I’ve been a white racial justice researcher and activist for over 30 years. I’ve given more trainings than I can count on how to dismantle racism and elevate Black and Brown leaders into positions of power in order to address structural racism. I’ve done evaluations on racial representation in leadership and grantmaking for major foundations, trained executives on how to create social justice hiring rubrics, and workshopped with academic hiring committees about how to hire someone other than the sea of white faces around the table.
But here’s what most of the organizations want instead of the charge to dismantle white power structures: “healing conversation.” A staff or community workshop where people of Color are required to recount the traumatic, indelible impacts of daily racist violence, while their white “conversation partner” reaches out an empathetic hand, eyes welling.
I call this the white empathy industrial complex. And white diversity and inclusion trainers have literally made millions of dollars in it, all the while upholding white supremacist values and institutions.
An example: I once worked at an LGBTQ family organization whose board was heavily populated by white faith-based organizers. They had all undertaken significant “diversity and inclusion” trainings via their churches, and yet the power structure of the board and staff of our organization remained almost entirely white. Few of these leaders had substantive relationships with people of Color in their lives, and their “empathy” trainings had cemented a paternal relationship to the “problems” faced by LGBTQ youth of Color, which are significant given the structures of violence in place.
In my interview as a potential organizational leader, I promised to shift the organization’s hiring processes, priorities, and service structure to bring leaders of Color into the organization and to better serve families and youth experiencing the greatest harms in our system. Great excitement was expressed. Then when I came into the job, the empathy army was rankled. I wrote a grant to diversify staff and was positioned to win a $2.4 million award that would significantly change how we worked, and what communities we served. I made it clear that I would use the funding (as promised) to move seasoned Black and Brown queer and trans organizers into leadership positions.
The Compassionators fired me 3 weeks before the grant came in, rejecting a real opportunity for structural change. They charged me with intending to perform “racist hiring practices” and sent their lone board member of Color to the office to tell me that I was moving the organization in “too activist” a direction.
I share this experience not to settle scores or decry my firing. I do it to point out that this scenario has played out, for decades, to demeaning and even deadly effect for my Black and Brown peers. They have been systematically defunded, de-platformed, fired, underemployed and otherwise discredited in any arena you can name whenever they’ve rejected “compassionate conversation” theater and instead confronted racism in the structures they inhabit.
On the face of it, there’s nothing wrong with a focus on compassion and empathy as a tool for growing white commitment to anti-racist work, but if we dig a little deeper, we can see how the white empathy industrial complex insidiously props up and perpetuates racism.
Year after year, a score of empathy entrepreneurs fill churches, conference centers, and campus amphitheaters with white acolytes drinking up the empathy soup. Their white missionaries then seek out conversation “across difference” from their perches in tony neighborhoods with highly resourced schools and almost zero policing. They suggest to their Black and Brown potential converts (often someone unknown to them except as a passerby in a coffee shop, a stranger in a class, supervisee on the job, or a service recipient in a soup line) – that empathy and compassion are all that is needed to “solve” racism.
And yet, astoundingly, these selfless purveyors of compassion have slept on the unchecked murder of Black children for the past 50 years. Their sleep was not interrupted by the serial murders of Black children in Atlanta in the 1970s. The video of the murder of Tamir Rice on a playground in his neighborhood — a white cop standing stock-still over him as he dies – did not disturb. The members of the empathy army took to the safety of their beds, nightly, through the Ferguson uprising, when the people of that community were beaten for weeks, gassed and treated like terrorists for showing outrage about the callous murder of a Black teenager in their own community – a child whom the police described as a “demon” and a “gorilla” worthy of assassination in broad daylight.
White empathy and compassion proselytizers have been discrediting and working to suppress Black rage and Black activist momentum for centuries. From the fortresses of segregated neighborhoods, they’ve injected a steely calm, a Stepford-like compassion into the “social justice” arena, and it has been an essential element in providing cover and support to the white supremacist police state that is suddenly, and finally on many white lips as wrong, as outrageous. Just before my firing at the LGBTQ organization, for example, I was told that partnering with BLM to improve our access to and work with Black queer leaders would be unacceptable, as BLM was seen as a “terrorist” organization.
Black rage brought us to this critical moment, my white Compassionites. Black youth brilliance, and yes Black youth empathy. Profound Black youth grief for their families and communities, and all of the premature deaths that racism in the white-dominated health care system, policing, employment, and public and private education systems has wrought.
There can be no “healing conversation” until there is a reckoning with the totality of harms done. Let’s say that again for the people in the back: healing is impossible without a reckoning.
How will the white empathy industrial complex respond now that Black youth leaders have definitively torn open the nation’s – even the world’s – eyes to the overwhelming anti-Black violence and death that our polite, white dominated society confers on Black people? How will the Compassionators regard the white supremacist booty they are holding and hoarding – from their children’s education and safety, to their retirement account balances, to that incredible vacation home at the beach? What will the ambassadors of empathy have to say about “how fortunate” they have been in the face of growing demands for reparations?
Jaime M. Grant is the lead author of Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey. Her writings on fighting racism can be found in the Huffington Post, the Body is Not an Apology, and The Reader’s Companion to US Women’s History . She has been a trainer and consultant on racial justice and LGBTQ liberation for 30 years.