There’s No Such Thing as an Empathetic Racist

Why we need protective legislation to enforce justice and equality

This week, the sheer raw anger, the exposed rage that was so fresh and bitter has steadily simmered into something less agonising but equally potent – a huge, resounding call for systemic change that will not be silenced, will not be ignored. Millions of people have taken to the streets worldwide, affecting real change in the defunding of the Minneapolis police department and the tearing down of statues commemorating slaveholders in the US and the UK. But as we continue to push forward, the White far right are pushing back: KKK vigilantes have attacked protesters in Seattle and Virginia and threatened to bomb protesters in Birmingham, Alabama, while protesters have been killed or hospitalised by police across the US, including here in Austin. Yes, progress is being made but this is not the time to take our foot off the pedal. White supremacists are angry and frightened by the gains we have already accomplished, but anyone who has encountered racism first-hand knows that these are structures that won’t just go away.

I keep thinking about why. Why some White people just cannot seem to understand the basic concept of equality? Why they get the same cold, hard, dehumanised expression on their faces when confronted with People of Colour asking for their human rights, how they can justify the violence of their language and their behaviour when encountering other human beings who are a different colour from them? How can some White people not understand or at least imagine what it feels like to be judged, bullied, rejected, persecuted and murdered because of the colour of your skin? How fighting back is the only possible means of survival. Surely this is obvious? But it isn’t. Privilege, it seems, often has an inverse relationship with empathy.

Because if the beneficiaries of that privilege open themselves up to empathy, if they really enable themselves to feel what it’s like to be oppressed, to be threatened, and ultimately to be killed because of the colour of their skin, they would have to confront the reality of giving up that privilege, and they do not want to. By shutting down their empathy, burying their heads in the sand, the White far right are silently acknowledging how hard it is to give up that privilege, that they know what’s at stake and they will fight with all the cold-hearted ignorance they can muster. And history shows us that this is not going to change by itself. We can’t just sit back and wait for every racist White person to become friends with a Black person who single-handedly overturns centuries of bigotry and prejudice, the way that Hollywood would have it. In real life racist beliefs are harboured and cherished and passed down from generation to generation as principles to live by. How else could we still be living in an such a deeply racist society in the year 2020?

Racist structures and beliefs offer a sense of place and power. How can we possibly incentivise the White far right to give that up voluntarily? We are asking them to relinquish every inbuilt advantage society has offered them. To retrain their thought processes to challenge structures of bigotry that are deeply ingrained into their history, their culture, their psyche, solely for the benefit of others. We are asking them to exercise empathy. But they don’t want to hear it. This is completely counterintuitive to the entire ethos and ideology of the White far right. Empathy is not in their playbook. And once you take empathy out of the equation what you have is one group of people clinging to an idea that allows them to believe they are worth more than another group, and they like that sense of worth, they like how it makes them feel and who it tells them that they are.

Every act of aggression, every misplaced denial, every word spoken without empathy shows us that the White far right want to keep perpetuating the same old tropes of cultural superiority that allow them to exert their status over those whom at some point in history society deemed to be inferior to them because of the colour of their skin. That they will not give up without a fight. That they will manipulate and reframe the debate to portray Black people and their allies as the aggressors, that they will literally try to Whitewash history. The journey towards a truly global and egalitarian world where everyone is equally valued and recognised isn’t going to happen out of the kindness of their hearts. Those are hardened fast to protect their social and economic advantages, in the same way that capitalism has always been able to profit – by dividing the working class by race, gender or religion and pitting them against each other to jockey for the little bit of power so generously handed down to be squabbled and fought over. The White far right have staked their claim and they are not giving up on it.

Legislation, and only legislation can affect real change, although even supposedly watertight legislation like the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments have been circumvented, abused and misinterpreted. But the stronger, more powerfully and more completely we legislate the less scope, the less space there is for the White far right to reassert its agenda. We need to make racism illegal. Really illegal. On a Federal level, an unchallengeable level. Behaviours may not immediately alter attitudes and perceptions but they guarantee safety and offer means to recourse in a way that no moral argument can.

I think a lot, write a lot, about my own complex relationship with my own race, my experiences of racism and the deep, complex structures that legitimise racism in our society. I get lost in my own thoughts, caught up in the narrative of the things that I know, that when confronted with a situation that I do not know, I have not lived, I don’t always know what to do. I might not always do the right thing or say the right thing. I might be clumsy or insensitively over-conflate my own experiences. I hope not. This isn’t about me, but I’m in it as much as everyone who has ever been the victim of any kind of prejudice is in it. Those of us from other minorities should not be detracting from the focus of this fight and should not be co-opting the agenda. We need to act as allies, as does everyone who cares about breaking down the institutional structures that are oppressing Black people and protecting the perpetrators of racist violence. Being an ally means seeing and recognising these structures and patterns and confronting them wherever we see them. It means challenging, pushing back against every assumption, every action that’s lacking in empathy. It means utilising our own experiences of prejudice, bigotry and racism to understand and support the fight that’s on our doorstep, exercising our own empathy to help highlight its absence among those who continue to subjugate and silence Black voices.

These base acts of white supremacist violence are not going to stop, and the belief and value systems that enable them are not going to dismantle themselves. This is now a pitched battle on both a physical and ideological level and we can’t be intimidated into giving up. We cannot back down and allow the status quo to be reintroduced. Whether or not empathy can be learned and hate can be unlearned feels like an academic question, because quite simply this has not happened. The battle for hearts and minds goes on, but the structural change that will bring down racism and White privilege has to come first.

June 9th 2020

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