Empathy and Compassion in Black Rights Social Justice Movements

Every now and then I come face to face with the notion of compassion. I fall in love with it. I do everything I can to live it. I write about it. I went back to UWC to do a workshop on it.

Compassion led me to a profound transformation during my junior year of college when I decided to significantly alter the way I felt about people I was critical of, and they way I communicate with them. I decided to center all of my actions and re-actions in empathy, compassion, and love no matter who I was communicating with.

Throughout those years I repeated an interesting pattern where I would get really into ideas of love and compassion, I would notice significant changes in my relationships and quality of life, and then after a few months or a year I would slowly begin to lose sight of why they were so important to me. My compassion would slowly recede from the forefront of my thoughts and actions to a background color–still shading all of my behavior but not as intensely as it used to. Slowly and increasingly I would become lazy with my words. A lack of compassion would begin to seep into my communications. Then. . . one day. . . usually after a few dissatisfactory conversations and some soul searching, I would find myself face to face again with the concept of compassion.

Compassion inspires me. Compassion reduces my stress. It can shift me from feeling frustrated or disappointed to feeling hopeful and even powerful. Compassion gives me the power to clear my heart and mind. In order to be compassionate I’ve had to learn empathy. Empathy is imagination. Empathy is unity. Empathy heightens my awareness of the complexities of “oppression”–the ways in which all of us contribute to some form of oppression by either upholding oppressive institutions, holding onto oppressive ideologies, or simply being apathetic to other people’s pain.

Recently, the black liberation movement has been campaigning to end state sanctioned violence against black people. Activists have been shutting down highways, interrupting presidential candidates, demanding major systemic reform, and calling for white people to face their discomfort with [and acknowledge] their white privilege.

After graduating from college with a degree in Africana Studies, I joined the black&brown activist community in South Florida where I have felt everything from love and inspiration to hopelessness and confusion. A passionate network of activists has been steadily growing down there. Though we are not nearly as developed as activist networks in other parts of the country, something really beautiful is brewing in sunny southern Florida.

Passion and dedication is great but there is so much to work on. I have seen fellow activists replicate top-down power structures and leaders make decisions at the exclusion of “rank and file” members. I have seen egotism and resistance to constructive criticism. I have seen patriarchal language/attitudes and anti-gay rhetoric. [Straight] male narratives are consistently given priority. There are significant gaps in knowledge about history, politics, and the systems we are trying to deconstruct. I’ve witnessed disregard for lesbian, gay, and transgender struggles a.k.a a lack of empathy. And most organizers are one step away from drowning in financial difficulty. Basically, the movement I have seen–which is definitely revolutionary and incredibly beautiful–remains in many ways a microcosm of the larger society. Which means, empathy is often missing.

Empathy is the ability to look at another person and put yourself in his/her/their shoes. To imagine what it is like to be them and to have lived their experiences. To ask one’s self: “What life experiences may have informed this person’s behavior? Beliefs? Desires?” Empathy means recognizing that if you were born into that person’s life you would likely have turned out the same way they did.

So let’s think about the role of empathy in understanding white privilege. The concept of white privilege asks white people to empathize with non-white folk. To imagine what it is like to have significantly less access to information, opportunity, physical safety, fair trials, fair treatment, second chances, and even intimate partnership because of the color of your skin.

Empathizing with white privilege also means understanding that white privilege is different from white racism. White racism refers to a deep-seated belief in the inferiority of non-whites. This [fading] belief results in actions and institutions that perpetuate inequality and disenfranchise entire groups of people. White privilege, on the other hand, refers to the power that whites have to do, say, and achieve certain things with less difficulty and less consequences compared to others. White privilege is a result of white racism. White privilege is something no white person can avoid–no matter how conscious or unconscious of it they might be.

During my adolescent years I was angry with white people for their privileges and their power. I felt like this was their world and I was at the mercy of their decisions. I felt like I needed white people to like me and to validate me in order to be successful or feel accomplished. I also felt like every white person who did not vocally and intentionally acknowledge their privilege should be (verbally) crucified for the oppression of black people.

Things changed during college when I began to learn about systems of oppression. I began to learn that men have privileges too. Middle-class/upper-middle class folks have privileges too. Straight folks have privileges too. Cis-gender folks have privileges too. Not only do I fit into most of these categories of privilege but these privileges are rarely denounced or challenged by me or those around me in the way that I expect white people to denounce or challenge their privilege. Essentially, I was expecting white people to do something I was not doing myself. I was confused as to why white people were not organizing in droves to overthrow systemic white supremacy when the calm to my confusion lay within myself.

