labels. Again, the social construct of race has put people in boxes. To acknowledge the oppressive consequences of these boxes, we must look inside said boxes to learn from them. Simply saying, “don’t label me with a color,” will not lead to the dismantling of centuries-old systems. The identities of People of Color have already been stripped and they will continue to be stripped as oppressive structures remain in the foundation. Reclaiming these labels and making them fit into our own identity is what will empower marginalized people. Because of the lived experience of many People of Color, our race has become part of our identity. When we deny that is when we “oversimplify the complex issues of -ism.”
Moreover, most of these terms (or labels) are about a power structure. We, too, would love to live in a post-racial society where our skin color is meaningless. Unfortunately, we are far from being a part of that utopic world as we are conditioned to think otherwise.
7. “From that point forward, I made a real effort to take that lens off and making sure to not label people that which over-simplifies them as individual, whether it be skin color, race, gender, etc. I wonder if my fellow educators can shift the lens themselves and discontinue the spreading of such practice where we oversimplify each other with “labeling.”
We would love to hear more of your thoughts on this. Our stance is that to deny people’s race, gender, etc., is to invalidate their experience in the world. As educators, validating our students’ identities is part of how we empower them. Educators did not create these labels – we are simply attempting to dismantle them by helping our learners to love themselves and counter some of the white supremacist messages they receive daily. This article does a decent job explaining the consequences of the color-blind ideology, which you seem to be arguing in your piece.
8. “why educators would continue to use language such as “colored educators” and “white educators””
We believe the term to be “educators of color.” This article may help you reflect on why the phrase you chose to use is archaic.
9. “I wonder if it is time for us to move past the practice of skin color labeling and simply discuss how we can all be more inclusive”
Absolutely! As soon as the hate crimes, systemic oppression, and constant microaggressions cease, then we can move towards a post-racial society where skin color has no bearing. Unfortunately, we are far from that ideal. Inclusion starts with accepting the experiences and realities of historically marginalized people living in a world created for white, straight, cis-gendered males.
10. “The DEI movement is the current trending topic and is a topic that many educators are passionate about. However, I urge our fellow educators to reflect on our embedded behaviors before perpetuating a practice that is no longer effective.”
Can you elaborate on what you mean by DEI “is the current trending topic”? As educators of color, we embody DEI as values because they are inherently linked to our lived experience. Authentic educators bring their experiences to the classroom; therefore, DEI is not a trend for many of us. Carnegie Mellon University gave early signs of such “a trend” since the early 1900s. And the NAACP, established in 1909, is America’s oldest and largest civil rights organization.
In the conclusion of your piece, you “urge educators to reflect” – this is definitely a practice we can get behind as it allows us to grow. Could you give us examples of how you reflect on your “embedded behavior” and what practical solutions you use as a Head of Early Years to stop perpetuating the practices you deem “no longer effective”?
Overall, you seem to advocate for less labeling of people throughout your article but applaud your white friends for wanting to label themselves more with their country of origin, lineage, or even hobbies. Could you please clarify your thinking on that? In addition, we wonder if People of Color in New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, and Ireland would react similarly to your white colleagues – we would love to hear your thoughts on that as well.
Thank you again for writing a thought-provoking piece that allows all of us to reflect as educators on the meaning of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. We are happy to organize a video chat to discuss any of the above. Our intention in sending this to you is to help our BIPOC community reflect on how we can dismantle racism – we hope you feel called into our ecosystem.
Rama & Nayoung
Welcome our two new AIELOC Fellows to our team.
Nayoung Weaver is a College Counselor and AP Math teacher at an international school in Asia. As a “Third Culture Kid (TCK),” she is raising her second-generation TCKs while working to make mathematics education global, equitable, and inclusive to diverse learners.
Rama Ndiaye is a 3rd-grade teacher who has been working in the international school world for a few years. As an anti-racist educator, she strives to guide her students to actively challenge and critically examine the world they live in while helping them foster the interconnectedness that unites our shared humanity.
How are you doing? It sounds like you have been through some hellish experiences. I am so sorry you were not offered the position in London, and that the people in China are acting out their racist beliefs. Do not worry though, at the risk of sounding trite, I must say, what is your will come to you, and it will be a damn site better than what you are currently experiencing. In the meantime, take care of yourself!! Pamper yourself. Nourish yourself, and be very, very good to yourself. Paint, watch movies, listen to your favorite podcasts, buy expensive jewelry online… Do whatever makes you feel good and make your partner cook all the meals!
I am feeling full of vim and vigour after completing my morning run and making myself a gorgeous breakfast of turkey ham, French bread, well-done scrambled eggs, and fresh passion fruit juice and coconut juice mixed together. I was even going to eat a large slice of plain cake as we call it here in the Caribbean, but I figured that would be too much, well, at least for now. That will come later. One would think I would be huge eating this kind of stuff, but to be honest, I have lost 30 pounds in the last two years. Not sitting for endless hours writing my dissertation has helped. Thank goodness my degree is finished and it has not been in vain. I also run and swim regularly, and I fast one day a week. I started fasting for lent, and I feel so much better fasting one day a week so I will continue this practice indefinitely.
This morning I jogged along the south coast, heading south. The scenery is beautiful and I love watching and chatting with the surfers. These people have no fear, and it reminds me to have no fear in life as well. Surfing is a bit too full on for me, but I have pushed through my comfort zone to take stand up paddle boarding lessons. I love this sport and I would like to become good at it. It is important to have sports or physical activities that you love to do. It alleviates the stress of the demanding work we do, and we can build a community with like-minded others to discuss things other than assessments and accreditations. Sometimes I wish I was more of a surfer. Those men and women are super hot and super chill!
