Simply Not Enough
First, a question: when the video of George Floyd’s murder—or that of Ahmaud Arbery’s, or Philando Castille’s, or Terence Crutcher’s, or the countless others—first started circulating the web, what was your reaction? When you heard Floyd cry out for his mom as the officers mocked him, telling him to get in the car with their knee on his neck, what did you feel? You cried, you felt nauseous, you felt helpless, maybe even guilty. While white privilege may shield us from dwelling on the genocidal racism that is constantly exhibited in this country, it does not remove us from our innate human ability for empathy. When you bear witness to life leaving the eyes of a man who's done nothing wrong, is it even possible to shrug it off, to put your phone down and go about your day on your way to Starbucks? Terrifyingly enough, yes, it is. Let’s assess why.
In White Supremacy Culture, Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun’s 2001 workbook for social change, the authors list 15 characteristics of white supremacy culture. Though all 15 characteristics play a role in burying possibility for real, radical change, there are three characteristics that make it clear how and why we mourn and then look away: number one, our continued sense of urgency, number two, our belief that progress is bigger than the individual, and number three, our white entitlement to personal comfort.
We may feel moved by our white empathy, even called to action, and yet still feel helpless in our individual ability to affect change. Our sense of urgency, as Instagramer @aniss.a__ so aptly put it, “allows us to sacrifice the rewards of hard, tedious work and allyship for quick and/or highly visible results.” It allows us to say to ourselves, We want change now! But the next protest isn’t for another week :(.
There is a tacit white supremacist ideal of what progress looks like that leads us to the conclusion that progress must be large-scale, and our contribution to progress must be visible for it to matter. We feel better about our radical action when we ally ourselves with a bigger, less guilty party (like a large protest, or a pre-existing movement). In searching for big, quick change, we excuse ourselves from assessing how we, as white individuals, contribute to systemic racism. What we do and how we think in our homes, schools, and jobs contributes to systemic racism. However, we tend to see our individual actions and thoughts as negligible when juxtaposed to the grander sense of sweeping white supremacy that dominates this country. We claim to understand Black American suffering and seek highly visible methods of support because we want to prove to our comrades, but more so to ourselves, that we are not ‘one of the bad ones.’ This is why we are able to forget about BLM for a few days, and go back to posting our acai bowl as if Black protestors have stopped dying at the hands of this police-state. When we feel we have sufficiently proved our moral righteousness, that we have put enough distance between ourselves and the institution that has always favored us, we can pat ourselves on the back and call it a job well-done.
The influence of social media, our infatuation with pictures, videos, and being ‘in-the-know’ has resulted in the strength of today’s movement, giving it the ability to shake whites through their pathos. In this way social media has reshaped the movement for Black lives and rights. The movement is not the same as it was 55 years ago. This visual culture moves us to empathize in vastly different ways.
Is white empathy inherently wrong? No, not exactly, but when paired with the characteristics above (a focus and quick post-able action), it is short-lived. A momentary lapse in white comfort does not serve our united motivation for continuing this revolution.
When empathizing with the Black victims of police brutality, white people psychologically situate themselves as they always do, as the main characters of pain and struggle. We hurt, we cry, and we imagine, ‘what if that were my father/brother/sister/mother/daughter/son in that video?,’ and perhaps to a greater extent, we hypothesize, ‘what if that were me?’ We ignorantly interpret Black experience and attempt to take on the emotions of what it means to be oppressed. Here are the issues with this.
WE ARE NOT THE OPPRESSED, BUT RATHER, WE HAVE A ROLE AS THE OPPRESSOR. WHITE FOLK WILL NEVER FEEL THE PAIN, LOSS AND STRUGGLE OF BLACK FOLK IN AMERICA.
While we empathize with Black struggle as if we are the oppressed, the characteristics we inherit from white supremacy culture give us a sense of entitlement to dictate how protest and change ought to work. White people who say things like, “Looting takes away from the cause,” and “keep the protests peaceful,” fail to take responsibility for the ways they actively oppress Black voices and Black resistance. Essentially, these people have their boot on the neck of Black communities while telling them, “That must hurt! Do what I want and maybe I’ll get off of you.”
Unlike Black folk, white folk are able to step away from the painful truth of oppression. Furthermore, white people do turn away from this pain because we feel entitled to emotional comfort —‘mental health days’ are a luxury afforded to the privileged demographic.
Now, I am far from saying that white allies ought to face Black suffering void of emotion. Instead, I am urging white allies to be conscious of how we choose to emotionally motivate our own radical action. WHITE EMPATHY NEEDS TO BE REPLACED BY WHITE SYMPATHY. Empathy turns Black suffering into an uncomfortable vicarious emotional experience with which white people fuel their moral righteousness and performative allegiance. Sympathy, on the other hand, acknowledges that as a white person, I can never lay claim to the pain and tragedy of Black communities in America. The difference between empathy and sympathy is our consciousness of our own whiteness—and with it, privilege and power. By employing sympathy, we may experience a radical shift in how we think of ourselves as white people, which will endow us with the irrefutable ethical responsibility to support the cause.
In the culture of white supremacy, white is the standard. It is the privilege of a white body in this culture to see their identity as separate from their skin color. In the public eye, any oppressed party is continuously aware of their identity as the oppressed, while the oppressor has the freedom to be identified by their individualism. For instance, when talking about two coworkers with the same name, you’re more likely to describe one of them as ‘the Black coworker,’ while the white coworker may be identified by the color of their hair, their size, or their personality. This is why it is often uncomfortable for a white person to be the only white person in a room: we, who are so privileged, rarely have to view our identities as dependent on our race.
Thus, when I call for white sympathy, I want us to become actively conscious of our position as oppressors, of the ease through which we have been able to travel through life, and of the power that we are able to lend to the movement. Solidarity does not mean proving that you’re not the bad guy. It means taking responsibility for the fact that all of us, whether we want to be or not, are members of the group that has robbed, raped, and murdered Black communities for centuries. It is uncomfortable, but white guilt is not something to be quelled. It is fuel for the fires of freedom. Guilt tells us that what we are a part of is wrong, and taking responsibility for this guilt means taking an honest look at the ways we allow oppression to persist; it means acknowledging the things we have done, or haven’t done, to limit and silence Black resistance.
So the struggle now is not just in gaining momentum for the movement, but rather in continuing to gain momentum, specifically, for white allies. In sympathizing with the struggle of Black Americans, look at the privileges you take for granted. Ask yourself, ‘how can I lend this power to the people who need and deserve it? Where are the places in my life where I should talk less and listen more?’ Make a list of resources you’re able to offer. Even without money, we all have something we can offer to support Black voices and communities, like food, shelter, equipment, ect. Post that list and ask your friends to share it. More than anything, do not stop fighting. Vow that until every Black American has the right to live, the right to breathe, to speak and be heard, the right to mental health, the right to exercise in public, the right to adequate medical care, the right to fresh food and water, until every Black American has the right to be remembered for who they were and not by how they were killed, the fight for freedom, and our role in it, is not over.