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Empathy Doesn't Make You Less Racist
Saidiya Hartman argues that erasing difference can be an act of aggression.
How do you solve racism and bigotry? One common answer is empathy. If oppressors could put themselves in the place of the oppressed, the argument goes, they could recognize the humanity of the marginalized, and they would reject oppression.
Scholar Saidiya Hartman isn’t so sure that empathy is a solution. In her classic 1997 examination of slavery and the persistence of oppression, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America, Hartman argues that in many ways empathy is a continuation and reproduction of the dynamics of oppression, rather than a response or refutation. Her reservations have, I think, been born out in our current discourse in unsettling ways, which makes her analysis of empathy particularly worth revisiting now.
“I myself was a slave…”
Hartman’s discussion of empathy focuses in part on a passage by John Rankin, a white man, an indefatigable abolitionist and a conductor on the Underground Railroad. In one of his attacks on the evils of slavery, intended to rally white political sentiment, Rankin imagines himself and his family enslaved. Hartman reprints the passage:
My flighty imagination added much to the tumult of passion by persuading me, for the moment, that I myself was a slave, and with my wife and children placed under the reign of terror. I began in reality to feel for myself, my wife, and my children—the thoughts of being whipped at the pleasure of a morose and capricious master, aroused the strongest feelings of resentment; but when I fancied the cruel lash was approaching my wife and children, and my imagination depicted in lively colors, their tears, their shrieks, and bloody stripes, every indignant principle of my bloody nature was excited to the highest degree.
The passage is obviously anti-slavery. But, Hartman says, “empathy in important respects confounds Rankin’s efforts to identify with the enslaved because in making the slave’s suffering his own, Rankin begins to feel for himself rather than for those whom this exercise in imagination presumably is designed to reach.” The enslaved person is used as a vehicle for Rankin’s emotions, imagination, and self-pity. Their humanity is displaced by Rankin’s desires and goals; he uses them in some ways as the enslavers use them. There is, Hartman says, an “obliteration of otherness,” in which “the attention of the self occurs at the expense of the slave’s suffering.”
The objection here may seem a little abstract. After all, (as Hartman acknowledges), Rankin’s intention is, again, to highlight the horrors of slavery. More, sentimental abolitionist narratives like this one (Uncle Tom’s Cabin especially) were to some degree successful in mobilizing Northern opinion against slavery.
So there is a strategic value to empathy. But looking at our contemporary racist discourse, there are also some definite downsides.
The advantages of being someone else
Consider the arguments around vaccines. Conservative opponents of vaccines portray themselves as victims of tyranny and claim that they have suffered a terrifying loss of freedom. Parallels with slavery are often implicit, and sometimes explicit.
In December 2022, for example, Minnesota state representative Walter Hudson declared “The plantation owner who said 'I need cotton and you're going to pick it' is morally equivalent to the person today who says 'I don't want to get sick so you have to take the jab.'” He added, “I don't care about polls - you know what else polled well at the time? Chattel slavery.”
Hudson obviously does not actually care about enslaved people, or about Black people. But the rhetorical approach he is using echoes Rankin’s.
Like Rankin, Hudson imagines himself into the position of an enslaved person; he sees himself in the fields, being forced to pick cotton. And like Rankin, putting himself in the place of the oppressed leads inevitably to self-pity—and, in this case, to anger, resentment, and a call to resist. The enslaved can’t speak for themselves, and so their experience (like their labor) can be appropriated, manipulated, and deployed for the emotional and political needs of others. Empathy here is a form of exploitation.
Hudson and Rankin aren’t alone. Empathetically inhabiting the subaltern is among our most popular narrative contemporary styles. David Higgins argues as much in his 2021 book Reverse Colonization: Science Fiction, Imperial Fantasy, and Alt-victimhood. According to Higgins,
identification with victimhood has become a strange source of ideological power for imperial subjects in our contemporary moment: as surprising as it may seem, imagining oneself as a colonized victim often serves as the ideological core of imperial fantasy for those who benefit the most from modern-day conditions of empire.
Feeling bad for yourself in the Matrix
Higgins points in particular to The Matrix, which imagines all of humanity enslaved by machines. The robots sedate humans and place them in a computerized dream world while feeding on their nutrients and energy.
The movie equates false consciousness with totalizing slavery; propaganda traps you in a world of utter exploitation. According to The Matrix, Higgins writes, “we are all desperate insurgents fighting a lonely revolution against an oppressive, colonizing power.”
Thanks to Higgins’ insights, we can see The Matrix as an elaborate doubling down on Rankin’s exercise of empathy. Viewers of the film are encouraged to imagine themselves into the position of an enslaved other, and then are told that this imagining is a revolutionary truth which, via sheer cognitive insistence, can throw off the bonds of oppression. The Matrix thematizes and elaborates on Rankin’s empathetic self-enslavement, treating empathy not just as a tool for revolution, but as a kind of revolution in itself.
