This Is The Super Power Of The Second Generation
The need for empathy has never been more urgent. The good news: Those of us who grew up navigating multiple cultures have it in our bones.
In a 1970s-era single-storey mall in deep Scarborough, my mother bought me and my sister cans of Coke — a rare treat before schlepping shopping bags on a long bus ride home. This respite from a day full of errands ended moments later but would remain an event I would think about for years to come, serving as a lesson in how not to treat people.
We settled into a booth in the least sad part of the overwhelmingly brown food court, and as I joyfully sucked the liquid sugar through a white plastic straw (it was the ’90s), a man in an apron stormed towards us. He started yelling: that we hadn’t bought the drinks or ordered from his restaurant and shouldn’t have been sitting in his booth — and then he kicked us out.
Ours was an easy mistake to make — the “restaurant” was just a section of the food court. And it was empty. He could have told us gently. He could have let us sit for another few minutes. He could have asked us if we wanted anything from his menu. But instead, he made a split-second decision when looking at my mother — a brown woman in her late 30s flanked by a seven-year-old, a 12-year-old, and a smattering of too-full shopping bags from a discount department store — to scream at her in public.
Of course, when these kinds of things happen you never know exactly why. (Was he having a bad day? Was the issue not race but misogyny? Did he think she was an alien?) There’s a reason someone like my mother, an immigrant from Pakistan, was subject to this kind of treatment. In this case, her reaction was swift: She collected us and the bags and headed out the door. I’ll never forget what she told us when we got on the bus: “Don’t ever tell anyone that happened.”
In a society where you don’t instinctively understand the culture, small mistakes and misunderstandings become reasons for outsized shame. But the most terrible feeling is knowing people feel like they can yell at you, chase you and your two kids out of an empty food court for sitting in a white booth rather than a set of brown chairs.
As a child, I saw my immigrant parents subjected to many other small cruelties, like being treated differently from me because of their accents. I also watched them struggle with things I would never have to deal with — like navigating a school system that they didn’t go through themselves, and not having the option to ask their parents for emotional or financial support. It was a window into another world, an experience other than my own, and it cultivated a gift that has shaped me in profound ways: empathy.
As a journalist who often covers race and immigration, I’ve noticed the focus on the second-generation experience is often about what we don’t have (mentors who look like us, intergenerational wealth, connections to help land our dream job right out of school). But I’ve been thinking of the advantages of growing up the way I did. And I don’t mean the obvious perks — a second passport, a third language — but the more nuanced benefits sometimes borne of discomfort or even pain. There are over 6 million second-generation Canadians today, and the 2016 census showed over 37% of Canadian kids under 15 are second-gen. This experience is going to shape our future in increasingly profound ways. And that’s why Refinery29 Canada’s Second Gen series exists, as a chance to celebrate both the gifts our immigrant parents pass down and the impact of young second-gen Canadians on the country.
For me, that gift is empathy. Empathy is feeling with someone, not for someone, as researcher and University of Houston professor Brené Brown defines it. Being able to take someone else’s perspective is key to be able to do this — the point isn’t to feel exactly what they are feeling, but to be able to imagine it. It’s hard to imagine a year in which the need for empathy could be more urgent — a global pandemic and a racial reckoning in North America have made crystal clear the policy failures to address these issues lie in being unable to imagine what it’s like to be among the most vulnerable in a society.
In North America, being what mainstream culture considers “normal” — white, wealthy, male, cis, heterosexual — acts like a barrier to empathy. And being raised outside this mainstream culture as a second-gen kid can help cultivate it. “The more [part of the] majority culture you are, the harder it is because you didn’t grow up learning how to take other people’s perspective because you have the dominant perspective,” Brown said on an episode of the podcast Clear+Vivid. “For people of colour, women, LGBTQ folks, they learned how to wear bifocals, see the world through the majority lens and their lens for survival.”
It’s this double lens that has not only, you know, deepened my human experience, but also given me a huge advantage in my work as a journalist. I’ve interviewed hundreds of people. I get people like me and with those I don’t have shared experiences with, at the very least I have a window into what it’s like to navigate a world that wasn’t built for you.
Studies have shown being empathetic isn’t just nice for your partner, it can make you a better leader at work, patients feel better taken care of by doctors who display the trait, and that it’s vital to make STEM education more meaningful. Some have argued it’s vital for the survival of the human race. In 2012, Paul Ehrlich and Robert Ornstein argued in Humanity on a Tightrope that we desperately need to see all other humans as family in order to be able to exercise empathy to come together and address the greatest threats to humanity: war, climate change, pandemics.
Eight years later, we find ourselves at a time when the consequences of lacking empathy have never been more clear. COVID-19 has shown us how lives are valued differently. Some of those most essential to society in a pandemic — the temporary foreign workers who farm our land, those stocking our shelves at the grocery store making minimum wage — have the least secure standing in our society. We are also amid a reckoning on racial inequity in North America — prompted by the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by police in the U.S. — and it’s clear systems such as policing serve and protect the dominant culture at the cost of everyone else.
The lack of political recognition that policing is failing the Black community is astounding until you stop and consider what Michelle Obama told us in her Democratic Convention speech in August, that it was the result of “a total and utter lack of empathy” on part of the Trump administration. And part of the reason there’s so much relief around the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris is the hope that caring about people will be part of policy-making again. Stephanie Land, who wrote the best-selling memoir Maid, about her experience as a single mother living in poverty, welcomed the change in administration, writing in Time: “We need leaders who are able to vividly remember how it feels to experience hardship, trauma, and pain, who make us feel less alone.”
Empathy serves as a gateway to solidarity, which is key to structural change. So it’s not just enough to say you can imagine what it’s like to be another person, but actually, you have to recognize human life is simply valuable. It’s getting rid of those split-second moments when someone looks you over to decide whether they are worth talking to, or advocating for. It’s putting on a mask because every life is worth trying to save rather than having to imagine saving someone’s grandmother. Caring for others without considering who someone is to you, or what someone can do for you or to you.
Watching my mother endure indignities is not the way I would have preferred to learn these lessons. But in this extraordinary moment when it’s clear empathy is key to building a truly inclusive future, I’m grateful to have had access to these bifocals early on in life. It’s just one of the gifts being second-gen has granted me, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Having a second — or third — culture can be complicated. It can also be a blessing. That’s why we launched Second Gen, a series celebrating the gifts, even the bittersweet ones, passed down from our parents, communities, and cultures.