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Planet Janet: Privileged to speak out

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Janet Combs

Will a 60-year-old white woman who grew up on Long Island, New York, have anything meaningful to say about the demonstrations occurring across the nation in this week’s column in a South Carolina publication?

You be the judge.

I was born into a middle-class family and my parents subsidized all of my learning, including guitar lessons, which, as it turns out, was rather like making paper airplanes out of $10 bills and flying them out the window every week. Later, they funded my undergraduate college education; an enormous gift for which I was definitely not grateful enough until I had three children of my own that I wanted to put through college.

Once I was of “working age,” which was about 12 in the 1970s, my parents encouraged me to get a job in the summer—babysitting as a “mother’s helper.” I did wonder why my brothers made more in a couple hours mowing neighbors’ lawns than I did after an entire day of watching four kids under age 7 at a local beach club, but that’s the extent of my early experiences with injustice. Is the effort involved in producing a freshly cut lawn more important than the one resulting in a freshly diapered baby? Fifty years later, I guess our society is still trying to figure that one out.

In my twenties, I had a few eye-opening experiences as a woman in the working world that altered my “everyone-has-my-best-interests” perspective, indoctrinated in me after years of watching “The Mary Tyler Moore” show. But let me be clear: my life’s path has been paved with privilege. And while my privileged life has not been without its major upheavals and struggles—none of them have been the result of or catalyzed by my whiteness.

As a result, some might say I can’t possibly know what it feels like to be my friend, Bor, whose name has been spelled backward for privacy. Bor had a stellar phone interview for a great job in an upscale neighborhood restaurant/bar in Baltimore; he was hired on the spot and invited to come in and sign the paperwork. When he showed up in person—apparently surprisingly black—the stammering white manager abruptly told him the position was filled.

But here is the thing about empathy—the identification with the feelings, thoughts or attitudes of someone else. Empathy changes you, because it requires you to come out of yourself. When Bor told me this story in the middle of a dinner party, I felt like I took a gut-punch. My recollection is that I teared up, which is exactly what I would do if I took a gut-punch in the middle of a dinner party.

Empathy hurts.

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It is a learned trait—and best learned by example. I learned it from my parents, as I witnessed them shoveling neighbors’ driveways and delivering casseroles and sitting vigil with their friends who were suffering the devastating losses of spouses, children, jobs. I carefully selected a husband and lifelong friends who demonstrated it. I worked to instill it in my children.

Empathy engenders action; it sweats, toils, works overtime.

It is a powerful trait. When you truly feel what another person feels, you do not need to be told what is the right thing to do.

Empathy builds on itself, each time you come out of yourself to experience it. Eventually, it becomes the behind-the-scenes operating system for your ever-developing moral compass.

And so, you must watch the video of George Floyd. I believe if you do, you will unconsciously hold your breath and feel temporarily suffocated. When you finally exhale, you will understand the value of your own breath.

Maybe you will use it for the greater good.

Janet Combs is a freelance writer living in Georgetown County. Her column is published regularly in the Georgetown Times. Contact her at

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