Awakening to this helped me to overcome my anger and focus on more positive emotions. It changed the way I communicated and consequently some of the relationships I had with my white friends were enhanced. Years later, some of them still express how much of a positive influence I had on their political evolution–their coming to and acceptance of the realities of white supremacy and black struggle. I doubt this would have happened if I had not evolved. And I am confident they will go on to have positive impacts on those around them when dealing with topics of race and social justice.

During college I also began to notice privileges in my family. For example, my mother is a college professor. She is not wealthy but she is far from poor. She is what we would consider middle to upper-middle class. She donates to non-profit organizations when she can. She does her best to be a good person. But she is not an activist. She does not center social justice in her daily life. She does not devote her free time to uplifting poor communities or altering oppressive systems. She gets up every day and goes to work. She puts time and energy into exercising, supporting a household of 6, cooking, cleaning, and self-care. She does not march. She does not volunteer. And if she were to lose her job at any point we would surely fall into poverty within a few months.

My mother is like a lot of middle to upper-middle class, white, male, straight, and/or cis-gender folk. Some inequalities/privileges they recognize and some they don’t. Occasionally they spend time wishing the world were different. But they don’t really know what to do about any of it nor do they feel motivated to find something to do about it. In the meantime they’re busy surviving; busy holding on to whatever sources of happiness they have in their own lives like the time they spend with their spouses, or their children, or the few vacation days that come around each year.

Everyone knows someone like this. Apathetic people. These are our parents, grandparents, siblings, and friends. These are beautiful people. “Good” people. People deserving of love, life, and the pursuit of happiness. And yes, their inaction is a concern.

All of these people are potential participants in revolutionary struggle if we can find a way to meaningfully connect with them. Connection begins with empathy and is fueled by creativity. Whether they are racist, sexist, classist, or homophobic. . . hopeless, busy, discouraged, or confused. . .brown, impoverished, transgender, or disabled. . . there is a way to connect with them. . . a way to inspire them to contribute to revolutionary struggle.

In light of this, I ask community organizers, mobilizers, and activists to begin their days with empathy and live them in compassion. I ask you to empathize with the people you are fighting for but also with the people you are “fighting against.” I ask you to see yourself in the bigots, the privileged, and the ignorant because you yourself may be bigoted. You may not be racist but you might be sexist. If you’re a straight man you are high up on the privilege pole. If you are cis-gendered you walk around with a degree of physical and mental safety not available to trans folk. And no matter how educated or knowledgeable you are, there was a time when you were ignorant and you likely have a lot more to learn.

In my studies of black rights movements I have noticed a very consistent problem; a lack of intersectionality and self-awareness. Members of these movements replicated various forms of oppression. Women were taken for granted, often blatantly mistreated, and their concerns were not taken seriously. Lgbtq folk were denied active representation or participation. Decisions were not transparent and there was little financial accountability. Egos hindered progress and there was little to no productive processes for internal criticism of movement leaders. There was often disconnection between activists and the communities they intended to serve. A lack of self-awareness in movement members made it easier for covert government programs to infiltrate, agitate existing problems, create new problems, and even incite members to retaliate violently against each other. It appears that, in essence, a high level of cohesion was missing.

Deepak Choprah says we cannot achieve social transformation without individual transformation.

And lack of self-reflection is a weakness. It will cripple anyone who is ambitious.

Activists and organizers cannot make the same mistakes again. We must evolve. This requires daily self-work, transformation, and sometimes suffering. We must center ourselves in empathy and compassion. We must learn to communicate non-violently with each other. We must genuinely receive criticism, even if it’s harsh, and do our best to grow from it. We must transform ourselves, our relationships and our organizations from the inside out. We must build inter-organizational solidarity upon the understanding that all oppression is connected. We’ve got to be able to see ourselves in all people. Do this regularly. And be creative and innovative along the way.

“We need a revolution of the heart. We need a revolution of the spirit. The power of the people is stronger than any weapon. A people’s revolution can’t be stopped. We need to be weapons of mass construction. Weapons of mass love. It’s not enough just to change the system. We need to change ourselves.” -Assata Shakur

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