Sha’Carri Richardson: A Lesson in Empathy
Sha’Carri Richardson unintentionally became a lesson on empathy toward black women. Her name is one many did not know before she qualified to compete in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. But in just one week, hers became a name that many will never forget for a completely different reason: for being disqualified from competition due to marijuana use.
In the uproar, critics of the athlete questioned her professional commitment, discipline, and work ethic; but few considered her mental health state or the impact of unpredictable trauma responses to loss and performance. Most surprising was the collective lack of empathy for “Why?” Why would someone with such a bright professional future throw it all away for a hit of marijuana?
For many of Richardson’s critics, she was nothing more than her professional title; and, far too few saw her as someone deserving of empathy.
Sha’Carri’s dilemma captures an issue that many black women in America face each day. Situations where the entirety of black women’s value to society is embodied within the professional title(s) that they hold. Where the prestige of that title often dictates whether that woman is viewed as deserving of empathy or deserving of societal judgment. And in instances where she holds no title or her title is unknown, the gift of empathy is just as elusive.
For many black women their “title(s)” determine the value both in the workplace and at home. Within the black community, these titles take on a more qualitative tone: strong or independent black woman. The titles command respect within black communities, but even in this context, it rarely commands empathy; Because ‘strong’ and ‘independent’ women aren’t viewed as needing empathy.
This means that any empathy a black woman receives is heavily dependent on her performance within her professional and social roles.
In both the work and personal settings, black women are valued for the titles they hold and the expectations attached to those titles. Black women are expected to be stronger, tougher, more enduring, more dedicated, and more resilient when performing their roles. These are attributes that paint black women in a masculine light and equates their value with performance.
The performance expectations mean that black women aren’t allowed to have off-days, sad days, weak days, low-performance days — human days. They aren’t allowed to prioritize our mental health above their ambitions. They aren’t accepted for not knowing how to prioritize it. And black women are sometimes criticized when they implement the only coping strategies they know.
Much like Sha’Carri, black women encounter similar criticisms when they fail to live up to the ideals that society deems they should. Their dedication to a craft is questioned: “She lacks discipline.” Their commitment to achieving their goals is questioned: “I guess her Olympic dreams weren’t that important to her.” Even their work ethic is questioned: “If she really were that good, she wouldn’t need to use drugs.” No one questions the reasons “why” a black woman may fail to live up to the expectations of her title.
Meanwhile, these views reinforce the perception that black women must be stronger, better, more dedicated, more resilient, more tolerant, more of the idealist members of society that the collective wants them to be. They reinforce the narrative that black women must always show up and perform…even if they don’t want to. Even if they aren’t equipped to. Even when doing so might cause them mental harm.
JUST SO WE’RE CLEAR…
Having a controversial recreational activity does not make someone any less deserving of social empathy — especially when a person has never learned healthier alternatives.
To all of the “rules are rules” folks out there: There isn’t a rule made on this green Earth that didn’t have an exception. Why? Because even lawmakers understand that life isn’t always black and white — there are shades of gray. But, what if “the rules” were explicitly enforced according to the rules? More than half of the country would be in jail for speeding up at every yellow traffic light possible, trying to make it across the intersection before the light changed to red. Some politicians would be in jail for rape. And more than a few of us would be in jail for repeated offenses of jaywalking, driving over the speed limit, and — eternal hypocrites that we are — even weed consumption because it still isn’t federally legal within these United States. So, let’s not pretend any of us holds some moral high ground around “the rules.”
There is a difference between advocating that someone breaks a rule they think is stupid and advocating for leniency. There is a difference between encouraging personal accountability and encouraging a societal withdrawal of empathy. There is also a difference between acknowledging equitable consequences meant to enact reform and celebrating excessive punishment meant to be a moral example. One of these things is just because it corrects an errant behavior; the other is unjust because it inequitably crushes emotional resolve and teaches learned helplessness.
Empathy means understanding how someone else feels. It means having the ability to see an experience from that person’s point of view, whether you have been in that exact position before or not. Empathy means holding space for another person to experience their feelings related to an event or circumstance, even if you would react to it differently. We can’t always predict another person’s reactions, but we can empathize with their human experience.
Equally as important is understanding what empathy is not. It is not abdicating responsibility, and it is not ignoring accountability. These two things are not mutually exclusive. The difference lies in where you place the emphasis. Empathy emphasizes another person’s feelings and experiences. Accountability emphasizes the consequences related to those experiences. However, an inequitable discussion where you focus mostly on consequences means you limit your acknowledgment of the person’s feelings. Therefore, you limit a true expression of empathy.
If we can empathize with the human experience, we should empathize with Sha’Carri. We should empathize with the pains of black women. We should empathize with any individual who prioritizes their mental health after trying — sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding — to live up to the ideals placed on them because of the color of their skin or the societal expectations attached to their identity.
EMPATHY IN PRACTICE
Black women are not claiming victimhood or even asking for empathy, but they are deserving of it. Empathy toward black women shouldn’t be determined by the titles they hold or the roles they play. And empathy shouldn’t be determined by societal perceptions of what black women can and cannot endure. Instead, it should be extended because society views black women as equally deserving of empathy as anyone else.
Allow black women to prioritize their mental health over their performance, both at work and home. Increase your self-awareness about the stereotypes and expectations you have for black women who inhabit your spaces. Practice true empathy by understanding the feelings of her experience rather than emphasizing their consequences. Additionally, we can avoid the tendency to criticize black women for reduced performance and instead consider “why” her performance may have changed?
I advocate that we practice empathy. This kind of empathy means holding space for the wounded parts of another person, whose lived experience you may not understand. It means resisting the urge to add insults to the list of consequences because the primary lesson has already been learned. And it means seeing black women as deserving of the same level of empathy that is extended to everyone else. That’s my position on the matter. I can only hope that whoever you are, you see the value in doing so too.