Empathy and Sympathy: Understanding the Privilege and Oppression in Our Identities

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Lately, in my work I have heard human beings using two nouns to describe their positionality in diversity, equity, and inclusion, empathy and sympathy. Before I go any further let me break down the difference between empathy and sympathy. According to Psychology Today, empathy can be defined as a person’s ability to recognize and share the emotions of another person, fictional character, or sentient being. It involves, first, seeing someone else’s situation from that person’s perspective, and, second, sharing in that person’s emotions, including, if any, the distress this person feels. Sympathy (‘fellow feeling’, ‘community of feeling’) is a feeling of care and concern for someone, often someone close, accompanied by a wish to see this person better off or happier. The missing context is how we express these things towards other people who share our identities and how these emotions can be manipulative in the face of bigotry and oppression.

I often have reflections regarding what this means to human beings who still practice prejudices, that turn into biases, that turn into oppressions for many of us. It provides some context, not all, and NOT a justification, on how White women can vote for a President who admits that he would sexually assault women, or how Susan Collins can ensure a supportive vote for a Supreme Court Justice nomination of Brett Kavanaugh. It refers to instances such as when I was a young child, I sat in a living room and listened to my family support Clarence Thomas and call Anita Hill a liar. It also provided context for the justification of children in ICE camps being treated like animals and abused at the hands of the American government. Historically, the creation of social identities has continued to create division due to our beliefs of normality and superiority based on our identities. Experiencing these unfortunate events has lead me to two conclusive statements:

  1. We are more likely to show empathy and sympathy to people who share in our common social identities such as race, age, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, age, etc….
  2. People who have more privileged identities, or so called ”normative (normal to who?) identities are less likely to empathize or sympathize with those in which they do not share common identities.

My thoughts have continually resurfaced as I have pondered the existence and power, pride, and prejudice that can be oppressive due to empathy and sympathy of shared identity. I also have thought deeply about how these can perpetuate a collective hate for difference that leads to systemic -isms that cause suffering. I reflect often on how this can perpetuate oppression and discrimination, even against the same institutions that oppress us all!

Being that I love math and data I broke it down into the following simple equations below to make meaning of what I’m trying to say:

Common Oppressions= Common Connections.

Common Privileges = Common Connections and Lack of Understanding Oppressions.

If you are a person who is reflecting on at a loss for what is happening in our world I hope this helps. Now let me be very clear, just because you have a shared identity with someone does not automatically create empathy or sympathy. There are other circumstances such as exposure, education, and a willingness to raise your consciousness etc that play a heavy role in shaping your morals, attitudes, values, and beliefs. Even then, entities will use our shared identities in these factors to influence how we think. My goal here to today is to make people build awareness around three things:

  1. You are more likely to support those in which you share common identities with, even in the face of immoral actions.
  2. Just because you share common identities does not automatically create empathy and sympathy for shared identities.
  3. Exposure and shared circumstances can also create less empathy and sympathy for those who are different.

These three things can begin to help us understand our privileges that perpetuate oppression and discrimination. The other goal here is to get you the reader to start to build an awareness if you are indeed questioning why you have done something that requires continual justification in order to make you feel less guilt and shame for your decisions.

At the end of the day, shared identities, create shared empathy and sympathy. This is why those of us who are more likely to experience oppressions and marginalizations often have shared perspectives.

And why those of you are more likely to experience privileges, don’t often get it.

We’re not here to turn our oppressions into your oppressions, so stop using your privileges to perpetuate our oppressions.

Get it? If not read it again and again until you do! #Awareness

Dr. Cheryl Ingram aka Dr. CI, is a very successful entrepreneur, blogger, content creator and expert of diversity, equity, and inclusion practices.

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