“Understanding” Versus “Empathizing” in Regards to Racism

The Subtle But Major Difference Between the Two

Referring to a recent essay, a question arose regarding my goal of getting people to “understand” what we black Americans are going through versus getting people to “empathize” with what we are going through. It was suggested that I “go for empathy rather than understanding.” The difference between the two is a subtle but major one that needs to be explored.

Understanding over empathy

  1. Generally, most people associate understanding with the head and empathy with the heart. When I write, my strategy is to bypass emotions and first appeal to the reader’s reasoning as best I can. If my words connect reach the reader’s heart, that’s icing on the cake; and if my words move them to take action or help them to view the world with a broadened perspective (even if it’s just a little bit), that’s cause for me to celebrate.
  2. Emotions can be fleeting, so I strive to tip scales towards reason with reason. I’m no psychiatrist, but it seems that in weighty matters in which people are undecided as to which point of view to hold, most people rely on reason as opposed to emotion in their final analysis. Since reason registers more with the head than with the heart (as was the appeal in my essay), “understand” suited my purposes better. More often than not, I’ll opt to tip the scales based on understanding by use of reasoning.
  3. Plus, a provocative headline always works better for pulling people into a story compared to one that’s soothing. Somehow, The Reason You Can’t Empathize What Black Americans Are Going Through doesn’t quite have the same oomph to it that The Reason You Can’t Understand What Black Americans Are Going Through does. Ideally, I wish I could get away with three-word headlines, much like the way Madonna tends to title her songs with no more than three words. (For example, “Into the Groove,” “Papa Don’t Preach,” and “Don’t Tell Me.”)

Thinking precedes feeling (“I” think)

Let’s say you are asked to understand the feelings of a homeless teenage girl with an unwanted pregnancy and you’re moved to help. If you’re a guy, you may have no idea what it’s like to be a teenage girl, pregnant, or homeless. More than likely you’ll be moved to help not because you identify with the girl’s “feelings” about her situation, but because you have some degree of understanding of the situation in which the girl finds herself which then might trigger your ability to empathize with her feelings.

Another way to look at it is this. Teenage girls are common. Teenage girls with unwanted pregnancies are less so. And teenage girls with an unwanted pregnancies who are homeless are seldom seen. Unwanted teenage pregnancy and homelessness together are extraordinary circumstances for anyone. Understanding that her situation is very much unlike that of most teenage girls is probably the thing that will move people to identify with her feelings (empathize). And one need not comprehend every aspect of her plight to first understand that her situation is dire, and then empathize with her feelings.

The Wrap-Up

The crux of my essay was this: in order to begin to understand someone else’s experience, one must first be willing to admit that the way they understand the way the world works is not the only way the world can work. In instances when we have visceral reactions, reactionary emotions can bury any understanding (good, bad, partial, or complete) of what’s going on, as well as any awareness of those thought processes.

The primary goal of my essay is not to get people to “empathize” with how black Americans are feeling about the institutional racism to which we are subjected or even black Americans. My primary goal is to help people begin the process of “understanding” that the situation in which we black Americans find ourselves, and the nation, is extraordinary and dire.

Love one another.


Originally published at www.clayrivers.com.