On Empathy and Identity: A Conversation with Liz Lin

Liz Lin is a prolific critic of politics and contemporary culture at The Salt Collective, as well as on her personal blog, My Name is Elizabeth. Trained as a clinical psychologist and currently working as a consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area, Liz writes frequently on the ways in which gender, race, and ethnicity affect everyday life in 21st-century America.

I chatted with Liz about Asian American communities, the complexities of hyphenated identities, and the future of race relations in the US.


On your own blog and at The Salt Collective, you write about a wide range of subjects, but the neighboring themes of identity and ethnicity pop up more than others. How do you explain your own fascination with these topics?

Liz Lin headshot
Liz Lin

I grew up as one of only a few Asian Americans in my Midwestern suburb, so I was made aware of my ethnicity at an early age. I feel like I’ve been observing it — and how it impacts my experiences, my social interactions, every aspect of my life — for the last 27 years.

Initially, my relationship with my ethnicity was contentious — I resented it for the stares and comments it elicited, for making me different from my peers, for being something that I couldn’t hide or escape. But in high school, as I got connected to an Asian American community, I started to become less hostile toward it and more curious.

Because this community normalized my ethnicity for me, I was able to embrace it, to reflect on how it had shaped me, and to start figuring out how I wanted to integrate it into my life. As I embarked on that journey, I became more curious about how race and ethnicity shape other peoples’ experiences and about broader questions of identity.

Was there an “a-ha!” moment that opened your eyes to the issue of ethnicity, or was it something that just percolated continuously since your childhood?

The big eye-opening moment happened when I was five, when a white girl in my summer camp asked me where I was from — no, where I was really from. Until that point, I hadn’t been aware of any differences between my mostly white peers and me, but that interaction made me realize that there was something different about me — something that people could see, no less. Through the process of elimination, I figured out what it was, and I’ve been thinking about ethnicity ever since that day.

You grew up in the Midwest, a region with a complicated racial history, but also one with a reputation of being more genteel and tolerant than others in the United States. Now you’re in Berkeley, California. That’s quite a transition.

I certainly think of the Midwest as more genteel and polite than other places in the US, but I’ve never thought of it as being more tolerant. Maybe that’s because my primary contrast is California, where I’ve lived for the last ten years, and California prides itself on out-tolerating everyone.

Looking back, I was generally happy growing up in the Midwest, but it was a difficult place to work out my Asian American identity. For me, it was hard to be a visible minority without a vocabulary to understand my experiences or people to process them with. But in retrospect, I’m grateful that I went through this — both because it made me think seriously about race and ethnicity from an early age and because being different taught me empathy. I constantly had to connect and find common ground with people who weren’t exactly like me, and that was incredibly valuable.

Being different taught me empathy. I constantly had to connect and find common ground with people who weren’t exactly like me, and that was incredibly valuable.

In a way, I feel like I have the best of both worlds; I had these formative experiences growing up in the Midwest, and now I live in the Bay Area, where my ethnicity doesn’t surprise anyone. I have to say, though, that I appreciate Midwestern gentility far more now that I live out here. When I arrived in Los Angeles, one of the most diverse metropolitan areas in the country, I was shocked to find that I experienced more microaggressions and had more random things yelled at me on the street than I did in Michigan. (I experience even more of that now that I live in Berkeley, which is arguably the most progressive city in the country.) I don’t think people are more racist in California than in the Midwest, but I do think that people feel more open to say whatever they’re thinking — for better and for worse — and that the diversity can fool people into thinking that they “get” people of other races better than they actually do.

You wrote a powerful post on the Asian American reaction to Ferguson — which you characterized as mostly silence. What’s your take on lateral relations between minority communities in the US today?

Those relations have a long history and they’re flourishing, thanks to the activists of color who are leading the way. Many people of color have realized that our communities have common experiences, our interests are interwoven, and we can accomplish far more together than apart; these folks are doing an amazing job of building collaborative relationships.