Speaking of work, I am not the least bit surprised about your school’s owner’s attitude towards making you the principal. They said no, right? I am sorry that you were not even interviewed after the current principal advocated for you. The owners have taken on the racist belief that white is superior and they want to have a white face representing the school. Staying on and training the new principal is a flat out insult. Do not do it!!!!!!! I will use your term here. You are not a mug!!!
Now, where was I? I decided to eat the cake after all. Man was it good! Let the current principal train the new person. He is paid the big bucks to do so. However, I see he is in a weird position too. Racism affects everyone. He is basically being used for his white face. I would hate to be hired just for my brown face. That has got to feel uncomfortable. Because of the racism Asians are experiencing in the US and Europe, you would think that the Chinese people in your company would know better and not put up with biased hiring. Those people are so unaware and clearly caught up in their own internalized racism, and sense of inferiority. I could understand it if they wanted to give a local, national person the opportunity to lead the school. Take head of the movie, Get Out, and get out, I say! If you want to be in London, keep applying there, and also apply to schools in other counties that you fancy and are a lot more diverse and welcoming.
As far as incompetence, well, this is everywhere. I am sorry to hear they messed up your paperwork. Again, square things up with this school, and move on when you can do so. Frankly, it is going to take some time to address diversity, equity, and inclusion in international schools. These schools started as elitist, neo colonial entities, and the old while males leading them are not going to want to let others into their ‘Club’. I will never forget my previous head’s comment to me when congratulating me on my first headship. He actually said, “Welcome to the Club”.
So, my friend, it is about time we start our own club, or at least our own way of doing things. I have often been the lone black voice in international schools for over 25 years and so I am going to take advantage of the diversity movement and advocacy championed by groups like the ISS Diversity Collaborative and AIELOC. It is great to not be the lone voice for a change. I also want to support other women by mentoring them and by hosting retreats for female education executives, when it is safe to travel again. By the way, feel free to start calling yourself an education executive because you are.
Finally, if your heart tells you it is time to move on, honour that. I just encourage you to take the time to select the best option for you. You do not have to accept the first thing offered. You will get there! We all will in time.
We take this moment to honor the lives of
Soon Chung Park
Hyun Jung Grant
Young Ae Yue
We hold their families and friends up as they process the tragic grief and loss of their loved ones who were victims of a senseless racist attack
We also take this time to commemorate the other victims killed and critically injured that day:
Delaina Ashley Yaun
Paul Andre Michels
Elcias R. Hernandez-Ortiz
We hold space for other APIs who are recent victims of police brutality and hate crimes fueled by racist propaganda, pandemic fears and ignorance. Angelo Quinto, Xiao Zhen Zie, Noel Quintana, Vichar Ratanapakdee and the approximately 3800 individuals who are reported victims of violence and verbal abuse this past year
We hold up our brothers and sisters in Myanmar and across the diaspora who are fighting for social justice and their basic human rights
We hold space for our Filipino brothers and sisters who are frontline workers around the globe and dying at alarming rates. Their stories will not remain unheard.
This is a call out to my fellow APIs – whether you’re in America or around the world – do not suffer in silence. Here’s what we can do:
- We need to protect and embrace our elders, our sisters, partners, aunties, and mothers who are overrepresented in the current hate crimes data. Amplify the voices and cries for help of the API elderly and women and take action.
- We need to keep reporting incidents of hate to law enforcement and trusted organizations. The data fuels recognition and acceptance that change has to happen.
- We need to shed the mask of the model minority and the perpetual Other to make sure our voices are not only heard…but listened to.
- We need to acknowledge our complicated relationship with white supremacy – how it’s hurt us and helped us get ahead at the expense of hurting Black and brown communities. Let us not forget that March 16, 2021 marks the tragic deaths of 8 people in Atlanta and it is also the 30th death anniversary of Latasha Harlins in LA…shot and killed by Soon Ja Du over some convenience store apple juice.
- For those outside of our community – whether you’re a co-conspirator and/or in a position of power – we need you to understand that we’re not a monolith. Each individual group has unique experiences and stories that make up the Asian and Pacific Islander umbrella.
- We need to support our students and faculty in processing feelings and emotions that may come up as they hear about these incidents around them.
- We need to push for faculty, admin and curriculum that serve as windows and mirrors of our diverse experiences
For those who stand with us – thank you. For those who have been hurt by us – there is nothing that we can say or do to roll that back or take away the pain. Know that there are those of us who are shouldering the burden of working with our own to help our communities understand the impact the model minority myth and white supremacy has had on us. That work is on us and not for anybody else to bear.
Jessica Huang and I are co-facilitating a group for AIELOC API educators. We invite those who identify as API educators to sign up by emailing AIELOC and we’ll get the details out to you.
There are also a variety of resources on how to support the API community:
Stop AAPI Hate: https://stopaapihate.org/
European Network Against Racism: https://www.enar-eu.org/
Learning for Justice: https://www.learningforjustice.org/the-moment/march-15-2021-addressing-antiasian-bias
Combatting Anti-Asian Bias: https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/uk/20/11/combatting-anti-asian-racism
Kanlungan honoring and collecting data of Filipino frontline workers: https://www.kanlungan.net/
UK End the Virus of Racism: https://www.endthevirusofracism.com/