Empathy the most important trait

As a child, history was easily my least favorite subject in school. Anything before my Nickelodeon/Britney Spears-filled world was irrelevant and therefore boring, in my selfish opinion. It wasn’t until college that I found history endlessly fascinating. This fascination was a result of my strong ability to recognize emotions being experienced by another person – and that, my friends, is Merriam-Webster’s dictionary definition of empathy.

Take a walk in someone else’s shoes. Picture what it would be like to live their life for an hour, a day, a year. Imagine a lifetime of their life. That’s empathy. The University of Alabama is where I mastered this art – this beautiful skill of worldly admiration, and it did a lot more for me here than just a developed appreciation for history. It wove me into this Southern school built on manners, church and football.

No one in my family had ever been in a sorority or fraternity, and I’ve always had more guy friends than girls, but I thought I’d give it a shot. I only knew one girl in a sorority at Alabama, and that was the sorority I pledged. The majority of the girls I pledged with grew up in the South, and I adored their naivety to drugs, tattoos, piercings, revealing clothes, disturbing music, etc., insert stereotypical Southern no-no here. I quickly realized that this naivety was actually a common culture at our school, and even extended to most of the SEC universities. Unfortunately, not all of the naivety was so adorable. In fact, it was during my time in this naïve culture bubble that I heard some of the most disturbing conversations in my life.

I heard the word “nigger” for the first time from someone other than a person on television or my grandfather. I sat in awe while listening to a friend group talk about homosexuals as if they had the same status as criminals. It was the first time that I ever experienced open conversation about voting – only if it was about voting Republican. I had never met someone that had to hide her black boyfriend to her white parents. I had never met someone that had to keep her interest in black men a secret from her disapproving friends.

But I did not grow resentful. I did not hate the people that spoke these disturbances. I did not hold them in low respects. Instead, I put myself in their shoes and imagined being born into a Southern family that raised me on these disturbances. I fought my disagreeing anger with empathy.

I’ve seen and heard so many of these disturbances the past four years. Usually they occurred in overheard chatter, or in an apology email from the school president. Because they occurred without directly insulting anyone I cared about, I never spoke out against them … until the beginning of this year when my sorority was a source of direct insult. My morals were confronted when a girl was robbed of the opportunity to join because of the color of her skin.

I put myself in her shoes. I imagined having the grades, personality, talents and manners to be in a sorority, but I was black. I imagined having many friends that were members of sororities and many more friends that would be joining them soon. Every sorority chose to not pledge not only this girl because of racial discrimination, but many more in prior years.

Empathy gave me the frustrated courage to say something. That something turned monumental on this campus. It sparked a fire in all the frustrated people that had not yet found the courage or the direct insult. Empathy gave me something just as importance as courage. It gave me perspective to still love all that had frustrated me.

Melanie Gotz was the primary source for "The Final Barrier."

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