Empathy Won’t Save Us In the Fight Against Oppression. Here’s Why.


noun em·pa·thy ˈem-pə-thē

: the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions : the ability to share someone else’s feelings

Source: Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Within 20 seconds, a bullet had sailed through Sam Dubose’s skull and his lifeless body accelerated his car toward nowhere in particular – a ghost not yet aware of no longer being alive, still desperate to run away.

I wanted to run away, too. I felt something similarly violent shoot through my head, though tears, rather than blood, soaked my face.

This was sometime around mid-afternoon on July 30th, when officer Ray Tensing was indicted for the fatal shooting of an unarmed, black Dubose, a shooting that Tensing claimed was justified because he had supposedly been dragged by Dubose’s car, a claim later proved to be false when the video of Dubose’s senseless killing was released.

I empathized with Dubose. The countless black men and women whom have been killed by police this year alone remind me just how quickly my life can be plundered as well.

Perhaps the grand jury also empathized with him. Perhaps that is why they were able to indict Tensing when we know police who kill rarely face consequences.

Perhaps empathy will rightly lock him away for murder.

But empathy did not save Dubose’s life…


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  1. Actually… this is the definition of empathy:

    “Bloom writes, “Our best hope for the future is not to get people to think of all humanity as family—that’s impossible. It lies, instead, in an appreciation of the fact that, even if we don’t empathize with distant strangers, their lives have the same value as the lives of those we love.” As marginalized people, most of our pain can’t be felt by anyone else. It is impossible to share it all, and both sadistic and sadomasochistic to try. Instead, we should focus on reinforcing the necessity of feeling one’s own humanity and respecting the humanity of others without the condition of familiarity. Empathy won’t save us. How we show care despite its absence might.”

    Compassion isn’t understanding. It’s understanding NOT understanding. It doesn’t lend “charity” to a weaker lesser person. It sees the person in pain as an equal. Only then can true healing begin.

    I think this article is good, but that empathy is in fact understanding NOT understanding. It never saves us all. It “saves” the individual who “practices”. We stand on our actions. We are our actions. Empathy is contained inside of those actions and all of the learning … and we are not responsible for saving anyone but ourselves, in hopes we might “save” others by role modeling the work(s). Thankful ever for the diversity that challenges us and or embraces us.

    There will never never be a way to save humans or make a utopian version of humanity. This made Buddha very sad and very amazing both.

    I love your blog. Entirely.

    • You seem to be using compassion and empathy interchangeably, and I wouldn’t. Where did you come across these definitions? I agree with you that understanding not understanding is the solution to this problem, but I’m confused by calling that “empathy”. Thank you for your comments and for reading 🙂

      • Realizing the definition of empathy is already provided via the dictionary… here’s my two cents:

        Empathy is being able to relate to another’s experience through common experience… (more or less)
        and compassion is being able to understand one’s own “darkness” in order to have empathy (among other things).

        Pema Chodron (buddhist nun) is partial source. Although my paraphrasing is maybe not succinct enough or expanded on enough to convey my meaning which i don’t think is interchangeable but is part of the same thing.

        I actually don’t mean to detract from these articles about the murders and shootings by police and systemic racism, by spouting “buddhist rhetoric”which is all it ends up being sometimes in these comment threads. My apologies for that.

        My point is that I think you’re right the empathy doesn’t “save” anyone… but without it, no one is even trying. Your actions role model compassion (selflessness) even in explaining empathy. Empathy needs to be taught. Whether it shows/yields the immediate results or not…

        I don’t know if this makes more sense or even helped the dialogue at all.

        I’ll go look at the definitions more closely myself, to see where I’m being confusing, as well.

        Thanks for your continued writing and information and reply.

  2. Empathy is the first step in awaking people to action

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