The Limits of Empathy: Why the Burden of Empathy Shouldn’t Rest on the Oppressed

 By Christopher Persaud | Illustration by Jenna Brager  

It began on Wednesday morning. The calls went out like fishing lines cast into a deep brown lake. Empathy herself was speared on their glittering ends. She is a special kind of bait, so beautiful that we hardly notice when the hooks pin our tongues to the roofs of our mouths.


I am deeply troubled by our usage of empathy in this moment. For me, empathy is an active process where one works to understand the experiences and feelings of another. But when we talk about empathy, we are really talking about power. With whom are we encouraged to empathize? How do we decide who is worthy of empathy? I am alarmed at all the ways in which empathy has been weaponized. In its wake, we see countless demands for the oppressed to be superhuman all while white supremacy is left to play the victim. It has been a dark kind of amusing to be told that above all else, I should be more empathetic in our age of President(-Elect) Trump.

In the days leading up to the election, we saw warnings of how algorithms are shaping our timelines into the delicious echo chambers that we swear we will one day try to dismantle (not to mention the virulent promotion of fake news). Our social media feeds are derided because they evidently shield us from understanding The Other as if these digital networks are training us to forget that there are people who have opinions that differ from our own. Sadly, I am not sure that I have ever been privileged enough to forget the depths of some people's bigotry.

I am not interested in debating whether or not all of Trump’s supporters are “really racist in their hearts”. The philosopher Charles W. Mills, in his book The Racial Contract, defines White supremacy as a sociopolitical system of domination that works to oppress those that are deemed not-White and reward those who are deemed White. White supremacy is transnational, enduring, and often hidden. In other words, there is no functional difference between someone who is blatantly racist and someone for whom racism is not enough to deter them from supporting a candidate who has ridden atop its poisonous political efficacy. Empathy has long been weaponized against people like me.

As a marginalized person, I am expected to connect with and explore the inner workings of those who deny my very right to exist. This is not a shiny new kind of labor. I have long been knowledgeable about the inner workings of Whiteness and heterosexist society. People like me usually don’t get to live this long without that kind of expertise.


But there is something different about these appeals that are floating around now. There is a resounding insistence that all of this fallout could have been averted if we just stopped screaming about “identity politics” and “political correctness”. This gloriously flawed presumption rests upon the idea that the majority of bigotry comes from a lack of understanding. My experience with trying to know racists, homophobes, and xenophobes of all stripes has always ended up exposing a brittle skeleton of fear. They are afraid of losing a livelihood, traditions, status, social privileges, and so on. There is the feral terror that the dominant American zeitgeist might be leaving them behind. Social progress is the phantom that haunts the darkest corners of their waking nightmares. So no, this isn’t about a lack of understanding. In fact, I think those people see more clearly than any of us. And so, they voted accordingly.

You see, dear reader, the terrible secret is that empathy is never invoked the other way. The majority of people who write about empathy as a magic bullet to social strife seem to have no grasp as to how power works. Is it responsible to ask the oppressed to divine the Why of their oppressor? Cisgender and heterosexual people are never asked to empathize with struggling queers. We ask the gay kid who has been assaulted to remember that his bullies are simply afraid of what they don’t understand. We do not ask the paragons of “Real America” to move to a city and actually talk to a brown person. We ask the Black working class family to remember that they are being erased from conversations about economic precarity because it is too complicated right now to talk about race and class. Gender and politics. Queerness and economics. We are being undone by our inability to talk about two things at the same time, let alone the multitude that brings our lives into full technicolor focus.

As a student at an urban public university, I have long observed the pathology of White Liberals trying to convince themselves that America isn’t “as bad” as we people of color claim it is. And now in our post-election world, they have somehow deluded themselves into thinking that this latest chapter in the harrowing American project could have turned out differently if we all just had a little more empathy. It is the kind that demands that I soften the words that I use to describe my pain, that I remember to soothe white guilt before I speak, that I look for humanity in the very people that afford me none. I have grown weary of this kind of empathy.


I am no longer interested in trying to reach people that have decided that their comfort is worth the cost of my personhood. How do we enact meaningful change with stakeholders beyond our affinity groups if their very beliefs prevent them from listening to us? That is certainly a problem in any ideological direction, one which impedes progress in any sense of the word. I am no longer convinced that empathy is going to get us there, not on its own.

To be sure, many difficult conversations lie ahead of us. Empathy may open the door, but it alone is not politics. I have been thinking about a recent interview where Mariame Kaba (@prisonculture on Twitter) discusses the long arc of social justice efforts, the circumstances that led to Trump being elected aren’t going to be absolved in four years, let alone ten. From now through the inauguration, and every day afterward, we have to commit ourselves to the onerous task of imaging a better future and working towards it. The Left expends a lot of energy naming all that needs to be destroyed, but what do we build in those empty spaces? We need to take action, but we also need to be visionary.

Empathy is useful but we must be mindful of how it can be harmful. There is dialogue and then there is self-immolation. I welcome the former, but I will never embrace the latter as a way forward. I am no one's sacrificial lamb, the altar of White Liberalism will finally have to learn to do without.


I have heard your thousand demands for understanding, like a sudden downpour that heralds an even more terrible storm. I hear you America. I am listening, and I am doing so because my life is at stake. I am taking all of you in. I am afraid.

But haven’t I always been listening? Wasn’t this fear there all along?


Christopher Persaud is a Black Gay undergraduate student at Temple University, where he studies Sociology (among many other things). In his academic work and popular writing, he explores identity, digital culture, and communication. When he is not reading or writing, he is most likely day-dreaming about getting new tattoos.


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