Why it’s important (and uncomfortable!) that I as a white woman am able to empathize with racists

In my newsletter of last week I wrote about empathy and the importance of being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes to really understand their thoughts and feelings. The article of Burmese-American journalist Aye Min Thant about the coverage of Myanmar by CNN correspondent Clarissa Ward had inspired me to highlight empathy. Ward together with journalist Allegra Mendelson of the Southeast Asia Globe got a lot of criticism about their parachute journalism and Aye Min Thant wrote in her critical piece for New Naratif:

“I can empathise with Ward and Mendelson’s desire to go to the heart of this exciting story. Many journalists share these feelings. But just because a desire is understandable does not mean it is not deeply selfish. Neither of them needed to go to Myanmar to cover this story.” 

I wanted to point out the fact that she rightly condemns their actions but also sheds a little light on her own feelings. Not to neutralize the criticism, on the contrary. When we just blame the actions of one or two individuals, as if we don’t have a clue where their actions originated, we’ll never get to long term solutions. It is for that reason that I think it’s important to put myself in the shoes of Clarissa Ward and try to understand where her decision came from. And I fully agree with Aye Min Thant who also concludes in her piece that Ward and Mendelson’s actions were deeply selfish. It is by acknowledging the feelings – putting ourselves on the same human level as the wrongdoer – that we can wholeheartedly disagree with their choices. In fact, it shows that we did the necessary self-reflection and came to understand that our ego shouldn’t lead us in our work.

I didn’t write all this in my newsletter though, that’s why I’m writing this blog now because one of my subscribers (from the US) sent me a reply to the newsletter saying:

“I’m concerned that the implication of your presentation is that empathy will lead to inclusion. In my experience that is not the case, unfortunately.

She writes:

“For example, one of the best arguments I have heard used to improve housing, schools and infrastructure in American slums is to appeal to white fear: ‘If you don’t make systemic changes, the poor will spill out of their ghettos and take what you have.’ I have seen appeals made this way and they were at least partially effective.”

And she adds:

“I guess I worry because the right wing, mainly Republican politicians, have often said ‘I feel your pain’ but felt merely mouthing that was enough. And it wasn’t and isn’t.”  

In my opinion, appealing to white fear is also a form of empathy. In this particular example it is about putting yourself in a white person’s shoes and understanding their fear of losing some of their privileges. It is a controversial standpoint in antiracism because instead of caring about Black people’s pain, the focus is turning to white people’s fear.

In that regard, I don’t think empathy automatically leads to inclusion. To reach inclusion we need to understand the root of the problem, which isn’t just skin colour. It’s our system of a type of capitalism that thrives on inequality and as long as we don’t give up on our idea of experiencing financial growth as the only way forward, we won’t tackle systemic racism.

Having said that, I do think a level of empathy is needed together with inclusion. If we emotionally distance ourselves from one another, not being able to understand someone’s actions, it’s really hard to come to a mutual agreement of what is right and what is wrong. 

Personally, I experience it in my own life when I find myself sometimes hating other white people for their racist thoughts and actions. But if I’m honest I also know that I wasn’t born woke. I went through a lot of different stages towards antiracism and I’m aware that it’s a life long journey and the destination isn’t the most important. If I would solely put my rage on those white racists, it would be a waste of energy. What will change if I’m angry and condemn my fellow white people? Instead, I try to see the bigger picture of how we don’t understand our own past, how we implemented race theories in Enlightenment and how we continue to benefit financially in The West from the former colonies. 

I notice in this moment of writing this blog that it gets extremely uncomfortable for me. And that’s exactly where white people need to go. If I continue my own line of thinking here, it means I should be able to say that I – for example – empathize with the white police officer Kim Potter who killed 20 year old Black man Daunte Wright last week, using her gun where she said she thought it was her taser. Or with Derek Chauvin who murdered George Floyd by putting his knee on his neck.

Do I empathize with these people? If I try to put myself in their shoes, I don’t understand at all that they did what they did. But if I look at the bigger picture of them growing up in a society where Black lives don’t matter as much as white lives and where they’re afraid of losing their privilege, I come a bit closer to understanding why their actions happened.

Empathizing isn’t the same as agreeing. Like Aye Min Thant concluded from her feeling of empathy that the actions should be condemned, I do the same in Potter and Chauvin’s cases. It is precisely for the reason that we know that Black lives matter less than whites that Potter and Chauvin should have known better. Instead of acting from whatever emotion they were feeling at the moment of their actions, they should have put their ego aside and self reflect on the situation. By not realizing their deeds are part of a racism system they’re living in, by not taking the responsibility to self-reflect after all the protests, anger and outrage over the last year since George Floyd’s death, they’re even more guilty of their crimes.

But I also believe it’s necessary that I as a white (!)  woman don’t distance myself from Potter and Chauvin. Mind you, I don’t expect this empathy from a Black person. We need more white people saying: shit, we really have a problem as white people, with our egos, with a lack of self reflection. As long as we don’t acknowledge that, nothing will change.

And that’s why empathy matters in inclusion, it gives us an opportunity to say: listen, no excuses anymore.