Empathy: A Tool for Liberation or Simply Self-Preservation?

I must say that while I am excited to think about the role emotions play in the decision-making process, I also found this week’s prompt incredibly challenging.  As I shared with my amazing #TeamTuesday, this prompt brought up a lot of emotions. When I moved back to the US, I was told by white people that I should try to understand Trump supporters, and that I should just “grow thicker skin.” 

Don’t get me wrong, I definitely understand the struggle of rural Americans.  I understand that the concept of “privilege” is very different for them. I also understand the level of manipulation that has made a disenfranchised group of people believe that another oppressed group is their enemy.  It is this system of manipulation that convinced low-income whites that their poverty is directly connected to immigrants in this country. It is maliciously brilliant to point fingers at an oppressed group instead of addressing the root cause and the policies of greed that have created an environment where the top 1% of Americans own 40% of the country’s wealth (source: Federal Survey of Consumer Finances).  I get that. What I have a difficult time understanding is a decision based on hate. 

I cannot logically justify someone voting for a white supremacist and sexual predator who has instilled so much hate towards my people.  I do not understand how some can even vote against their own self-interest simply because their hate is stronger. How can I be empathetic towards those who hate my very own existence?  How can I be empathetic to those who protest Planned Parenthood in the name of life and Christian values but ignore the lives of the innocent children who are caged at the border? Do they deserve my empathy when, in their eyes, my people are not worthy of theirs? Can I have empathy and still have boundaries to ensure that I am not attacked? 

I find that it is much easier for me to empathize with the oppressed, but incredibly difficult to empathize with the oppressor, although I try. In fact, it has been empathy and honest curiosity that has held me back from reacting to hateful personal attacks. I have found empathy to be one of my strongest defense mechanisms in this new environment of normalized racism.

I also realize that power dynamics play a critical role. Can empathy be used to equalize power? Will we ever get there if only the oppressed are empathetic towards their oppressors? How do we gain power to spark social change and a radical transformation?  How do we change the systems that have manipulated human beings to play into a system that oppresses human beings? 

I guess I need to go back and re-read Paulo Freire.  I want to believe that the oppressed will not only liberate themselves but also their oppressors.  But, how do we abandon the oppressor’s tools? How do we develop and embrace our own? I guess, for now, I’ll just grow thicker skin while I continue to fight the systems of oppression and do my part to repair the world.   

Reflection Script

I continued to reflect on empathy for the rest of the week.  I deliberately thought about empathy every time I disagreed with someone this week.  When I started to feel that uneasiness with a statement, I automatically went to, “Why is _______ right?”  While I am currently dealing with empathy fatigue, I am excited that this simple question, in essence, engages my intellectual abilities and minimizes the emotion. I believe that this skill will serve me well.

I realize that my empathy skills can be credited for my success at building and maintaining relationships.  These relationships have contributed so much to CCWB’s work. I also realize that empathy is the foundation to CPA’s model.  Understanding where all stakeholders are coming from creates a deep sense of connection and responsibility towards each other.  I will definitely keep that in mind as we are building CPA in Colorado.  

I truly appreciated your questions and reflections. The reality is that we are currently in a difficult space, but this too shall pass.  For now, If I could have lunch with someone today, I would definitely choose Paulo Freire (and invite Sheila). I would love to hear his assessment of our current environment. What would he do if he were me? How would his approach change?  What can we learn from this?  

I also realize that I did not directly address the prompt.  I, instead, dove into the philosophical side of empathy and the many components I am grappling with.  I am no one to take shortcuts, so here is the condensed version of the assignment.    

Why Funders Who Don’t Fund CCWB Are Right

CCWB is a fairly new organization.  With only two and a half years of operation, some funders perceive us as a risky investment.

Funders prefer quick results.  Changing systems is a very difficult and long process.  It is much more attractive to funders when you can say, “we helped XX entrepreneurs with developing their marketing skills” than “we built XX relationships to eventually change the system.”  

CCWB is a small organization with big goals. Does CCWB actually have the capacity to deliver?   While we are nimble and flexible to community needs, we are a risky investment.  

Funding CCWB can be a risky political move.  Why would foundations want to be associated with agitating the system that has worked great for their entities? Investing in us might put them in a difficult position.   

Thank you all again for your contributions! 


7 thoughts on “Empathy: A Tool for Liberation or Simply Self-Preservation?”

  1. I love your questions, Yessica! I really struggle with the suggestion that the oppressed should feel empathy for their oppressors, when there often isn’t the same expectation for the oppressors. I also where empathy ends and enabling begins. Thank you for your willingness to articulate these questions.

