The idea of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes is a common metaphor for how people should empathize with one another. I see this show up in little ways in my everyday conversations. When a friend tells me something they’re struggling with, I find myself responding with a story of a situation I’ve been in that is comparable in order to identify with their struggle.
Yet, isn’t it arrogant for me to assume I can know the pain of another? The context of someone’s life and their position with regards to race, class, gender and ability, among other factors, will affect any experience they have. This means that even if two people go through a roughly equivalent trauma, their contexts and individual psychologies will shape how that event impacts them.
Assuming that others’ experiences are fully knowable can lead to problems in how people try to care for each other. By making these assumptions, people can end up speaking on behalf of communities to which they don’t belong and often react by taking offence if they are then critiqued.
I think the focus on empathy can sometimes be a stumbling block that stops people from being good allies to each other.
An example of this ongoing failure is the way many settlers fail at engaging in meaningful action around reconciliation. I hear such an emphasis in settler communities on the dream that if we could just sit down and understand each other, we’d all be okay. If we just sat in enough circles and really listened to each other, genocide and structural oppression would somehow magically disappear.
However, I, as a white settler, do not know what it is like to be colonized or what it is like to experience racism. These are lived realities that I have not experienced, and trying to “walk a mile in the shoes” of those who do feels disingenuous, as if others’ experiences are simple facts that can be known, quantified and consumed.
To me, this just sounds like a continuation of the colonial logic of understanding the world as something that can be known and, thereby, controlled.
I think it is important to ask who empathy serves. Is it helpful for everyone involved, or does thinking I can understand someone else just make me feel good?
In moments where I slip back into uncritical empathy, I try to remind myself that while I am spending energy looking inward, trying to imagine experiences that are not my own, someone is calling me to show up for them. Instead of pretending I can know someone else’s experience, I could instead find ways to support them, if that is what they are calling on me to do.
I don’t think showing up for someone requires a total understanding of what they are feeling. Learning about others’ experiences and listening to perspectives outside of our own is extremely important. However, there’s a difference between this and the kind of empathy that exists only to make people feel good about themselves.
Instead of uncritical empathy, care could be imagined as showing up when invited to a solidarity rally, making food for a friend who is sick, listening when someone is hurting and responding with things like “that sounds difficult, how can I help?” rather than “I know how you feel.”
Jase Falk is a non-binary femme, student and writer who lives on Treaty 1 territory.
Published in Volume 74, Number 21 of The Uniter (March 11, 2020)