Calling Out Racism With Empathy: Empathy Day Guest Post by Dean Atta

Dean Atta author image

Empathy Day on 9th June aims to help everyone understand and experience its transformational power. To mark the countdown to Empathy Day we are super excited that, Dean Atta, whose book The Black Flamingo is included in Empathy Lab’s Read for Empathy Collection, has chosen an extract from their book and tells us why they feel it’s a powerful read to develop empathy.

The Black Flamingo is a fabulous verse novel focusing on the life of Michael. It’s a poignant, beautifully written coming-of-age novel which traces Michael as he learns different things about himself, about his identity, about his dual-heritage and and about his sexuality. As the book progresses, we witness Michael mature and grow in confidence. A confidence that enables him to be himself,

Be a beautiful thing.
Be the moonlight, too.
Remember you have the right to be proud.
Remember you have the right to be you

Let me hand you over to Dean…

Calling out Racism With Empathy

When The Black Flamingo was selected as one of Empathy Lab’s 50 books for 2020, I was particularly pleased for this function of my book to be recognised. I’ve always thought of my writing as a tool for evoking empathy. Whenever I write about black and LGBT issues, I have two hopes; my first hope is that black and LGBT people will see themselves in my writing and feel well represented; my second hope is that people who don’t have this lived experience will gain some understanding and empathy that might benefit not only them but also the black and LGBT people in their lives.

I’ve chosen a page from The Black Flamingo where a character makes a direct appeal for empathy. Michael, Lennie and Sienna are all first-year students at university in Brighton. Lennie is black, Michael is mixed-race, and Sienna is white. In this passage Lennie is speaking to Michael and Sienna, after they’ve both made remarks that Lennie perceives as racist. Sienna has asked Michael what type of guys he likes, to which Michael replies, ‘Tall, white, big biceps and a killer smile.’ Sienna says she only dates black guys. Then, Lennie says the following to both of them:

‘You both need to understand
the black woman, black man,
black trans person is always last
to be thought of as attractive
in this white supremacist society.
We are all – black and white alike
– shown a beauty standard of light
skin and “good hair”, maybe big lips,
maybe a big bum, but hardly ever
on someone with darker skin.
When a black person says
they’re only into white people
that’s internalised racism.
When a white person says
they’re only into black people
that’s fetishisation, which is also
a form of racism. If their skin
or racialised features matter more
to you than the person within,
that’s racism. I can’t be your friend
without calling this out. Your ignorance
may be innocent but the racism is real.
I want both of you to think about how
what you said might make me feel.’

Lennie and Sienna are secondary characters. Michael is the protagonist, and the story is told from his point of view. Michael has no idea what he said would be perceived as racist. Lennie is giving Michael new information here. There are many more moments in The Black Flamingo where other characters teach Michael or share something with him that shifts his thinking. In this way, I hope the reader feels invited to learn alongside Michael.

The Black Flamingo JacketLennie says within the passage, ‘I can’t be your friend without calling this out.’ Lennie is calling out Michael and Sienna’s racism because he cares about them and their friendship. He doesn’t want them to go around saying these kinds of things to other people. He wants them to see from his point of view as a dark-skinned black person. At the end of the passage, Lennie says, ‘I want both of you to think about how what you said might make me feel.’ Lennie is suggesting that his feelings have been hurt by their remarks.

I gave Lennie this uninterrupted speech to imply Michael and Sienna are listening in a stunned silence. Lennie is usually laid back and easy going but their remarks have inspired this impassioned monologue from him. I imagine some black people reading this may feel a sense of recognition with Lennie’s frustration. Although Lennie is angry at what was said, his words are carefully chosen to educate his two friends. It was important for me to make Lennie’s monologue as articulate and unambiguous as possible, so that it hit home with his friends, and also with the reader. Lennie is not saying that Michael and Sienna’s remarks are unforgivable (he recognises they may be an ‘innocent’ mistake) but he is giving them his take on the situation and asking them to take pause and reflect.


Thanks, Dean!

For the first time this year, EmpathyLab will host its Empathy Day programme online to support families at home. Schools and libraries across the country will also be offering a wide range of home learning and story-time activities.

The full programme can be found HERE.

Join in with the #EmpathyDay social media campaign and share your #ReadforEmpathy book recommendations.

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