Day 7: Developing Empathy and Social Action

After Beyoncé recently gave birth to their daughter, Blue Ivy Carter, Jay-Z released “Glory,” a musical tribute to his new little one. Like Stevie Wonder’s cooing, splashing, and giggling baby girl on the track “Isn’t She Lovely,” “Glory” features Blue Ivy crying in the background. Her dad even credits her on the track.

On the heels of the release of “Glory,” the British publication NME (New Musical Express), claimed that Jay-Z wrote a poem declaring that he will no longer use the word “bitch” in his music. An excerpt from the poem reads: “Before I got in the game, made a change, and got rich/I didn’t think hard about using the word bitch/I rapped, I flipped it, I sold it, I lived it/Now with my daughter in this world I curse those that give it.” Even more, he promises that, “No man will degrade [you]…. I’m so focused on your future, the degradation has passed.” As you can probably tell from the rhythm of these lines, Jay-Z didn’t write this. He also told the Daily News as much yesterday.

But this story, albeit fabricated, relies on assumptions about Jay-Z’s ability to empathize with women around issues of gendered representations in hip hop now that he is a father. By extension, the assumption is that experiencing a significant life change — like becoming a parent — makes you more empathetic in certain ways. Why would fatherhood engender such a shift in this rapper’s lyrical awareness and expression? And can we imagine that Jay-Z would call a moratorium on the N-word if he had a son? (By the way, none of the questions are meant to suggest that Jay-Z is not a caring or philanthropic spirit.)

One recent University of Maryland study titled “Like Daughter, Like Father: How Women’s Wages Change When CEOs Have Daughters,” offers one response. In this study, researchers found that when male CEOs have a baby daughter, they tend to close their companies’ earning gap by 0.5 percentage points. If that daughter is the CEOs first child, the gap closes by 2.8 percentage points. According to these researchers, “a switch flips” in the daddy’s head, “making him more sensitive to gender issues” than he was before.

Perhaps instead of tax returns, we should ask leaders to disclose the sex and birth order of their children.

I understand that people are probably more apt to become concerned when issues hit home or close to home. But is that all we’re left with? All we expect of ourselves? Do we have to “know” a problem to care or take action to fix that problem? Do we, as one of my students recently commented, have to be a person of color to think about and care about race and racism? Or gay to care about the civil rights of LGBT persons? Muslim to care about religious and ethnic prejudice? Or hungry and homeless to empathize with those living in poverty? How do we cultivate and sustain care and empathy — the ability to listen, see, feel beyond ourselves and our own self-interest? And, by extension, how do we build on that empathy to cultivate a need, a compulsion, to act in the service of change?

Now, if we could just get Wall Street and Congress to have some babies.

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