NOTE: This series of essays are focused primarily on the use of “civility” as a social/cultural norm in the context of nonviolent revolutionary struggles in the U.S. I’m not interested in discussing the “merits” of revolutionary nonviolence vs. other forms of struggle for liberation and survival that might not easily wear that label in this series, but specifically in how “civility” is used by those with more social power to characterize some forms of nonviolent struggle and resistance to oppression by folks with less social power in U.S. society as “divisive,” “counterproductive,” and even most ironically, “racist.” Such characterizations, I’ll argue, serve to only further silence and marginalize oppressed folks in radical communities and maintain systems of privilege and power, while claiming to create a more “neutral” and equal space for all.
THE PROBLEM OF EMPATHY
One last framework that I think is frequently connected to the call for civility is something that could be called the politics of empathy. Empathy, generally understood as the ability to understand the experience and emotions of another, has been promoted by many as a way for those who don’t suffer a particular type of oppression (folks with social power sometimes built on that oppression, or folks who may deal with a different type of oppression) to build connection and solidarity with those directly affected by it. Using empathy as part of political practice is thus seen as a strategy for folks to break down barriers between folks in different positions in social hierarchies to better enable collective, collaborative action to create change. While empathy has always been part of struggles for social justice and liberation, the current version of the politics of empathy has become especially prominent in the last few decades among liberal-, progressive- and radically-minded folks in social change movements.
To some degree, this can be seen as a positive development, a growing understanding among folks with more social power of how intersecting oppressions work to create a range of experiences they may not share. Working to “feel” or “understand” others’ pain, even if we can’t share their experiences of oppression or social trauma can hold the potential of decentering our own privileged experience. But the need to make others’ oppression something we can “understand” or even “feel” so central to our capacity to act towards ending it can also serve to reinforce our privileged mindset when we don’t understand or feel it. In worse-case scenarios, this can look somewhat similar to tone policing, with resultant silencing of marginalized folks, denial of their experiences, and support for an oppressive status quo.
Many have noted the flaws built into the politics of empathy, but my recent thinking on it is directly indebted to the work of Seattle-based writer and activist Ijeoma Oluo. In October of this past year, Oluo appeared on KPLU, a Seattle-area radio station, and discussed some of the issues touched upon thus far in this essay (including the disruption of the Bernie Sanders event by Black Lives Matter activists two months prior) with KPLU reporter Gabriel Spitzer. While the segment — entitled “How Seattle May Be ‘Nice’ But It’s Not Always ‘Kind’” — was focused on examining how race plays out in the Emerald City, her insights are useful in a wider context.
WHITE LIBERAL RACISM & THE SEATTLE “NICE”
Spitzer opens the segment by noting that Seattle is generally known for a particular norm of basic politeness, of “niceness”. Oluo, however, points out that this norm is based in its being a predominantly white middle-class city, one built around comfort for those same folks, and that in general, “Seattleites are more offended by discomfort than social injustice.” This fear of discomfort on the part of even progressive or radical leftist whites leads to resistance whenever folks of color fight against the various forms of racism they encounter in their communities (bringing us back to our earlier look at MLK’s “Letter…”). Folks of color in Seattle, as in many places across the U.S., are accused of bringing race “into things” when they confront racial injustice in Seattle. But Oluo states that “race is in everything,” and oppression — racial, gender, class, and others — enters social spaces both as direct result of choices by people in power to not represent the interests of folks of color and work to make changes that would better their lives by using their power, as well as by everyday people who refuse to see their neighbors’ humanity as equal to their own and work to make changes.
