Empathy: A Bridge for Racial Reconciliation

During the Race & Emotions class in our January Imprint series, we looked into some ways that emotions impact reconciliation. The class was built on the R.E.P. model, which comes from the golden rule in Matthew 7:12. What we’ve shared below is a portion of our discussion on the power of empathy.

Our society teaches us many lies about our emotions. We try to hide them, suppress them, or cover them up in fear of being perceived as weak or “too emotional.” But emotions are a gift from the Lord and a critical component of racial reconciliation. Our emotions are the tools that empower us to become skilled empathizers in order to fuel deep connections in the midst of racial differences.

Our emotions are the tools that empower us to become skilled empathizers in order to fuel deep connections in the midst of racial differences.

Dr. Brenè Brown is a researcher and storyteller who spent over sixteen years studying shame, empathy, vulnerability, and courage. Her findings in this area have been foundational to my personal understanding of the role empathy plays in racial reconciliation. One key truth she discovered in her research is that empathy fuels connection between people as it connects the emotions of one person to another. Empathy, she explains, is based on emotional connection, not experiential similarities.

Practically speaking, because of the country we live in, people of different skin tones have different life experiences. If we cannot empathize with people we don’t share experiences with, then our chances for connection decrease dramatically — especially when it comes to issues of race.

I am white. And I’m a white woman. I’ve never had a negative encounter with the police. I’ve never worried that my natural hair would be considered unprofessional in job interviews. I’ve never worried that the color of my skin would hinder me from jobs, scholarships, or other opportunities. I’ve never suffered the firsthand damages of systemic housing and schooling injustices.

If those were necessary experiences for me to empathize with those who have lived them, then I would be stuck in a perpetual place of disconnection and distance.

But thankfully, experience is not what drives empathy. Emotion is. I may not know what it’s like to have a negative experience with the police, but I do know what it’s like to be afraid. I know what it’s like to feel angry when I’m falsely accused. I may not have been oppressed through systemic housing and schooling injustices, but I know what it’s like to feel unheard, to feel that my voice is taken, to feel stuck, to feel hopeless, to feel fear and anger and loneliness and hurt. Those things I know well.

The same may be true for you. Perhaps you can relate to my life experiences, but it’s likely that you can’t. You may or may not understand what it’s like to belong to a racial group who used their power to annihilate and enslave others. You may not understand what it’s like to be accused of being a racist and how staying silent can truly seem like the best option. You may not understand what it’s like to live one part of your life thinking one set of stories were the complete story only one day to discover that you’ve been ignorant, that you’ve been lied to, that the truths you knew so deeply are oh so wrong. You may not know what it’s like to live in the confusing place of, “I don’t even know what’s true anymore.”

But, I bet you know what it’s like to feel shame and guilt. You know what it’s like to feel misunderstood and unheard. You know what it’s like to feel hurt and shocked and ashamed and alone.

Empathy is a choice. And it’s a skill. Which is good news for us because it means we can choose it and we can get better at it.

Dr. Brown says that to choose empathy and connect with others, “I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.” This means that, as inconvenient as it may be, the only way to become good at empathizing with others is to first become more familiar with your own emotions. I’ve learned that while it may seem like the easiest choice to ignore my sadness or suppress my anger, it only causes more struggle in the end.

When I avoid or refuse to feel my own emotions, my empathy skills weaken. Let’s imagine that most of the time I deal with my emotions pretty well. But, this week, I’m over it. I’m tired and busy and pretending like feelings don’t exist. So although I’m normally deeply empathetic, when I’m in this numb place, I struggle with empathy. In order to empathize, I have to open up the emotions of my own heart. And since I’m trying to avoid the emotions of my heart, I also have to avoid conversations that might challenge me to do so. To be consistently empathetic, I have to consistently feel my own emotions.

Doing your own emotional work, although time consuming and difficult, will ultimately increase your capacity for loving and connecting with others. But it’s a daily choice. Will I live fully today? Will I feel fully today? Will I extend empathy today?

Empathy is an especially hard choice in emotionally charged conversations about race. It means that when you share with me your hurtful experience with a white cop, instead of cutting you off to justify their actions or find someone to blame, it means I allow myself to connect with the anger and hurt you feel.

Empathy means we first seek to connect with each other’s hearts without trying to change anything. This is incredibly challenging in race conversations because we have a lot of problems. The damage done by racism in our country created a lot of brokenness, damaged systems, wounded families, and untold stories. And all of this needs to be addressed.

Extending empathy does not mean we can’t challenge one another. And it most certainly does not mean that we stay silent in the face of injustice. But in the R.E.P. model, there is a reason empathizing corporately comes before the pursuit of reconciliation. Empathy is not the only step, but in order for our relational connections to be strong enough to withstand the challenges of pursuing reconciliation, empathy must come first. Empathy will build the connections and bridges we need to withstand the challenges of pursuing reconciliation.

In order for our relational connections to be strong enough to withstand the challenges of pursuing reconciliation, empathy must come first.

I fully believe that the bridge to cross our racial tensions is found in Jesus. But I also firmly believe that Jesus calls us to build this bridge with a whole lot of empathy. He, Himself, extended the greatest empathy toward us when He took on human flesh, allowing Himself to become human and experience our emotions and weaknesses. Without regular engagement with Christ, I would not have the courage, vulnerability, and desire to consistently empathize with others. Empathy is not the only way we follow Jesus, but it is one way. It is a beautiful, although difficult, choice that gives us the gift of connecting with one another, even when our life experiences and opinions are so different. Empathy creates space for us to be authentically unified in Christ, even though we are genuinely different. But to do that, we must be willing to accept and express the emotions of our own hearts.