This cognitive revolution of radical self-empathy is symbolized in the film by taking the “Red Pill”—a drug that reveals the true nature of reality and the true nature of oppression. The Red Pill can be seen as a symbol of empathy itself; when you take it, you, like Rankin, see yourself in the position of the enslaved. It allows you to feel for the oppressed by putting yourself into the position of the oppressed—which means that it allows you to feel for yourself and mourn your own (imagined) oppression.
As Higgins points out, the magical Red Pill of empathetic self-pity has been a very popular cultural meme—not least on the far right. Men’s Rights Activists have enthusiastically adopted the “Red Pill” as a shorthand for the moment when men realize that the world is controlled by women. That’s a narrative which resonates with depictions of enslaved men as emasculated or robbed of their manhood.
You can alsosee those fears of emasculation in Rankin’s empathetic self-portrait, in which he moves from imagining himself enslaved to imagining his wife and children suffering under the “cruel lash.” To empathize with the subaltern is to feel yourself into disempowerment and unmanliness. In response to this unmanning, Ranking turns to self-assertion, and an imagined anger and rage.
Empathizing yourself into a position of weakness can, then, excite what Rankin calls “bloody nature.” Nor is that bloody nature always deployed on behalf of the subaltern. To feel with the oppressed might make you determined to end all oppression. But it also might make you determined to preserve your own power. An empathizer might think, “If I were in that position, I would kill me. So I had better make sure the subaltern never gets a chance to take revenge. And I can best do that by taking revenge first.”
This empathetic logic of proactive repression is endemic among reactionaries and racists. It’s the basis of the “white genocide” myths, in which people on the far right imagine themselves becoming demographic minorities—and then work themselves into a violent racist lather because they fear that they will be treated in the way that they have treated non-white people. The backlash of empathy is lurking in hyperbolic myths of Black criminality as well, as white people fear that Black people will do unto them as they have been done unto.
Universalism for all
Some proponents of empathy will no doubt argue that the negative examples here aren’t really empathy. If you truly feel someone else’s pain, you won’t expropriate it for your own political talking points, or use it as an excuse to fear and harm them. Empathy can only be good, the argument goes, and therefore any perversion of it is obviously not empathy, QED.
I think Hartman encourages us to ask harder questions about empathy and its uses, though. Empathy, by encouraging the interchange of selves, tends to suggest that selves are interchangeable. It frames other’s experiences as inhabitable—which means, especially when you’re talking about the subaltern, that mainstream commenters can just inhabit the marginalized rather than, for example, talking to them.
Empathy is in many ways a tool of humanism. Its use is based on, and ratifies, the assumption of a universal human experience. But as Hartman argues, “Abstract universality presumes particular forms of embodiment and excludes or marginalizes others.” When those who see themselves as universal imagine themselves into the marginalized, they do so in part by eliding difference and overwriting the other with their own ideas and selves.
Hartman points out that abolitionists, after abolition, were among those who exhorted freed Black people to adopt attitudes of gratitude, humility, and even servility.
Abolitionists worried that Black people weren’t prepared for freedom, and wrote tracks encouraging them to be dutiful and to stay on the plantations on which they’d been oppressed. Former abolitionists blamed freed Black people for not working hard enough, rather than acknowledging that freed people were poor because white people had robbed them and their ancestors of all their worldly goods. As Hardiman says, “Abolitionist discourse, expurgated of the terrifying details that scandalized and titillated Northern audiences, was little more than a colloquy on the degraded character of the enslaved and the unproductivity of slave labor.”
Following emancipation, had abolitionists suddenly forgotten how to empathize with Black people?Not exactly. It’s just that imagining themselves into Black people didn’t necessarily mean eschewing racism. Abolitonists used their empathy and thought, “well, Black people are free like me, and I know what it’s like to be free, because aren’t I free? So what are they complaining about?” Empathy could erase actual material differences and actual material difficulties. It flattened all free people into a sameness, without considering the challenges of ongoing stigma, poverty, and violence.
Extrapolating from Higgins, we can see abolitonist empathy as a genre—a literary, narrative mode which provided a conceit of self-identity with the oppressed. When the genre and the conceits no longer fit new circumstances, the erasure of difference could be repurposed for oppression rather than liberation.
Though there were important Black abolitionists, white abolitionists had for the most part never cultivated a habit or an ethic of listening to those they claimed to help. They believed that they had the power to learn more by simply imagining themselves into other bodies. As a result, abolitionists continued to impose their own imaginings onto Black people after emancipation as they had done before it.
Empathy is, at least in part, a way to speak for others. As such, it’s also, inevitably, a way to speak over others, and instead of others—to turn a particular experience of oppression into a universal human condition. When Black people say, “Black Lives Matter,” many white people respond by insisting, “All Lives Matter.” Racism and empathy become indistinguishable, because the desire for universal experience is also, at least in part, a desire for universal dominion. To say that I can be you is to say that you aren’t anybody—just an identical node in my Matrix, or a thing in my dream.
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