When Michael Harriot advises white people to “know the line” in his article “7 Rules for White People with Black Friends,” his semi-satirical advice illuminates a serious aspect of contemporary socio-political discourse across racial lines. His call for white people to “please know that there are some thresholds you cannot cross” reflects a long-term frustration with expressions of empathy and understanding in the context of identity politics. There is a very real—indeed, sometimes uncomfortable—need to censor oneself in conversations about or involving divergent identities, but is this a reason to give up on empathy altogether? Instead, I will argue that when empathy is simply taken as an attempt to understand and express care for another, it is absolutely indispensable to reaching common ground in identity politics.
Whether someone expresses feeling overwhelmed with school work, or a person of color describes an identity-related experience, responses like “I know how you feel” and “I understand where you are coming from” feel entirely commonplace to us. When it comes to matters surrounding socio-political issues—like those pertaining to oppression or inequity—people who don’t suffer from those same oppressions are quick to express their empathy and expect it will be a fool-proof response. Although the word “empathy” is used in many ways, most simply put, to empathize with someone is to put oneself in another’s shoes and attempt to feel her pain. Conveying empathy certainly seems preferable to denying another’s experience, but empathy, too, can become problematic.
While issues surrounding the norms of identity discourse arise regularly today, they are not entirely new. In 1992, when Bill Clinton made his infamous “I feel your pain” comment to an activist heckling him at a rally, many were offended and criticized his declaration as a statement of false-empathy. While an empathetic response like this one surely seems grounded in good intentions, the impossibility of perfectly appreciating the uniqueness of experiences complicates this otherwise compassionate response. To presume to know how another person feels is to strip that person of his separateness and uniqueness, despite one’s good intentions. This becomes especially problematic when members of a privileged group claim to know how the victims of any form of oppression feel, allowing the privileged sympathizer to ignore differences in identity in an attempt to connect emotionally with the sufferer. In doing so, expressing empathy or trying to find common experience runs the risk of erasing or ignoring subjective experience; the white empathizer is seen to be falsely claiming someone else’s particular pain as his own, or denying that pain altogether.
It is this charge that led Susan Gubar, in researching her book Racechange, to sadly conclude that cross-racial empathy ‘inevitably leads to the disappearance of the Other’s Otherness.’ She echoes the Freudian view that identification is a metaphoric substitution of the self for the other, reducing empathy to an inherently imperialistic drive to incorporate the other into the self. While bleak, Gubar’s charge is understandable when we consider the fact that campaigns like “All Lives Matter” have somehow come to oppose “Black Lives Matter.”
In difficult conversations about prejudice, however, where ugliness and inequity are often brought to the forefront, it seems understandable and distinctly human to have emotional reactions. The realities and pains of racism—or any form of oppression—should be upsetting, and not just to its victims. These two forces involved in any conversation relating to identity and oppression converge to yield an empathy paradox that has begun to threaten our collective ability to communicate effectively and affect socio-political change.
Many familiar scenarios demonstrate how this paradox unfolds in reality and helps to undermine the potential for positive contributions from empathy. If your friend John’s father tragically dies, for example, and you tell him that you “are so sorry and know how he feels,” he might respond something along the lines of “no, you do not know how I feel.” While this statement is true—no one can know exactly what anyone else is thinking, experiencing, or feeling—it seems to serve as a formidable roadblock to continued discussion. This is similar to the paradox of empathy that creates problems in socio-political discourse: if John claims that you cannot know how he feels, he is necessarily making an assertion about how you feel, an assertion about what you are thinking exactly. If it is true that one person cannot know how another person feels, then it follows that John cannot know how you feel. Thus, John cannot prove that you and he cannot have a single identical thought on the basis of unique experiences, and any attempt to prove that would be circular (it would involve assuming access to your thoughts).
It doesn’t seem like John’s objection is that you don’t know his exact state of mind, however, because that seems like an unreasonable expectation; instead, John might be claiming that you do not adequately understand his feelings. In that case, he would seem to be claiming that there is a relevant difference between your supposed understanding of John’s feelings, and John’s actual feelings. This seems to be the hitch for empathy when deployed in discussions of identity: it may be reasonable to doubt that other people know how you feel if you have some crucial piece of information about which they are entirely or partially unaware—namely, a piece of information related to your identity and not theirs. Understood in this way, John may still believe it is possible for you, and people in general, to understand the feelings of others and empathize. He just thinks that in this case, you cannot.
It seems that the above case—the case of missing information—is among the only times it makes sense to suspend empathy on the basis that someone could not know how you feel. When contemporary social justice theories hold inherent uniqueness of experience and not a lack of information responsible for empathy’s shortcomings, empathy appears impossible to all of us.
Instead, we should recognize that sympathy’s colonizing functions and ability to inhibit action are not intrinsic to the structure of empathy, but are merely two possible (and faulty) deployments thereof. While the possibility of experiential appropriation is an important concern, moments of empathy or compassion also have the potential to be politically and socially progressive. Historically oppressed groups certainly have legitimate complaints against the advantaged, and the advantaged will be missing certain facts and experiences, or at least not placing sufficient importance on them by attempting to empathize. However, the mere fact that the disadvantaged have unique experiences is not sufficient to establish that the advantaged are incapable of empathy altogether, lest we lose hope in the potential for change.
In reality, most of us do sometimes think we understand how others feel, even if only in certain situations, and Barack Obama put the necessity of empathy eloquently in a speech before he became president: “when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers—it becomes harder not to act, harder not to help.” Obama is getting at something indispensable about empathy, what the psychologist C. Daniel Batson calls “the empathy-altruism hypothesis.” According to Batson and Obama, when you empathize with others, you are more likely to help them. Empathy serves to dissolve the boundaries between one person and another and is a force against selfishness and indifference in the face of the plights of others.
While it is certainly wrong for a white, privileged person to claim to know the experience of any person of color, more progress may be made in discourse if each individual recognizes the limitations on empathy and does not attempt to convey an exact understanding of experience or a desire to remove differences. We can understand the truth that, while we may not be able to fully experience each other’s realities, we can recognize that individuals carry different burdens, and we can feel genuinely empathetic to those burdens. Amidst an alarming international rise in hate groups, terrorism, and racial disharmony, we cannot afford to give up on empathy’s promise of fostering cross-cultural understanding. We can seek a bridge across difference by invoking care and concern without trying to convey that we are all the same.
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