The racial uprisings of 2020 forced a global conversation about racism, and more specifically anti-blackness, and the insidious ways that it has shape-shifted over time. In many of these conversations, the suggested solution to the racial injustice that plagues society has been a need for greater empathy. Empathy is defined as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.” Previous examinations of empathy have suggested that it plays a key role in fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace, but in his book Against Empathy, Yale psychologist Paul Bloom makes a compelling case for why our fixation on empathy may be misguided. In the book, Bloom outlines why empathy should not be our north star and how it can actually lead to negative outcomes. Empathy is one of the most commonly cited remedies to prejudice. The argument is that if more people were able to “put themselves in the shoes of others”, then we could eliminate racism. There is article after article that supports this notion. But despite society’s fixation on empathy, it is important to examine why we must move away from making empathy-building the raison d’être of our DEI efforts.
In Against Empathy, Bloom asserts that too much empathy can actually be detrimental to an individual. A highly empathetic person, also known as an empath, is “highly attuned to the feelings and emotions of those around them,” and they have the ability to “actually taking those feelings on; feeling what another person is feeling at a deep emotional level.” Against Empathy purports that those who are highly empathetic may actually be impaired by their empathy and may not be able to effectively help those who are directly suffering. A manager, for example, who is highly empathetic, may not be able to effectively counsel employees impacted by trauma and may not be able to effectively lead because they are too impacted by the experiences of their employees. This can lead to secondary trauma, otherwise known as compassion fatigue. A person experiencing secondary trauma may not be able to adequately support and advocate for a distressed individual. If employees on your team are sharing their experiences with racial trauma and your first instinct is to put yourself in their shoes, for a highly empathetic person especially, the temporary suffering that is experienced secondhand can cloud your judgement and limit your understanding of how to effectively support the person who is experiencing the racial harm and trauma firsthand. It is critical to understand that one can be motivated to help others and advocate for them without feeling empathy for them.
Another argument against empathy is the fact that our ability to empathize with another is shaped by our own unique experiences and our understanding of the person we are empathizing with. There is a wealth of research that indicates that we actually feel less empathy for Black people compared to white people. One study found that “the extent to which Caucasian observers share the pain experience of other people is affected by the race of the person in pain.” What this essentially means is that all empathy is not created equal. We feel more empathy for certain groups of people and according to Bloom, we cannot empathize with more than one or two people at the same time; empathy appears to be finite. Empathy also, Bloom argues, has a narrow focus, which can cause us to put our attention on a select target, sometimes to the detriment of others. It makes sense then to reason that if empathy is the objective, then it will be challenging for an individual to understand and be sensitive to the pain of multiple marginalized groups simultaneously.
Another question that we must consider is this: what do we do if we are not able to understand the unique experiences of another? What if we can’t put ourselves in the shoes of another? New York Times best-selling author Ijeoma Oluo explored this in a video that was posted to her Instagram page. In the video Oluo states “we have to get past this idea that everything must feel like something that you’ve experienced in order for it to be valid…that you must run every other race’s lived experience through whiteness in order to support it, or to understand it…it is really important to back away from this desire to have everything relate to you. Because if you think that it has to make sense to you…then whenever justice hits an area of lived experience that you can’t relate to, you’re going to discount it.” One of the important points that Oluo was making in her video was that you should be able to support an individual who has experienced trauma without running it through your own filter of lived experience. This presents a problem, however, because the empathy principle is based on the premise of understanding and experiencing what another is feeling, and in doing that we juxtapose their experiences through the filter of our own lived experiences. But you can be compassionate and concerned about another person without necessarily feeling what they are feeling. Empathy is not needed for you to support marginalized people. White people will not always be able to understand and empathize with the experiences of the racially oppressed, but that does not mean they cannot advocate for and support these marginalized individuals.
MORE FOR YOU
Empathy requires one to live vicariously through another, experiencing the feelings, thoughts and attitudes that they are also feeling. Our empathy obsession needs to be studied and scrutinized more. One of the main arguments against empathy is that you can understand that someone is in pain without actually experiencing that pain yourself. The race of a person and our individual evaluation of that person can shape our feelings and influence the amount of empathy we feel for them. Whether we feel empathy for another person can greatly depend on a number of different variables. Regardless of race, socioeconomic status, gender or any other individual characteristics, people deserve humanity and compassion. The problem is that we filter our feelings through our own personal experiences—if we don’t understand an experience or cannot put ourselves in the moccasins of another, our ability to truly grasp their feelings is limited. Relying on empathy to eradicate racism may be a futile effort. There is mounting evidence that suggests that empathy should not be the modus operandi of our DEI efforts. Instead of empathy, Bloom suggests that compassion and kindness are better replacements. Within organizations, rather than trying to feel what the other person is feeling, we should be focused on how to mitigate and repair the harm inflicted on the most marginalized employees.