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Black Lives Matter and the Limits of White Empathy

Written by Dr Sarah Marusek


This is the first post in a three-part series reflecting on questions of racism, violence and identity politics during lockdown. In this post, Dr. Sarah Marusek questions whether or not empathy is enough to guide us out of the latest racial crisis.

Despite the ubiquitous lockdown advertisements calmly telling us that we are all in this crisis together (even if we have to remain physically apart), the reality is that racism continues to be rampant in our societies, making daily life under lockdown far more difficult for some people than it is for others. Even though Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities in the United Kingdom are more vulnerable to catching COVID-19 and dying from its complications than their White counterparts, the British government still censored any accounting for ‘why the risk to BAME groups should be higher’ in its report on this subject. This happened after the police killing of African American George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota reignited the Black Lives Matter (BLM) campaign in full force across major cities in the United States, sparking solidarity protests in several UK cities.

BLM is a movement about not only how/why some Americans are being shot and killed in the streets and not others, but also how/why the social infrastructure continues to allow this racism to reproduce itself. The problem is that ‘being Black’ in the US is enough of a marker to be killed, merely for trying to breath. To make matters worse, the killer is unlikely to be held accountable, and so the racist infrastructure remains unchanged throughout the entire cycle. This has been the history and present of every American who is born non-White and will continue to be their future unless something radically changes.

Scholars like Nancy Fraser (1997) and Charlies Taylor (1994) have pointed to the limitations of multiculturalism in Western liberal democracies. I find Wendy Brown’s (2008) critique of liberal notions of tolerance particularly insightful here, as it points to the fact that toleration can still be in the service of violence even while pretending to be an alternative to it. This is why responses that include legitimate self-defence—for example, removing a statue of the colonial slave trader Edward Colston—are described by the British Prime Minister as thuggery, because Black voices are still not welcome in the public sphere; if they were, any statue that dehumanises a group of British citizens, wounding entire communities, would have been removed decades ago (or never been erected in the first place).

The problem at hand is so complex, because people born with White skin in American and British societies generally do not have to live—to exist—under the same rules as people born with non-White skin. A White person does not see in a police officer a potentially existential threat to his/her/their life. It is as simple as that. Therefore, no matter how much solidarity is on offer, the people with White skin will never truly know what it is like to struggle in a world that refuses to grant you the same humanness as it accords to others; sure, empathy may be possible, but it is not enough to fully understand, something very few people appreciate.

This was not the case for the French writer and activist, Jean Genet. In Prisoner of Love, a compilation of a series of reflections about his time spent during the 1970s engaged in the struggle with Palestinian resistance fighters in Jordan and the Black Panthers in the US, Genet recalled (2003: 54) an incredibly poignant conversation with David Hilliard, a member of the Black Panthers’ Party. Genet and some of the Panthers were scheduled to give a couple of lectures at Stony Brook University in Long Island, New York, but when Genet asked Hilliard if he was coming along, ‘He smiled faintly and said he wasn’t, adding what to me seemed like an enigmatic comment: “There are still too many trees”.’

Genet (Ibid: 55) went on to explain that: ‘for a Black only thirty years old, a tree still didn’t mean what it did to a White—a riot of green, with birds and nests and carvings of hearts and names intertwined. Instead it meant a gibbet. The sight of a tree revived a terror that was not quite a thing of the past, which left the mouth dry and the vocal chords impotent.’ Hilliard’s perspective is not enigmatic, it is simple: the trees he would pass along the way would revive the horror of the brutal American history of Whites lynching Blacks. Genet recognised that this was not a perspective that corresponds to any White experience.

Patricia Williams (1987: 129) offers another profound expression of what is at stake here by conceptualising racial oppression ‘as a capital moral offense,’ or something akin to what she calls ‘spirit-murder’. This poetic framing elevates the potential devastation that racism and other forms of bigotry and oppression wreak upon the human psyche: ‘We need to see it as a cultural cancer; we need to open our eyes to the spiritual genocide it is wreaking on Blacks, Whites, and the abandoned and abused of all races and ages’ (Ibid: 155).

The continued relevance of BLM proves that radical change is still required in both American and British societies, if we really do want to live together as equally human. As Peruvian liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez has argued, ‘traditionally we have this saying to change ourselves first and then society. That is why society has not changed… it is a bad question and a bad answer. Both happen at the same time. To change the heart of [the] person and to change [the] social structures also.’

This is why White empathy is not enough; it does not erase the existing racial hierarchies that are terrorising minority communities in post-slave owning countries like the US and UK. A non-White person in both societies will see history and the present differently than a White person. It is not possible to ever truly know what it is like to be denied your humanity based on physical markers alone, unless you are born into that world, trying to live and breathe. It first takes struggling with the oppressed to even begin to understand; only then, together, can we overcome. Being anti-racist today requires precisely this kind of praxis—both thinking and doing—before it has any chance of realising social change.

Works cited

Brown, Wendy. 2008. Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Fraser, Nancy. 1997. Justice Interruptus, New York: Routledge.

Genet, Jean. 2003. Prisoner of Love, New York: New York Review of Books.

Gutiérrez, Gustavo. 1995. ‘Announcing the Gospel,’ Drummond Lectures delivered at Stirling University, Scotland, 9 March.–gustavo–gutierrez–audio.htm. Accessed 11 July 2017.

Taylor, Charles. 1994. ‘The Politics of Recognition’ in Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition, ed. Amy Gutmann, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Williams, Patricia. 1987. ‘Spirit-murdering the Messenger: The Discourse of Fingerpointing as the Law's Response to Racism,’ University of Miami Law Review, 9 (1): 127-157.

Dr. Sarah Marusek is a Research Fellow at the School of Sociology and Social Policy and a Co-Editor of Northern Notes Blog. She is the author of Faith and Resistance: The Politics of Love and War in Lebanon.


Dr Sarah Marusek

Research Fellow