The Limits Of Empathy

Is it possible to go too far when trying to understand someone else's experiences?
Sara Ariel Wong
Is it possible to go too far when trying to understand someone else's experiences?

Sara Ariel Wong

There’s a protracted custom of white folks making an attempt to know what it could be prefer to step into black folks’s footwear. But the journalist Grace Halsell went one step additional: She tried to step into black folks’s pores and skin.

Using vitiligo remedy drugs to assist darken her complexion, Halsell traveled and labored in Harlem and Mississippi in 1968, passing as a black lady. She documented her experiences in her 1969 ebook Soul Sister, which she stated she hoped would assist white folks to know what it was prefer to be black. (She was impressed by John Howard Griffin, whose 1961 ebook Black Like Me took the same strategy.)

As you may think, Halsell’s foray into blackness was controversial. But it additionally struck a chord. Lyndon Johnson offered a blurb for the ebook, and it offered greater than one million copies.

This week’s episode is a collaboration with the Radio Diaries podcast, during which we hear archival footage of Halsell herself speaking concerning the conversations she had hoped to spark. We additionally spoke to 2 professors—Alisha Gaines and Robin D. G. Kelley—who’ve spent lots of time enthusiastic about Halsell’s experiment. Gaines is an English professor at Florida State University and writer of Black for a Day: White Fantasies of Race and Empathy. Kelley is an American historical past professor at UCLA and writer of a forthcoming biography of Halsell.

Gaines and Kelley talked to us about Grace Halsell, the concepts she got here to about blackness, and why empathy alone is an incomplete instrument for reaching racial justice.

These interviews have been edited and condensed for readability.

Gene Demby: Alisha, you’ve got stated that Grace Halsell is only one instance of somebody doing this sort of “race as costume” experiment. Who are a few of the different individuals who have tried issues like this?

Alisha Gaines: There is unquestionably a style of white, principally liberal writers [telling these stories]. Ray Sprigle, a journalist with The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, could not darken his pores and skin, however he shaved his head, wore a shabby hat and referred to as himself a facsimile of a black man. He walked across the South and wrote a series of articles in ’48. John Howard Griffin, far more famously than both Halsell or Sprigle, did this for Black Like Me, which got here out in 1961. He took vitiligo corrective remedy, used topical stains and shaved his head, to put on blackness quickly for round 5 weeks.

Demby: You are skeptical about how helpful empathy will be within the context of racial justice. What do you assume empathy can accomplish, and what can it not do?

Gaines: It’s a query I’m nonetheless wrestling with, so I’ve extra questions myself than actually conclusive solutions. I feel that after we wholeheartedly embrace empathy as an answer to racial justice, that is not sufficient. We usually do not discuss concerning the energy dynamics that occur whenever you’re making an attempt to face in another person’s footwear or, within the case of Halsell, Griffin and Sprigle, actually staying in another person’s pores and skin. That empathetic impulse will be helpful when it mobilizes an motion or precise solidarity. But when it is simply, “Oh, wow, I really feel deeply about that thing. I’m really trying to understand. And now I do.” That’s the failure to me.

Robin Kelley: Part of the issue is that empathy itself does not at all times produce an ethical response. Paul Bloom wrote this ebook referred to as Against Empathy, [in which he argues that] we have limited capacity for feeling the pain of others. We are inclined to establish not with the collective, however with people, which then reinforces exclusion. Part of Bloom’s argument is that we’re not in a position to actually step exterior of ourselves or our subjectivity to develop into another person. So what we do is we glom onto these folks we establish with.

Gaines: [Grace Halsell] desires to seek out “authentically black people,” so she goes to Mississippi. But if she will’t discover the precise facsimile of herself within the black girls that she’s assembly, then she type of dismisses and judges them for not being the thought of a black lady that she has already constructed.

Demby: With the opposite individuals who undertook these adventures throughout the colour line, did they make comparable misjudgments or mischaracterizations of black life?

Gaines: Absolutely. John Howard Griffin was weirdly terrified that he wasn’t going to return absolutely to whiteness. He was writing in his diaries about how he is anxious that his spouse can be sleeping with a black man now, with all these pathologizing concepts about black male sexuality. Ray Sprigle was solely seeing what he needed to see, and he was overly descriptive of black struggling and black ache—not black life. [He] traffics in notions that blackness is at all times an ineffable despair, a struggling, ache or an “oblivion.”

Kelley: Halsell did these interviews, that are taped, the place you may really hear tales of black life. You might hear joyful, hilarious tales, or tales about hazard and difficult state violence. In the telling of them, there is a sense of belonging and neighborhood that is evoked. But it does not essentially translate within the texts. I feel she was searching for one thing specific, and he or she discovered what she was searching for.

Demby: Has anybody who has tried to do a race-swapping experiment achieved it comparatively respectfully and thoughtfully?

Gaines: I sound like a cynic, however I do not assume so. There is a horrible actuality TV present in 2006 referred to as Black. White. There’s two households, one black, one white, they usually change races with Hollywood-style prosthetics and make-up. There’s a short second the place the “born white” daughter, Rose, has a dialog along with her mom [in which] she’s realizing that this ain’t it. She realizes within the mission that this isn’t how we’re connecting, this isn’t understanding. She’s like, I’m briefly flirting with an understanding, however there’s a lot I’m realizing that I simply will not know. That degree of self-awareness was useful. But I do not assume many [others] are pulling this off thoughtfully.

Demby: I’m curious as to what you make of the query about Grace Halsell’s motives and intentions in doing this mission. How a lot they need to matter within the final calculation of whether or not she was doing factor?

Gaines: It’s straightforward to critique Soul Sister. It’s not ebook. I do imagine that Soul Sister is type of the start of a creating consciousness and consciousness round [structures and institutions.] But a few of the conclusions that she makes in it usually are not very useful, particularly in her political second. Black girls at the moment are already writing about being black girls. Even although Halsell is supposedly penning this ebook for ladies like her, white girls, she might have used that privilege otherwise.

There’s this affiliation of blackness with like, journey. But then folks like Halsell simply take a relaxation from it once they really feel prefer it. Black of us do not get that luxurious or choice.

Kelley: I fully agree. Soul Sister was undoubtedly an journey [to Halsell] and undoubtedly pushed by a sure type of voyeurism. But I additionally assume that she’s actually confused. To me, what’s telling is how she defends the ebook on radio and tv. On the one hand, she’ll go from saying, “I can never know what it’s like to be a black woman.” But then she’ll additionally say, “Well, when I was a black woman…”

The nice journalist, Ethel Payne of Chicago Defender, interviewed Halsell on a radio present on Voice of America. Payne actually presses and criticizes her. But then Halsell’s comeback, I believed, was actually vital. She says, “I hope the book will have meaning, but I don’t think I’ll change any attitudes. Prejudice and discrimination have had have been with mankind all through history, and it exists in every country in the world in some form or another.” And then she retains back-pedaling to all these different issues. I feel that she’s making an attempt to determine it out.

For extra on empathy, racial cosplay, and Grace Halsell, take heed to this week’s episode of the Code Switch podcast. You can subscribe to Radio Diaries here and observe them on Twitter at @RadioDiaries.

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