Empathy and imagination are radical tools for reshaping how we view the world, especially when battling injustices. In this long read from K.Page Stuart Valdes, she takes us through the importance of empathy when dismantling racism, and how the Black Lives Matter movement is using it to reimagine a fairer world.
June 2020 may be remembered, among other things, as one of the most dramatic moments of collective empathic action that the world has seen. Worldwide and largely peaceful protests against police brutality, a crowdfunding campaign for the Official George Floyd Memorial Fund which surpassed $13 million, and action by state and federal lawmakers in the United States to reform policing are all examples. How did we get here and how can we ensure that this powerful moment of collective empathic action does not fade as the headlines change?
Empathy, like love or respect, is a complex process that begins with inner work and manifests as outer engagement. Psychologist, Paul Ekman, has suggested that there are three types of empathy. Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand someone else’s point of view. Emotional empathy is the ability to share in someone else’s feeling state. Compassionate empathy, which is showing itself in this societal moment, is the ability to integrate cognitive and emotional empathy and take action.
While Ekman’s definitions are useful in helping identify and categorize empathy once it occurs, they don’t help us understand how we can get better at intentionally practicing it in the future. If we think of the three types of empathy as a set of related practices the question is, what are the foundational skills that underlie all empathic capacity and how can we refine and improve them?
In some circles, it might be suggested that knowledge – learning more about others who are different than you – is the push we all need to become more empathic. But, while knowledge is helpful, it doesn’t, on its own, spark empathy. Nearly everyone in the United States knows about the murder of George Floyd and there are still many people who feel nothing for, or about, the loss his family is experiencing. Empathy itself can be biased. So, knowing something may spark empathy for some and not for others.
Some suggest that experience is the magic door to empathy. Meaning, one needs to actually experience and engage with lives that are radically different from their own to begin to understand them. But, it’s not a simple thing for anyone to gain experience of lives that differ radically from their own. For many people, economics are a huge barrier to this type of direct experience of difference. Alternatively, many people live entirely segregated lives by choice. And, if someone is lucky enough to have direct experience of lives that differ radically from their own it will only spark empathy if they bring intellectual curiosity and emotional engagement to that experience of difference.
However, here we are in an historic moment where diverse groups spanning the entire globe are now acting on their previous knowledge and experience of police brutality. Though the work of Black female activists who started the Black Lives Matter movement laid the groundwork for this collective empathic action, and the pandemic afforded many more people the time to protest, this remains a moment like no other.
Many people have pointed to the undeniable power of Darnella Frazier’s footage of George Floyd’s murder as the specific impetus. Pundits and politicians alike refer to the old adage of “seeing is believing” to explain this phenomenon. I’d like to suggest that we look at the power of her footage in a slightly different way by considering that the true driver of empathy is not knowledge or experience but imagination.
Ms. Frazier’s footage rigorously engaged our collection imagination by framing the faces of both Derek Chauvin and George Floyd for the duration of Mr. Floyd’s murder. While we have seen footage of similarly horrific deaths at the hands of police, we have not intimately watched the shifting expressions of pain, fear, and pleading from a victim as they die a long and torturous death at the hands of a police officer. Nor, have we watched the cold, hard, stare of a murderer in uniform as he enacts his crime. The level of intimate human detail in the footage reflected a level of inhuman cruelty that many had not previously imagined with enough rigor to become empathically engaged.
But the intimate human detail in Ms. Frazier’s footage forced us to imagine the most extreme examples of police brutality.
Because, nearly everyone knew about countless incidents of police brutality before George Floyd’s murder, and many had some, albeit less extreme, experience of it within their own lives. But the intimate human detail in Ms. Frazier’s footage forced us to imagine the most extreme examples of police brutality. We didn’t just see the images, we imagined how George Floyd felt as he was gasping for enough air to call out for his mother. We didn’t just watch the footage, we imagined what would happen to other innocent people if we allowed police brutality to continue unchecked. We didn’t simply take in the visual content, we imagined the future horrors it conveyed and collectively acted to prevent them.
Imagination is the ability to envision something which you have not experienced, and is not present to your senses, while creation is the act of manifesting something you have imagined. Both of these processes demand tremendous attention to the intimate human details that bring things to life. But, our society does not treat imagination with much love. Many people think of imagination as something reserved for elementary aged children and artists. And, the intimate human details which animate imagination and creation are often dismissed as trivial in a competitive society which favors rationality.
