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An excerpt from my forthcoming book on Radical Empathy

An African American woman and her two sons

In the Sea of White Supremacy

One analogy that has helped me conceptualize the lack of understanding that most people have about racism and discrimination is that white supremacy is the ocean and we are the fish swimming in it. For white people, it is hard to recognize that they are living in a world built for them and non-whites may have trouble understanding that the institutions around us are often designed to keep us from succeeding in life. Another example is the fact that if you are reading a typical book or article, unless it is explicitly stated, the characters are assumed to be white. White is the norm, and unfortunately, when it comes to equity it is even further restricted to white males being the norm.

Many white people, including my friends, may know black people, work with them, and treat them as equals. However, they often don’t take into consideration the context of institutionalized racism that is an everyday reality for blacks and other minorities. As Robin diAngelo argues, “most white people continue to conceptualize racism as isolated and individual acts of intentional meanness. This definition is convenient and comforting, in that it exempts so many white people from the system of white supremacy we live in and are shaped by. It is at the root of the most common kind of white defensiveness.”[i]

Antiracism is critical to creating change, but up to this point there hasn’t been enough work done to break down the walls that divide communities. My experiences navigating through a mostly white world has made me realize that the divides in our country are many. Race, class, gender and religion are all sources of division not only between groups but within groups. I have come face to face with racial resentment not only from white people, but from black people who felt that I didn’t fit into the mold of a typical black person. We all need to learn how to understand those who are different from us and be more accepting of difference.

For many, white supremacy is seen in the extremes of racism, e.g., white nationalists, the Klu Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, etc. However, it is important to understand that white supremacy is something that has been baked into the culture and politics since the first African slaves landed at Point Comfort 400 years ago, as explained in the 1619 Project.[ii]

That original sin continues to play a role in the America that is struggling with issues of racism and inequality today. My concern is that there are many people, including African Americans, who are impacted by white supremacy and don’t understand the impact it has on them and others. We want to see the structures we have in society as neutral, when they are anything but. As Patricia Roberts Miller notes, “Racism isn’t about intent, or whether people have their feelings hurt. Racism is about actions, policies, structures, practices, systems, institutions that reinforce the racial hierarchies of a culture.” [iii]

By using the power of story, my goal is for the reader to develop concrete steps for not only being able to develop empathy, but also to develop specific goals for taking actions that will address issues of racism in ournsociety. It is not enough to see and understand the biases that exist, and the ways that racism has structured our society. We must move past that understanding to action and I will provide clear steps that readers can take in their personal lives and in public to try to move past the divides that are harming our country.

Radical empathy is moving beyond walking in someone else’s shoes, taking actions that will not only help that person but will also improve our society. Practicing radical empathy can provide real change in people’s lives, but I would emphasize the word practicing — I focus on the fact that having empathy is different from practicing empathy. I believe the persistence of white supremacy has to do with the fact that many people of color lack empathy for themselves, and many allies have empathy, but do not take that next step to radical empathy that would lead to the actions needed to create change.

Radical Empathy

1. Willingness to be vulnerable

2. Becoming grounded in who you are

3. Opening yourself to the experiences of others

4. Practicing empathy

5. Taking action

6. Creating change and building trust

[i] Robin diAngelo, “White people assume niceness is the answer to racial inequality. It’s not“ Guardian Online. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jan/16/racial-inequality-niceness-white-people?CMP=share_btn_fb&fbclid=IwAR0er-tmqS5skTxNmEyeriPXDPChb5z8P9GIBFPG7ssUdt43iz94Vhy5DMo accessed January 18, 2019.

[ii] 1619 Project — Nikole Hanna-Jones. “one year before the Puritans landed at Plymouth Rock and some 157 years before the English colonists even decided they wanted to form their own country, the Jamestown colonists bought 20 to 30 enslaved Africans from English pirates.” https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/black-history-american-democracy.html

[iii] Patricia Roberts Miller, http://www.patriciarobertsmiller.com/2019/12/11/the-deficit-model-of-education-and-unintentional-racism/



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Terri Givens

Founder/CEO Brighter Higher Ed. Political scientist & consultant. Higher Ed, Radical right parties, immigration politics & European politics