Decolonizing empathy: why our pain will never be enough to disarm white supremacy
White supremacy deals exclusively in lies.
A nursing book was recalled this year because of the racist way that it discussed pain; how it is felt, how it is interpreted, and how it should be understood by physicians, and therefore, how it should ultimately be treated.
This entry, entitled “Cultural Differences in Response to Pain,” included sections on “Arabs/Muslims,” “Asians,” “Blacks,” “Jews,” “Hispanics” and “Native Americans.” According to the book, Black people “believe suffering and pain are inevitable” and “often report higher pain intensity than other cultures,” while Native Americans “usually tolerate a high level of pain without requesting pain medication.”
Our ability to recognize pain in others is at the core of our ability to feel empathy. If non-white people do not feel or react to pain in the same way as white people in the white imagination, then that affects how white empathy for others is formed, or whether it is informed at all.
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When I wrote “The Racist Roots of Gynecology and What Black Women Birthed” for Wear Your Voice Magazine, I was called a liar. My credibility and intelligence were challenged by white readers who refused to believe the facts that I laid out about disparities in pain management and anti-Blackness medicine.
“Sims never gave [anesthesia] to the enslaved women in his care. It is recorded that he subscribed to the belief that Black people did not have the same capacity to feel pain as white people, a belief that many people in the medical field unfortunately still hold. Physicians continually offer less pain relief and fewer management resources to their Black patients, even to children, due to this accepted myth.”
I spent an entire weekend reading through texts like Trial and Error: J. Marion Sims and the Birth of Modern Gynecology in the American South, “Toward an Understanding of the ‘Medical Plantation’ as a Cultural Location of Disability,” and A Calculus of Suffering: Pain, Professionalism, and Anesthesia in Nineteenth-Century America. I even read Sims’ own account of his life, work, and ideology in his autobiography.
I provided evidence and sources. Still, the legitimacy of my work was questioned, because so many white people refuse to admit that the insidiousness of racism and anti-Blackness reaches as far and as wide as it does, and that it harms us in the many horrific ways that Black people and non-Black people of color know all too well.
White supremacy’s modus operandi is not only to deny the validity of clear evidence set before it, but it is also to alter narratives in its own favor, something that we have witnessed Trump and his supporters do time and time again. It’s something that we have seen history textbooks perpetrate, claiming that the enslaved Africans of the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade were nothing more than immigrants and that Canada’s First Nations peoples agreed to move out of their own lands to make room for European settlers.
White supremacy deals exclusively in lies. It does so because the violence it perpetuates can be justified when white supremacy controls the narrative of pain.
Violence can be excused when the victims do not feel pain in the same way as white people. Black people can be enslaved, sold, raped, and lynched. Indigenous land can be stolen, colonized, and destroyed, and the people can be violated.
They don’t tell you this part of the story when you learn about Manifest Destiny and The American Dream; how colonialism requires the violence of consuming the Other. Sometimes literally, like the members of the Donner Party who premeditated the double murder of their Native American guides and ate them in order to survive in the frozen wilderness as they moved westward to further colonize Native lands.
Denying that we feel pain in the same way as white people makes it easy to dehumanize us and frame the consumption of the Other as a necessary violence. It also turns our pain into a spectacle and fosters a lack of empathy for our suffering.
This is why social media doesn’t rally in support behind disasters in predominantly Black and brown countries in the same way that it does for predominantly white countries and white victims. It’s why there was little to no urgency to help Puerto Rico this year and why survivors of Hurricane Katrina were seen as refugees in their own country. This is how the enslavement of our ancestors and the genocide of our Indigenous kin became justified in the first place.
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There is a reason that the nursing book’s entry on pain did not list white people among the different races and ethnicities. Because, in the white imagination, whiteness is the default. White people think that we don’t feel pain in the same way that they do, because white people don’t see us as being human in the same way that they are.
Arthur Schopenhauer once asked, “How is it possible that suffering that is neither my own nor of my concern should immediately affect me as though it were my own, and move me with such force that it moves me to action?”
Empathy is tricky. It requires the witnessing of pain and suffering. We can only identify with the pain of others through the understanding and profound feeling of our own suffering, but that only exists when we are able to recognize a shared vulnerability.
White supremacy will never be dismantled through white empathy because it does not recognize the vulnerability of people of color. We cannot rely on whiteness to “feel our pain” when it actively works against recognizing the totality of that pain to begin with.
Pain is political. White supremacy has made it so. Pain is its weapon and its lie. It must control the narrative of pain, deciding who feels it and to what degree, because our ability to recognize pain in others is at the core of our ability to feel empathy for others, and empathy for others is what moves us to action. White supremacy cannot offer empathy to the victims of its violence. Otherwise, white supremacist violences could not be so readily justified and the entire system would collapse.