Empathy and Racism

The role of empathy in the conversation about racism.


To illustrate the complexities around creating inclusive, empathetic conversations about racism with young people, consider Sara, a second grader, and the only black girl in her class.  The teacher teaches a lesson to the class about slavery, and, afterwards, a group of Sara’s white classmates comes over to give Sara a hug.  Sara is made so uncomfortable by this display of affection that she does not tell her mother about it until she is in the 5th grade, at which point she reflects that she couldn’t wait for that classroom conversation to be over.  What was it about Sara’s classmates’ hug that made her so uncomfortable? 


Their compassion felt to Sara like an expression of pity, rather than empathy; though the gesture was sweet, it was misguided in that the children did not themselves feel affected by the history lesson.


To build empathy around these topics we need to ask: how do we share in these experiences of injustice?  How do they affect all of us?  How can we work together to build just, inclusive communities?


By Madeleine Rogin