Exploring the Empathy Gap
Thought on racism and the war in Ukraine
There’s often a temptation to make ourselves feel better by thinking about how far we’ve come when it comes to racism. But the truth is that we’re mostly fooling ourselves. That’s because many of us still haven’t got to the point where we acknowledge the humanity and right to exist of Black and Brown people in ALL circumstances.
What’s happened in Ukraine is a case in point. There are a few things that trouble me about both the reporting and many of the social media posts on this issue. Before I start, let me make it clear that I am firmly AGAINST the Russian invasion of Ukraine and FOR supporting Ukrainians. I just wish we could see similar open-heartedness for asylum-seekers and refugees who look more like me. Here are some of the issues that bothered me.
That’s Racism, Folx
First, there were the stories of Black and Brown people being stopped from escaping at all or, if they were allowed to board trains, having to wait until “Ukrainians” had boarded first. Back of the bus, much? The people making those calls decided, consciously or unconsciously, that Black and Brown people couldn’t be Ukrainian.
There are Black and Brown people in most countries who have the legal right to be there by virtue of citizenship or naturalization, so that’s a complete nonsense. (Plus, there were similar occurrences in other European countries when Black and Brown people got there. And you have only to look at how Syrians in similar circumstances were treated a short while ago to see a stark difference.)
Second, there was the media coverage, where several pundits and commentators said or wrote that what made this particularly appalling was that the Ukrainians were “people like us”. Aren’t we all human? Are people with brown skin less deserving of compassion and human kindness? According to the coverage, it would seem so. And if you strip out all the factors both sets of asylum seekers and refugees had in common, only one thing remains: skin color. And deeming someone less worthy on that basis is racism - no two ways about it.
Third, there was the social media slapping down of anyone who dared to point out those two egregious examples of racism, whether Black, Brown or would-be allies. They deemed this a “distraction” from the “real issue”. Where do I even start with this? This approach included gaslighting (because it was pretty clear what was happening) and privilege (because racism can never be a distraction for Black and Brown people).
The Empathy Gap
What I want to ask these privileged white racists is: how is it that I can feel empathy for people who look like you, but you can’t feel empathy for people who look like me? This was one of the questions I explored with Annelie Wambeek and Ellen Wagner in a recent Conversation Room event. Check out the video below for the full conversation.
I haven’t even talked about the fourth issue: the idea that it is somehow noble for white Europeans to stand up against tyranny, but less noble for people whose skin isn’t white. There’s also the idea that this kind of thing has never been done before, but constant rebellions of enslaved peoples throughout history would suggest otherwise. That said, look at the history books and you’ll see that when Black and Brown people do the same thing, it’s characterized differently: less freedom fighters, more insurrectionists, rebels or even terrorists. Again, that’s racism.
This “empathy gap” sometimes feels like an uncrossable chasm. I’d like people to hold up a mirror to what it really means when their caring is dependent on skin color. Because if they look hard enough, they’ll see that there’s only one reason for that: racism. No, it’s not pretty, and it’s not comfortable, but those who face it at least have the chance to do better, and empathize on the basis of our common humanity, rather than how we look on the outside. I hope against hope that this will happen one day.
Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Image credit: Getty images: Grant Faint
© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2022. All Rights Reserved.