Refusing Empathy

Shortly after the election I got into a debate with a friend. The fight wasn’t about our votes or our policy preferences (this particular friend and I tend to land in similar places on the political spectrum). Instead, it was about empathy: specifically, my apparent lack of empathy for the evangelical Christians who supported border walls, Muslim bans, more deportations, and an end to police reform. I was focused on protests and resistance, but my friend thought that I was going to become an extremist myself if I refused to take the fears and concerns of the opposition seriously.

Since that day, I have encountered many similar calls for empathy: in organizing meetings, in op-ed pieces, and in the generous, thoughtful contributions to this blog from Sarah and Elizabeth. My own response has been (perhaps characteristically) more wary. While I generally see empathy as a net positive, I am far from certain that empathy is the always the right response, especially when white folks like myself empathize with supporters of a systemic injustice from which we benefit. If I choose to be in sympathy with someone cheering mass deportations, I am not only empathizing with someone whose policy position I find misguided – or even with someone whose moral position I find abhorrent – I am also empathizing with someone committed to defending the nationalist white supremacy that maintains my own position of privilege. As people who enjoy the unearned advantages of whiteness, how much time and energy should we devote to understanding and sharing the feelings of people committed to upholding white supremacy? It’s a utilitarian question (will empathy help make the change we want to see?), but also an ethical one (what do we risk by withholding empathy and what do we risk by giving it?).

On the one hand, empathy could be a tool for fostering more conversations about race in white communities. By preserving relationships and keeping doors open, we might create opportunities to discuss race in spaces that would feel unsafe for people of color. Indeed, much of my own writing in the past months – including the co-creation of this blog – has sprung out of the hope that new dialogues about social justice might be possible with the right conditions of openness and vulnerability. And here I am writing this response, which must mean that I maintain that hope, at least in part.

On the other hand, the empathy of white people for other white people is part of what has allowed racist structures to persist. We can see this on a macro-level – how the unwillingness to sever ties with slave-holding kin resulted in tolerance for a system of chattel slavery that was destroying black families – and on a micro-level – how the willingness of Bill Maher’s fellow white comedians to excuse his racist comments makes his behavior seem more understandable, justifiable, acceptable. What does our empathy hold in place? As Sara Ahmed writes, “Racism always requires that we treat racism with sympathy.” 

Racism always requires that we treat racism with sympathy.
— Sara Ahmed

What’s more, when white people treat racism with sympathy, we often reinforce our own political safety rather than using it as a tool to make others safer. When white feminist Laci Green made a video sympathizing with white supremacists, for example, the Alt-Right commenters who had previously trolled her quickly embraced her. For many non-white commentators, the speed with which Green went from pariah to prodigal daughter revealed the safety accorded by white sympathy. As the blogger for Love Life of an Asian Guy pointed out, Green’s recuperation by white supremacists proved that, “White women, whether they admit it or not, will always have a seat at a white supremacist's table. They can ride the SJW train for 10, 40 years, but the minute they go rogue and raise their hand to sieg heil, they’ll be welcomed with open arms into the family of whitehood.”

Love, empathy, and compassion for human lives: these are core Christian values, and I understand the urge to call on them in response to division, discord, and hate. But as the months since November have pressed down on us, I have become even more convinced that we must sometimes set limits on our sympathy. While we might empathize with the suffering of those living precarious lives, while we might seek to understand intellectually the logic that turns that suffering into a racist defense of white privileges, refusing empathy for the logics and behaviors of white supremacy is a necessary step for white Christians struggling for justice, for equity, or for any transformative kind of understanding. If/as the intensity of white resentment worsens, we have to ask ourselves where preserving relationships perpetuates injustice. We are called to nurture, but also, sometimes, to sever and break. As Christina Sharpe wrote powerfully in the wake of the election:

 “One must be willing to say this is abhorrent. One must be willing to be more than uncomfortable. One must be willing to be on the outside. One must refuse to repair a familial rift on the bodies cast out as not kin…Refuse reconciliation to ongoing brutality. Refuse to feast on the corpse of others. Rend the fabric of the kinship narrative. Imagine otherwise. Remake the world. Some of us have never had any other choice.”