Unpacking radical empathy (Part 4)

Dear President Trump,

For some reason I didn’t include the phrase “radical empathy” in my letter to you the other day when I told you about Susan Lanzoni’s WP piece about how white people’s failure of empathy significantly contributes to racial bias and racism. I did use it to title several of the letters in my parallel blog, but it was only in the last few days that I started wondering why she prefaced “empathy” with “radical.” When it finally occurred to me to give it some serious thought, my first reaction was to feel sad that such empathy on the part of many white people for black people would be considered radical rather than just an everyday perspective or attitude. And really, it is sad and it sucks; if such empathy were everyday, and not radical, I wouldn’t need to write about it.

But why is it radical? Here’s what I’ve come to thus far:

1) I think for most mere mortals it’s hard to have empathy for groups of people because groups of people are too abstract and we can’t wrap our hearts around abstractions very well. But, it’s safer to stay focused on groups so it’s radical when we come in close and empathize with an individual, particularly one who is unfamiliar to us and who previously was an anonymous member of a relatively unknown group.

2) In places where people are still very segregated and there are few easy opportunities (because, really, I think most of us like our familiar comfort zones a whole lot so we don’t make much effort) to get to know people of different races, we don’t get practice truly seeing and challenging our preconceptions about one another so when we do, it’s radical.

3) If whites were taught and don’t realize we were taught that black people are less than in various ways, we may be more inclined towards pitying them, which is a look-down-on-the-other attitude, than towards empathizing with them, which is a look-across-attitude. In this context of “othering,” empathy is radical.

4) Among white liberals, in particular, there may be latent (or blatant) attitudes of defensive self-righteousness that blind us to our blindnesses so that if we can muster empathy for blacks, it actually is pretty radical because it means we are starting to recognize that we have a shit-ton of work to do.

May we not rest until everyone is safe.
May we be willing, if not happy, to do the work that needs doing.
May we accept that everyone’s health and wellbeing is inextricably linked.
May we have the courage to make peace with one another.

Tracy Simpson

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