I have to say, too, that I was pleasantly surprised by the relationships that were catalyzed by the Michael Brown tragedy. I wrote the post you mentioned in the days immediately after his death; three months later, after the Darren Wilson non-indictment, I was encouraged to see a lot of Asian Americans start talking about these issues, participating in protests and die-ins, and standing in support of the Black community. As tragic as the events of recent months have been, I’m grateful that they’ve made people start talking, brought more awareness of systemic injustices, and motivated people to action.

Many people of color have realized that our communities have common experiences, our interests are interwoven, and we can accomplish far more together than apart; these folks are doing an amazing job of building collaborative relationships.

At the same time, we have a very long way to go. For all of the people I know who are proactive about supporting other communities of color, I know even more who aren’t. I think a large number of factors go into that — a lack of interaction with other groups; for Asian Americans, wanting to distance ourselves from other communities out of fear that we’ll be associated with them, and perhaps lose some of the privileges we have; racism, intentional and unintentional; some ugly history between groups.

Communities of color have also been pitted against each other in myriad ways. The model minority myth is a prime example; on the surface, it looks flattering to Asian Americans, but it was really created to blame Black and Latino communities for not “succeeding” in the same ways, and it created all kinds of resentment between our communities. We buy into these myths to our own detriment, because this kind of divisiveness keeps us from uniting to accomplish our common goals. All that to say that when it comes to relationships between communities of color, there are plenty of obstacles still to overcome, but they are happening.

 Race and ethnicity 2010: San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley by Eric Fisher (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Race and ethnicity 2010: San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley by Eric Fisher (CC BY-SA 2.0)

I’m curious about your take on the moniker “Asian American” (with or without the hyphen) — especially about the way it influences, if at all, interactions between the many different communities in the US that are tucked into it.

On one hand, having this umbrella term can be tricky because it masks the incredible diversity of Asian American communities — all of the different countries of origin, languages, subcultures, reasons for immigrating to the US, generational statuses, socioeconomic statuses, levels of education, phenotypes, and on and on. (Not to mention the historical conflicts between some of these communities.) The term can give the illusion that we’re a monolithic group, when in reality, we don’t even have a common history or a common language to unite us. Really, the biggest thing we have in common is how the rest of society perceives us.

Really, the biggest thing we have in common is how the rest of society perceives us.

On the other hand, I still think the term can be useful because there are common experiences across Asian American communities — largely in how we’re treated by other people — and because it makes solidarity possible. It’s very difficult to create any kind of social change as dozens of little subgroups, but if we can unite and work toward something together, change is much more realistic.

In my experience — and I am only one person, so other people might disagree with me — the term “Asian American” has generally been positive, a way of connecting with people from the whole spectrum of Asian American subgroups.

You currently work as a consultant for a millennial demographic. Do you observe any differences in attitudes toward race, ethnicity, and identity between your (“mini”-)generation and “the kids today”?

This is a difficult question for me to answer, because most of the “kids” I see today grew up in California, and it’s hard to say if the differences I observe are the result of generation or geography. But for what it’s worth: I feel like being different, and being Asian American specifically, can actually be cool and desirable for kids these days, as opposed to when I was growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Diversity has been normalized a lot more — people of color are far more represented in commercials, in movies, and on TV, though we have quite a ways to go in all these areas.

At the same time, I read studies about how millennials think that color-blindness is the solution to race problems, and those findings concern me. I worry that kids these days take diversity as a given, unlike previous generations, but don’t understand how deeply racial inequalities are embedded into our systems, and they’ll be ill-equipped to combat these inequalities as a result. But the same could probably be said for my mini-generation, too.

I worry that kids these days take diversity as a given, unlike previous generations, but don’t understand how deeply racial inequalities are embedded into our systems…

Since you mentioned media representation of minorities, and the work that needs to be done there, do you see the problem as mainly quantitative or qualitative?

