Yesterday, I hiked from my house and through the meandering trails of our local, city park, to a favorite bar of mine for an afternoon drink. As a teacher with the summer off, it’s something I like to do when taking a break from writing.

At the bar, MSNBC was on the big screen, its subtitles scrolling, scurrying to keep up. The coverage was on Zimmerman and Trayvon and pain. A pain that still has not dissipated.

I sat down and ordered a local brew from Eli, the bartender, before turning my attention to the screen. It was a quiet, slow afternoon, and we struck up a conversation about the injustice of it all, about this country we live in.

Eli and I are both white.

So too was the gentleman who was sitting a stool over from me. He was probably in his mid-40s, with neat hair and wearing a suit, and was listening to our conversation – I noticed him watching us curiously.

When a lull hit, he took a swig, leaned toward me over the empty chair between us and said, “It’s just white guilt.”

“What is?” I asked.

“All this obsession about the trial. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a bad thing. But it’s not any worse than anything else. You’re just still talking about it, you and Eli, because of white guilt.”

I shook my head as Eli laughed, leaning over the bar and listening, having nothing else to do.

“So what?” Eli finally said. “There’s a lot to feel guilty about, don’tcha think?”

“Me personally? No.” the man in the suit said. “I get that it’s a bad story, but I don’t get how you guys talk like it’s your story.”

“My story?” I asked.

“Yeah, like it happened to you.”

I looked at him and said, “It’s because you’re wrong about why I care. It’s not ‘white guilt,’ it’s empathy.”

He shrugged as the television went to commercial, and ordered a drink. For me. “Because I feel bad for you,” he said lightheartedly. And that’s where the conversation ended, on the topic of the trial, at least.

But walking home, I continued the conversation in my head, because what I had said was true. Although I’m not black, and have never experienced personally what it is like to live with dark skin in America, I have absorbed so many stories, and have invested myself in so many stories, that I have come to empathize, I have come to care, about the black experience. About the racism that still exists in our society. And its resulting injustices.

It’s why, as a white American, I cried after the Zimmerman verdict. It’s why, as a Jew, I have cried at the suffering of Palestinians. It’s why, as a parent of two beautiful girls, I’ve cried for parents who have lost their own.

Because empathy is transformative, and is something we need more of to mold the society justice demands of America.

Follow me on Twitter @David_EHG

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