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  2. Hi Yessica! The posts this week have been super intense yet very very vulnerable and I deeply appreciate getting to know more about your struggles and thinking through these posts.

    I feel very inclined to agree with you on the difficulty when it comes to developing empathy for the oppressor. At the same time, I look at many cases where oppressive systems have been toppled and realize that many of them had strong allies within the oppressing class. I recall coming to the conclusion that, in order to tear down an oppressive system, you need the oppressor’s help. Now maybe you don’t need the vilest ones on your side, but I think most of us somewhere not on the extremes it comes to where we lie in the oppressor/oppressed continuum, where there are others who are oppressed more than we are and then there are some who benefit from but don’t actively enforce the oppression.

    Through empathy, how could you develop inroads with those who lie closer to the middle and begin to chip away at the oppressor’s power base? How can we use empathy to enlist allies that will be able to make further inroads within the oppressing class? I think that is a question worth reflecting on.

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  3. Thank you for your post, Yessica, and for the points you raised during our call this week! I love Paulo Freire’s writings and wonder how he might advise us in this current moment in history?

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  4. Thank you, Yessica. I appreciate you engaging here, even through the pain and violence.
    What would your answer to this prompt look like if your empathy was for a funder who chose not to fund you?
    I’ve tried this prompt for a big potential member organization (a mental health center & charter school) that I tried to recruit to join CPA for 12 months and after many opportunities they still chose not to work with me / CPA. The process of responding and really putting myself in their shoes has helped me tremendously in thinking about what are the beliefs and world views of the people that I initially think will want to work with us, but then in the end don’t.

    How do I try to spend my time more wisely by enrolling folks in the journey with me?

    How can you use empathy to help you enroll the leaders you need to actualize the vision you have for change in Denver, at the CCWB, and with the small business owners you most want to help?

    I’m really excited to keep learning from you and with you as we continue on this journey. I’m very grateful for your call today and your curiosity in how this might unfold. I’m eager to see what might come next.

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  5. I read a lot of sincerity and earnestness in this post – thank you for sharing both with us, Yessica.

    I’m amazed at people’s ability to rationalize. Any sin or system, no matter how grievous, can be rationalized by the people who participate in it. I know lots of evangelical Christians at my parents’ church who love Trump with their whole heart, mind and soul. They see themselves as good, heaven-bound people who follow God.

    (After visiting my parent’s church one Sunday shortly after I finished working on the Obama campaign in 2010, the church pianist, who I’ve known for 22 years, came up to me after church and said, ‘Hello, Jonathan. I hear you are a Democrat.’)

    It sounds like you’ve flexed your empathy muscle for a long time. I can only imagine how difficult that must be in a country whose President disparages Latinx people and whose voters put him in office.

    In addition to serving as a defense mechanism in the Trump era, how else does your deep ability to empathize serve you well? What other joy, human connection, open doors, intercultural dialogue does your empathy create for you? After years of defending yourself with empathy, are you feeling empathy fatigue, or are you feeling stronger in your empathy than ever before?

    How do you expect your deep well of empathy to be useful as you pursue CPA?

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  6. Yessica, thank you so much for sharing what I sense is pain and confusion at such an oppressive yet endemic system. Many aspects of your experience resonate with me. One thing I’ve pondered recently has been when the oppressive nature of this system manifests in people’s viewpoints through a blended, more nuanced way. It is easy to recognize the oppressor when they staunchly represent the opposing view. What of the person who demonstrates many similar beliefs to you, yet has a destructive/oppressors’ view on one topic that translates to a form of hate? Recently, my husband and I spent time with a couple of dear friends who are like family to us in many ways. They are both a bit older than my husband and me, both POC, and hold similar values and perspectives as us. However, one member of the couple holds what I consider to be extremely toxic views on the role of women. This view is (slightly) tempered around me, I have noticed, out of his awareness of my own beliefs. He has even admitted to re-phrasing or communicating things differently so that I might not “misunderstand.” His spouse, unfortunately, remains silent when he delivers his views on women (“tempered” as they may be). I recognize patriarchal sexism in his behaviors/speech, and have had to question my response to our long-standing friendship and closeness. I raise this example to question how you approach these situations. Is there always a clear oppressor? Or can there be hints of oppressor in our closest friends? In that case, is it possible to grow selectively thick skin?

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  7. I really appreciated this post. The video we were prompted to watch talked about empathy for the oppressed, and you’re SO RIGHT to skeptically bring in the question of how that is a different conversation when we’re talking about empathy for the oppressor. I also want to notice and appreciate how hard it must have been to move back here after Trump and have people tell you to grow thicker skin. What an extremely un-empathetic response! One that sounds very dismissive of your own experiences. Ugh!

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