But, we need imagination to solve every societal challenge that we are now facing from climate change to health care to police brutality. We need imagination to envision solutions that reflect realities that we have yet not experienced and are not present to our senses.
We need imagination to build out the intimate human details of these innovative solutions so that we can act upon them.
There are educators who recognize the value of imagination and who explicitly use imaginative tools, often taken from the arts, to create spaces for practicing empathy. Anti-racist educator, Jane Elliot, uses role-plays to build awareness of racism and allow students to practice empathic action. Psychologist and professor, Howard C. Stevenson, uses storytelling to build racial literacy and empathy for self and others in his Lion’s Story workshops.
Additionally, there are artists who create works that help their audiences to imaginatively access their own empathy. Kehinde Wiley paints heroic portraits of black men and women that reference old world styles and challenge the viewer to imagine them as they would others painted in similar ways – as powerful, regal, leaders of their own destiny. And, Project Empathy, created by Jamie Wong and Van Jones, is a collection of virtual reality experiences that help the viewer/player imagine the world through the eyes of another.
Like these educators and artists, Darnella Frazier’s footage filled the empathic gap created by an overwhelming failure of imagination on the part of many Americans to envision the Black American pain that has existed for 400 years in the United States. It provided a scaffold for the heavy lifting that underscores all empathic action, which is to accurately imagine, in intimate human detail and with unflinching curiosity and love, the lives of others. If we want to manifest more empathy in our society, we need to train our imaginations to challenge our own assumptions and biases, present options that we hadn’t before considered, and embrace the complete lived experience of others.
What would have happened if Derek Chauvin practiced cognitive empathy when he first approached George Floyd about the alleged counterfeit bill he used?
In the future we might try more often to practice cognitive empathy, or perspective taking, which is the process of imagining another’s point of view. What would have happened if Derek Chauvin practiced cognitive empathy when he first approached George Floyd about the alleged counterfeit bill he used? What if he said, “I’m responding to a call about an allegedly counterfeit bill that was used in the convenience store. I’d like to ask
you what you know about it.”
We might consider practicing emotional empathy, or reflecting the feelings of an individual or group, which is the process of imagining, confirming, and accurately naming another’s feelings instead of diminishing them. What would have happened if the other officers working with Mr. Chauvin practiced emotional empathy, listened to Mr. Floyd’s pleas, and said, “You can’t breathe? Chauvin, what are you doing? Take your knee off of his neck!” What if they forced Mr. Chauvin to move his knee and then asked Mr. Floyd, “Are you ok?”
We might consider practicing compassionate empathy, or stepping out of our comfort zone to help an individual or group, which is the process of seeing a need and imagining and creating a way to address it, rather than judging others for that need. What if the convenience store cashier talked to Mr. Floyd at the moment of payment and asked, “Hey, are you aware that you just paid with what seems like a counterfeit bill?” What if Mr. Floyd shook his head no as he reached in his pocket for another bill and paid with that instead?
And, we might be willing to stumble and fall and try again as we interrogate our own biases in all of these processes. If any of the people involved in George Floyd’s murder had interrogated their own biases and asked themselves why they were imagining Mr.Floyd was a criminal, before interacting with him as though he was one, he might well be alive today. Because, George Floyd didn’t just die from a knee to the neck. He died from a lack of empathy bolstered by a collective imagination that was infected with bias against Black men.
What if policemen were trained to engage their imaginations in the ongoing practice of cognitive, emotional, and compassionate empathy during their interactions with the communities they serve? What if they received in depth and ongoing training on how to interrogate and interrupt their own biases during these interactions? Will we collectively continue in our multi-tiered empathic actions long enough, and passionately enough. to see changes such as these come to fruition?
I don’t know how many instances of police brutality Darnella Frazier experienced before deciding to bravely film this one. I don’t know how many quick decisions she had to make to film this murder in exactly the way she did. I don’t know how she felt while she was doing it or how she kept her composure enough to hold her own camera. I imagine that it must have been utterly terrifying, and I can only send her my humble admiration for her incredible courage.
But, I know for sure that going forward it will be our job to rigorously engage our own imaginations as we fight for positive change. This may involve building knowledge and experience. But must also involve imagining the intimate human details of lives we have not lived and challenging our own biases as we do so. These are the foundational skills we all need to practice if we want to continue to engage in broad empathic action and change our world for the better. And, we can’t rely on Ms. Frazier, or anyone else, to do that work for us. We have to be willing to do it ourselves.
This is an original article written by K.Page Stuart Valdes. Fore more information, or to see more of her work go here: https://kpsvaldes.net/home