Both. When I think about what’s on TV, it seems like most shows have at least one person of color in the cast. This feels like a significant change from when I was growing up. So the fact that there seems to be some baseline of diversity on TV and in commercials — even a very low one — is a vast improvement from what I was seeing in the ‘90s. That said, the fact that so many shows have entirely white casts with only one supporting person of color in 2015 is disheartening to me. Especially when Shonda Rhimes has shown us three times that you can have an incredibly diverse cast — and even leads of color! — and be huge, appointment TV, and Aziz Ansari is doing the same on Netflix. I don’t think that TV has much of an excuse to be as white as it is when the little evidence we have indicates that diverse casting works. When I can count the number of shows with leads of color on two hands, and there are literally hundreds of other ones with only white leads, we still have a very, very long way to go.

When you’re making films that take place in the present day or the future and you still have no people of color, I don’t really know what your excuse is.

I get that it can be hard to cast diversely when you’re doing a historical biopic, but when you’re making films that take place in the present day or the future and you still have no people of color, I don’t really know what your excuse is. The need for more studio executives, producers, writers, directors, and actors of color is pretty clear.

And that’s just the quantitative side. I’m frustrated that we still see films and TV shows trading on the same hackneyed stereotypes and racist jokes that we’ve been dealing with for the last, oh, 50 to 200 years. (I’m looking at you, 2 Broke Girls.) Not only are these things demeaning to people of color — a sizable and growing portion of your potential audience — but they also aren’t creative or interesting at all, so I’m not sure why any actor or writer would want their name attached to them.

There’s certainly been progress when it comes to people of color being represented in the media since the ‘90s, but we still have an embarrassingly long way to go.

This brings me back to the question of empathy, which you brought up earlier. Do you think empathy can be nurtured? I’m thinking in particular about people who, unlike you, didn’t have to cope early on in life with being different from the majority.

I think the simplest way to cultivate empathy with people who don’t share your experiences is to build relationships with people who don’t share your experiences. And ideally as an equal — not, say, you helping someone who is poorer than you (which is not a bad thing, but that power differential can cloud the relationship on both sides). Listen more than you talk, ask thoughtful questions, and be open to learning and being challenged and uncomfortable. Even if your area is racially homogenous, there are probably people near you who have different ages, socioeconomic statuses, or religious beliefs, so you still have opportunities to learn how to empathize with people who aren’t like you. Reading and watching stories about people from different backgrounds — in fiction, longform journalism, movies, documentaries — can also be effective.

When you really get into the story of someone who isn’t like you, you often see that you have more in common than you think, and you see entry points into their experiences where you can connect. And while empathy can be cultivated at any age, the earlier you start, the easier it is to do. So I love when parents make an effort to connect their kids to people from a wide range of backgrounds, especially in places where they’re on equal footing.

When you really get into the story of someone who isn’t like you, you often see that you have more in common than you think, and you see entry points into their experiences where you can connect.

Systems can be helpful in this process, too. For example, schools can foster empathy when teachers and administrators make a point to talk thoughtfully about differences instead of ignoring them, to give students opportunities to share and hear each other’s stories, to put students who might not otherwise interact in conversation and collaboration, to make sure diverse protagonists and authors and historical figures are represented in their curriculum, and to hire diverse teachers and staff. And the media plays a significant role, too. When movie and TV casts are diverse, they communicate that hanging out with different kinds of people is normal. When stories about marginalized people are told, and told well, people from all backgrounds can develop empathy for the protagonists — and, by proxy, the groups they belong to.

As much as I would like to believe that things will change in 2048, when the US is projected to no longer be majority-white, I’m not sure that they will simply because of the numbers. Because the reality is that most white people will still live around other white people and most people of color will live around other people of color, and though white people may no longer be the majority, they’ll probably still have most of the power. (Not to mention that the definition of “white” may simply expand between then and now, as it has throughout our nation’s history.) So I still think that individual and systemic efforts to facilitate empathy will be crucial, even in the midst of changing demographics.


Read more from Liz Lin at My Name is Elizabeth and The Salt Collective. You’ll also find her on Twitter (@curiousliz).

November 30, 2015Diversity, Identity, Interviews, Longreads, Political Commentary, Race,