Oluo discusses how her upbringing caused her to value “kindness” over “politeness,” but that this kindness was based not in avoiding difficult issues, but a compassionate, yet sometimes critical way of relating to others. While more difficult than politeness, this kindness allows for more substantial, authentic conversations and interactions with the potential for change. Politeness, on that other hand, frequently works along the lines of existing social scripts, with the intention of tamping down potential conflict and keeping peace, even if it is a “negative” one (as referred to by MLK in “Letter…”). It is focused on the surface of social reality, not the substance, and thus, isn’t particularly useful in generating the types of conversations and questioning that leads to social change. In drawing this distinction, Oluo says (emphasis added):
I think that kindness is an honesty; it’s a recognition of the person that you are talking to, and it’s an honest response out of love to what you are seeing. Politeness is about comfort. Kindness is not often comfortable, in fact, oftentimes it’s incredibly uncomfortable to look at someone honestly and with love say what needs to be said. Politeness is, you don’t care what burns down around you, so long as you can make everything look pretty. There’s a huge difference.
My read on this is that Oluo sees the rejection of “politeness” — which I believe can be equated with “civility” as I’ve discussed it thus far in this series — as a crucial part in challenging social oppression. This is because as a social practice in our society, it is designed around maintaining white comfort, as well as comfort for folks with social power along other social dimensions such as class, gender and ability. It can and usually does deflect the uncomfortable conversations essential to address racism, misogyny and other forms of social injustice in a way that reflects honesty and respect for those affected by these injustices. As such, refusing “civility” as a norm is part of black resistance to white supremacy, and the resistance of all oppressed folks against their oppression.
The “Seattle nice” is put forward as evidence of the overall progressive character of the city by most. But as the BLM disruption incident shows, it is a mask, a myth, covering over the ever-present whiteness that underlies the social reality both folks of color and whites experience, and which continually works to get both folks of color and whites to live out its mythology, through framing anything that creates white discomfort or challenges white social power as a threat to community as a whole. The argument over the Seattle BLM activists’ tactics is really just a cover for the fear of black autonomy in a white-dominated space.
The general tone of the responses to the Seattle BLM’s action resembles that of the white clergymen Martin Luther King, Jr. addressed in “Letter from Birmingham Jail”: yes, of course, we care about racial injustice, but there is a proper time and place and way to do so, and this Sanders rally was not it. The reason folks were “offended,” Oluo recognized, was that the issue of violence against black folks was being brought into a space with an already existing agenda — “to feel good and coach Bernie along.” But to her, a political rally where someone is running to represent everyone as President of the United States is the perfect time and place to bring racial injustice to the table, and the idea that anyone should be exempt from such reckonings — even the most visibly progressive politician in the race — is wrong.
Like King, Oluo asserts that this perspective is based in white privilege, in that whites — unlike folks of color — can choose when and where to let racism into their experience, on terms comfortable to them; this includes both when and where to address racism (which all “good” white folks, recognize is a problem, of course). As noted in the previous essay in this series, an even more extreme attitude expressed following the rally by many attendees and folks throughout Seattle was that not only was the action offensive and disrespectful, but that the activists had “damaged the message” of Black Lives Matter among allies beyond repair, and that “Black Lives Matter didn’t matter to them anymore.” Oluo lays out a simple and stark question for those expressing such sentiments, which is “whether you believe that black lives matter. Even if people with black faces are offending you, or you don’t like their tactics or attitude. You either believe in equality or you don’t. The fact that being made uncomfortable for an afternoon would make you question your belief in equality for twelve percent of the country means that you never believed in it in the first place.”
In words only slightly different in tone, but similar in theme to MLK’s “Letter…,” Oluo says, “Black people aren’t here to make friends. This is about survival. Being nice and patient isn’t working.”
WHY EMPATHY ISN’T ENOUGH TO END OPPRESSION
Of all the points she makes in the radio segment, I find Oluo’s critique of the politics of empathy the most insightful. Instead of requiring that others’ experiences be translatable into our own in order to work with them against oppressions that may not impact us directly, she insists that we need to begin accepting others’ experiences and their expressions of those experiences on their terms, regardless of whether we can identify with it or not. In an extended statement, she says (emphasis added):
I would say as a feminist, as a Black woman, as someone who campaigns for underprivileged people, day in and day out, if there is one common thing I’ve learned is that we have to believe people. We have to stop trying to filter everything through our own lenses. Every single one of us, we have this process, where someone says, this is happening to me and this is hurting me, and we run it through our own personal experience to see if it computes, and if it doesn’t, we reject it. And that is a fundamental denial of the humanity of the person you are talking to. Because that person is already capable of interpreting their own experience and communicating it to you, and they don’t need you to then further interpret it and run it through your own set of checks and balances that are already swayed by your own sets of privilege. You know, people deserve to be heard and believed.
