For those of you that weren’t speaking out against police brutality before George Floyd: Why now? What’s changed? What’s different?
And: Will you keep speaking out weeks from now?
These are questions that I, as a Black woman, have been asking myself, and questions that I have heard echoed across social media. The people in my life who have always been quiet on issues of race and social injustice are reaching out to me to ask if I’m okay. They’re speaking up about their white privilege and their desire to see police brutality come to an end in this country. They’re distraught about the high-profile killings of Black Americans in the last few months, but especially the recent death of George Floyd.
One key difference: the coronavirus. Months ago, many of us were forced to slow down, stay home, and spend even more time in front of our screens. Many of us became increasingly aware of our breath—aware that it could be taken from us by the coronavirus. Millions of Americans lost their jobs. These circumstances meant that for many, there was little to distract from the horrors of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor’s final moments. And yet, it still wasn’t enough to mobilize the nation.
I’ve found myself wondering: Is it just a coincidence that our collective outrage overflowed at the sound of George Floyd’s cries “I can’t breathe, man. Please!”? Certainly, there were a number of uniquely sickening details to George Floyd’s case—among all-too-familiar themes—that also resonated as a call to action.
Despite the haunting nature of these details and the different features of this moment, I am worried that empathetic voices lifting up this cause will quiet too soon for lasting change to occur. But it doesn’t have to happen this way. Gaining a better understanding of the empathy we feel in these moments of awareness and advocacy can help us take a more behaviorally sustainable approach.
A more nuanced understanding of empathy—and its related concepts—may help us use it more effectively in the fight against racism.
Empathy is a complex psychological phenomenon, describing eight distinct ways that we respond to one another’s experiences and emotions, but most commonly defined in the dictionary as “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Using this broader definition, scholars and activists have debated how effective empathy is as a tool for behavior change—particularly when it comes to fighting racism. Paul Bloom argues that empathy allows our bias to drive our decision-making, bell hooks states that empathy is not a promising avenue to systemic racial change, and Alisha Gaines analyzes how an overemphasis on racial empathy in a 1944 landmark study, “An American Dilemma,” led to a blindness about the impact of systemic and institutional racial barriers. This more general understanding and application of empathy has not been an effective aid to fighting systemic oppression and has led to a lot of (well-meaning?) blackface.
A more nuanced understanding of empathy—and its related concepts—may help us use it more effectively in the fight against racism. There are two strains of empathy that are relevant to the George Floyd protests and can help us better understand (and possibly change) our response: empathic distress and empathic concern, also known as compassion.
Empathic distress is a type of empathy we feel when we are disturbed by witnessing another’s suffering. Empathic distress is an egocentric response—a reaction that places our own well-being at its center. When we’re motivated to act through empathic distress, our ultimate goal is to alleviate our own suffering. This may mean we take action to help another person, but it could also mean we distract ourselves from their suffering.
Compassion is a type of empathy that is other-oriented. Compassion operates when you feel for another person rather than being distressed by their suffering, thereby making your ultimate goal about fixing the actual problem.
Compassion operates when you feel for another person rather than being distressed by their suffering, thereby making your ultimate goal about fixing the actual problem.
It is completely natural to feel empathic distress in the days and weeks following an event like George Floyd’s death, but it isn’t sustainable to reside in that headspace until justice has been served. To remain vigilant advocates, we need to shift our response to one of compassion.
How do we do that? For a long time, psychologists thought that compassion was a fixed trait—something that you’re born with that doesn’t really change over the course of your life. We now know that isn’t the case. We can strengthen our compassion skills with practice, and studies have shown that this practice can improve personal well-being, increase the tendency to help others, and activate a network in the brain associated with positive emotions. While empathic distress produces negative feelings and a tendency to withdraw from difficult situations, the study linked above found that participants who engaged in an intervention to cultivate compassion produced positive feelings that allowed them to continue engaging with those in need.
That intervention was practicing a loving-kindness meditation, an activity that may also reduce racial bias. It’s an exercise where you mentally practice extending kindness. You start with people who you are close to (i.e., yourself, your family, and your friends), then you imagine extending kindness to strangers, and finally the people who you are directly at odds with. If you are committed to being an ally in the movement against police brutality, please include as many Black people in your loving-kindness meditations as you can.
But it’s the work that happens in between the well-documented murders of Black people (a problem this persistent will take time and effort to resolve) that will eventually bring these tragedies to an end.
If you don’t know very many (or any) Black people, it may be difficult to invite them into your meditations without ruminating on harmful stereotypes. First, I would encourage you venture outside of your comfort zone and actively seek more diverse interactions (bonus points if you can support a Black-owned business in the process). If that isn’t feasible, I encourage you to regularly consume content created by people of color about race. Subscribe to podcasts like NPR’s Code Switch or read Ibram X. Kendi’s book How to be an Antiracist.
Make no mistake, practicing allyship through compassion will not always be comfortable and it certainly will not be easy. To be an effective ally, you will probably have to have messy conversations with people of color about race. You will probably have to overcome fear that you are going to say the wrong thing. You will probably make someone you care about uncomfortable. But it’s the work that happens in between the well-documented murders of Black people (a problem this persistent will take time and effort to resolve) that will eventually bring these tragedies to an end.
As our old distractions reemerge, will we return to our old ways of ignoring (and thereby condoning) the actions of these racist police officers? I hope that instead, we will commit to practicing compassion.