White People Don’t Feel Empathy For People Of Color And Here Is Why That Matters
The ability to feel empathy is shaped by our genes, and empathy is pretty fucking important.
by Sherronda J. Brown and Lara Witt
Whiteness is nothing but power. It was given and attributed to some and then many, for the sake of creating an all-consuming, capitalist, cisheteropatriarchal white supremacy. Systemic power, passed down from generation to generation and woven into the fabric of our world, built in through legislation, behaviors and biases, wealth and economic opportunities, geographical location, and culture, all become the lifeblood of parasitic whiteness.
Hierarchical social structures like white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism, depend entirely on the maintenance of that power. White people, through a series of tools, including the idea that whiteness is all at once the neutral embodiment of human existence and not a privilege in the least, continue to benefit from hundreds of years worth of colonization while Black, Indigenous and people of color continue to hold less power than they do and therefore lack access to opportunities and foundational aspects of human existence — including physical autonomy. Colonialism was rooted in denying humanity to millions, it justified centuries of violence. And white supremacy as we know it today was planned and maintained by people at all levels of society, it creates racial disparities in homelessness, racial health disparities and the racial wealth gap.
Whiteness and white people like to frequently remind us of their power without ever discussing it openly or with intent to dismantle white supremacy. No, if anything, whiteness is the one thing—no matter how poor, no matter how angry, no matter how sick they are—white people still have their skin. While there are subtle exertions of white supremacist power—especially popular amongst liberals and within democratic party leadership—there are also very obvious examples of the ways in which whiteness has made white people less empathetic resulting in the systematic harm of Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC). If white people do not view BIPOC as human through a series of dehumanizing tactics and tools, then has their power given them a sadistic pleasure in seeing our bodies harmed? It would be fair to argue that they do.
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On Thanksgiving weekend, in the spirit of settler colonialism, KKK Barbie, Tomi Lahren tweeted that watching immigrant children being gassed at the US-Mexico border was the “highlight” of her holiday. Like other genocidal, cruel whites, Lahren’s lack of empathy for Black and Brown children fuels her hateful messages, provides an entire platform and career for her, it sustains her and pays her. There is literal power behind her words, why would someone like her want to let go of that power when it has served her so well? Lahren is not unique, especially not amongst right-wing media personalities, politicians and everyday white people whose culture simply relies upon mayonnaise sandwiches and anti-BIPOC energy, emotion and actions. She is also not unique, historically speaking, considering how white Americans notoriously made lynchings into spectacles and community gatherings, then celebrated and re-lived their racist violence through photographs and postcards. There’s a word for finding enjoyment and pleasure in someone else’s pain and suffering. It’s called sadism. Sadistic personalities hinge on a lack of empathy and is often a significant trait of psychopathy.
Power might literally cause brain damage. There is evidence to suggest that power fundamentally alters how the brain functions and diminishes capacity for empathy. Though there is some skepticism, the theory makes sense, especially when you consider the hierarchical structure of the society we live in. People in positions of power, like CEOs and politicians, often possess psychopathic traits, and there is ongoing speculation among psychologists about whether most of these people already had these traits before taking on their positions or developed them after. In other words, the question is: Do these people specifically seek out leadership positions in order to wield power over and intentionally harm people, or do they simply take advantage of the power inherent to the professions they choose?
The same can be asked of those who enlist in the military—like Jeremy Morlock and the “kill team” that faked combat situations in order to murder Afghan civilians for sport, or “American Hero” Chris Kyle who enjoyed killing Iraqi people and wrote an entire book about how he wished he had killed more and was then celebrated in a revisionist, xenophobic, and nationalist Oscar-bait film. We should inquire the same about those who pursue careers in law enforcement and the criminal justice system—like those who laugh about kicking and firing chemical weaponry at protesters, or brag about using excessive force and make jokes about gunshot victims, or boast about killing unarmed citizens—especially considering the high rates of domestic violence among people in these professions, as abusers ultimately have a compulsory need for power and control. These are questions we need to ask because the answers will reveal significant truths about how whiteness and white supremacy operate.
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White people lack empathy for people of color. We know this from lived experience, but white people need study results to recognize the validity in claims like these. What is undoubtedly a significant part of this lack empathy for others is the centuries of white supremacist indoctrination and dominant positionality throughout colonial and postcolonial rule, and if the trauma from the terror experienced by our ancestors lives on in our DNA, can the desire to inflict that trauma or lack of empathy for those who experience that trauma live on in DNA, too?
White supremacy even defines pain along racial lines, who feels it and how they feel it, in order to rationalize its dehumanization of non-white people, and who they feel empathy for both reinforces and is supported by this defining. This is evident in the history of ascribing animality to and denying the personhood of people of color, and there are clear connections with white perceptions of who feels pain and who white people should have empathy for. Tomi Lahren admitted that she enjoyed watching immigrants being gassed at the US-Mexico border, the same kind of people that the Trump Administration has called “animals” as a means to desensitize white Americans to deportations, bolstering the power of ICE, immigrant detention centers, and gain support for the White Ethnostate Wall dreamed up by a fascist.
The ability to feel empathy is shaped by our genes, and empathy is pretty fucking important. It’s what allows us to identify with others and register their suffering as something that should be alleviated, and that we should help to alleviate. Without empathy, there would be no advocacy for social justice and equality because we wouldn’t see disparities and oppression as problems in the first place. While empathetic capacity is something that our genes help to determine, it is also true that empathy can be learned and cultivated. It is true that white people can recognize the unequal power structure of our society and choose to betray the white supremacy that protects them. They can make this decision to better, but the truth is that many of them simply will not. Many of them see the unequal power structure for what it is and work to strengthen it because they feel it’s exactly how the world should operate.
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White supremacy is a fantasy, but it is also about a dis-ease with people who fall outside of the standards it has set for normative bodies, and these standards are used not only to determine our worth in the white imagination, but also our personhood. None of this is to armchair diagnose white people who enjoy hurting us, or seeing us in pain, or lack empathy for our suffering as sadistic psychopaths, or as having some sort of selective psychopathology. It might well be true, but that is not for us to determine (though it may be a question worth asking and answering for psychologists, just saying).
In our fight against white supremacy, appealing to the sense of humanity in our oppressors ultimately will not work, because they do not see us as human to begin with. Asking for empathy, compassion and understanding from people who were raised to limit it to those who look like them only feeds in to the sense of pleasure that whiteness derives from seeing us beg for humanity. White supremacy is too intricate of a system to prune away at. There are more than just a few dead leaves, the entire system has to be uprooted.
We must go beyond appealing to white people’s supposed sense of decency. It has to go beyond asking them to check their privilege or share their resources—they have to lose their power, which would look like global reparations for the damage of colonialism/colonization and the dismantling of all other systems which help maintain white supremacy: capitalism, patriarchy and other forms of insidious oppression. There is no waiting for white supremacy to simply become kinder, there is no waiting for white people to care about us when we know all too well that their power has corrupted them for too long.
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