And further (emphasis added):
…It’s not about empathy. It’s not about “walking a mile in someone’s shoes.” I hate that phrase so much. Because you just can’t. How am I supposed to walk a mile in the shoes of a migrant worker from southern California? In what way? I had a summer job I hated once…that’s in no way comparable. So if they tell me what they’re going through, I just have to look at them and say, you know what, you’re a human being capable of communicating what’s happening to you, and I believe you because you’re a person. And that I think, is the number one thing that I see throughout feminist movements, women saying, believe us, this is happening to us, we are being attacked, we are being belittled, you know, we are being killed. And Black Lives Matter is black people saying the same thing, believe us, this system is destroying us. And you just have to.
Oluo thus identifies a central flaw in the practice of the politics of empathy as a basis for anti-oppressive politics: that different identities, different experiences, different levels of social power will always affect people’s capacity to identify with the experiences of others. The validity, the very reality of oppressed folks’ experiences is diminished by this requirement to translate them to match the experience of folks not targeted by that oppression. A sometimes insurmountable burden of proof is required to make oppressed folks’ stories believable and “real” to those with greater social power, and it has to be presented in a way that recenters the experience of those with greater social power — in the case of folks of color and discussions of racial oppression, on whites.
The result can be similar to tone policing, with a set framework and language allowable in the discussion, and a rejection of emotional information/knowledge as not as substantive as more clinical forms of information/knowledge about a given situation. When practiced in this way, the politics of empathy actually denies oppressed folks their full humanity. It also gets in the way of social transformation and potential solidarity/allyship, by making both conditional on whether an oppressed person or community’s experiences are judged as sufficiently fitting the definition of oppression set by others with more social power, and thus, whether folks with more social power “get it” and render it valid, true, real.
BLACK PAIN, BLACK ANGER
One important point regarding this is something I recognized coming out of the Seattle BLM/Bernie Sanders incident, which is that the pain of folks of color is something whites can more easily digest and connect with, i.e. empathize with, while POC anger is different. This is not because whites can necessarily understand the trauma and pain of racist oppression that folks of color experience, but because expressions of such pain generally don’t threaten white comfort or the power of whiteness. (In fact, they can sometimes provide some white folks a form of comfort that they do see folks of color as fully human, in terms of feeling empathy for their pain.) Black and brown pain is more an acknowledgement of where we are and where we have been, as opposed to pushing towards where should or can be in terms of a more liberated world, with full humanity for all.
Black (and brown) outrage or anger, on the other hand, directly rejects social reality as it exists and has existed under racism, and thus, rejects prioritizing white comfort. It is an active recognition of the truth that society as it exists is built on the denial of full humanity of oppressed folks, but that this is not the way things should or have to be. It disrupts the centering of whiteness crucial to tone policing and respectability politics. It is an embodied refusal to and recognition of the false ease of empathy, an assertion of distinctive, autonomous experience. Drawing on it, folks can feel empowered to shift from survival to creative resistance to socially transformative actions outside the bounds of what is commonly acceptable, which frequently is a synonym for that which maintains racial and other hierarchies. Most pointedly, it allows for folks of color to bring their full emotional selves and experiences into social spaces on their own terms, instead of self-policing these in the interests of white comfort.
Because it prioritizes black freedom and humanity over white comfort — in the terms discussed earlier through MLK’s “Letter from A Birmingham Jail, ” but also Oluo’s commentary — black anger is a crucial and necessary element in struggles to disrupt and dismantle white social power. It serves as a powerful tool to break out of the bonds whiteness imposes on black folks in naming our own experiences, and thus, in transforming those experiences.
Whites who truly want to end racial oppression need to stop putting bounds on what folks of color say, whether to avoid feeling uncomfortable, or to make these experiences easier for them to identify with — i.e. tone policing. They need to support the full social autonomy of people of color, which includes the full emotional range of their experiences about their oppression. They need to stop working to impose civility onto black actions and speech in struggles against racism. And they need to be willing to live through the discomfort they might feel when these action and speech are directed towards them that MLK, Oluo and many others identify as essential to the dismantling of white supremacy.
The end of an ugly, dehumanizing social system isn’t going to happen solely through polite conversations, but also ugly, difficult ones, driven by oppressed folks speaking the truth of their experiences and acting from that truth. White folks claiming to be allies who center themselves and their own experience instead that of folks of color in struggles against racism aren’t worthy of the label.
But if we reject the politics of empathy, how can folks of different identities create solidarity, connection, and collective power in struggles in ways that work against potentially oppressive dynamics? The answer appears to be in the alternative position Oluo suggests, where instead of trying to “[walk] in someone else’s shoes,” we simply believe them, affirm the truth of their own experiences as they express it, and thus, affirm their full humanity and autonomy.
What’s great about this approach is that it’s intersectional, meaning that it recognizes that different people who may share a general oppressive experience (folks of color under white racism) might still experience it differently — black folks as opposed to indigenous folks, folks of Asian descent, folks of Latinx descent, and on and on. Even further, it also recognizes that folks who might belong to a particular identity (black) may not share the same oppressive experiences due to other dimensions to their identity along which other oppressions might operate (ex. black men, black women, black queers, black trans*folks, black poor folks, black middle class folks, black immigrants, black disabled folks, all sorts of combinations of the previous and more, etc.). Instead of focusing on empathy (which can render folks’ full experiences invisible through the requirement to make them understandable by someone not having that experience), committing to believing in the experiences of marginalized folks as they themselves express them can build useful connection, collective knowledge and power on the way to ending oppressions of all kinds — while foregrounding the experiences of those most affected by them.
Bringing this commitment to listening and believes oppressed folks whose experiences we do not share into struggles against oppression will likely lead to all manner of discomfort for all different types of folks — not just that of whites around white supremacy and racism, but men around patriarchy and misogyny, rich and middle-class folks around class, non-queer and cis-gendered folks around heteronormativity, able-bodied folks around ableism…but also women, poor folks, queer folks, trans*folks, disabled folks who might have different experiences than others of the “same” identity. But choosing to work through this discomfort is essential towards liberation for others and self and to struggles to end racial and other hierarchies. And essential to that work is rejecting practices — like the politics of empathy — that require oppressed folks to make their experiences easier for those with more social power to relate and connect with. Instead, we must jettison the comfort of all those with more social power and all the practices used to protect that comfort and power, as we work towards more liberated lives for all, ones which celebrate the fullness of our humanity.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
UPDATE (July 13, 2016): Just wanted to note that Hari Ziyad of RaceBaitr published a piece that touched on many of the same points I made in this essay back in August 2015…I just became aware of it, but I want to acknowledge it as another crucial read examining the problems of the politics of empathy. Check it out…
 I haven’t really located or identified a definition for the politics of empathy that is concise, so I’m going to try and develop one through this piece.
 Gabriel Spitzer and Ijeoma Oluo, “Ijeoma Oluo Discusses How Seattle May Be ‘Nice’ But It’s Not Always ‘Kind’,” KPLU, October 21, 2015,
 Spitzer and Oluo, same link as above.
 Spitzer and Oluo, same link as above.
 Spitzer and Oluo, same link as above.
 Spitzer and Oluo, same link as above.
 Spitzer and Oluo, same link as above.
 For more on the constructive uses of anger in struggles against oppression, see my brief discussion of Audre Lorde’s “The Uses of Anger” in the previous essay in this series.