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From a white market researcher to white businesspeople on empathy

Todd Haskell | June 3, 2020

I am not going to try to tell you about what it feels like to be a person of color living in the U.S. in 2020. I'm not a person of color and that isn't my experience. But I do have something to share that I think can be useful for white people to understand, because it helps explain why there are so many well-intentioned white people who want to support people of color, and so many people of color who aren't feeling supported. I think this is particularly important in a business context, where people are often skeptical about the motives of a business that claims to be working for social good.

Specifically, I'm going to talk about empathy. As both a teacher and a psychology researcher, it's a subject I'm pretty familiar with. In recent years, the idea of empathy has also become trendy in marketing circles - there was an article in Forbes about it just a couple of days ago. However, like just about everything else having to do with human emotions, empathy can easily become a double-edged sword. As some marketing professionals have put it, it can feel simultaneously like a superpower and like kryptonite. This is particularly true if you are white person trying to empathize with the experience of people of color in the U.S. Many people seem to think that feeling empathy should be associated with a warm and fuzzy glow. The central point I want to make is that in this case, if you're getting it right, you're more likely to feel really bad, both about the world and about yourself. And that's okay - maybe even necessary.

Understanding empathy

Before I describe what empathy is, it helps to consider why empathy is useful. It's useful because humans are kind of wimpy. Compared to a lot of other creatures, we don't have big teeth, or sharp claws. We're not particularly strong. What makes us formidable is cooperation. What can one human do? Not so much. What can a thousand humans working together do? Build a skyscraper, say. Much more impressive. But that kind of cooperation requires creating strong social bonds between people. In particular, we have to care about other people and help out when they need something. For example, if someone is injured or sick, we might bring them food. Empathy gives us a push to help, and guides us to provide the right kind of help.

Since empathy does two separate things, there are actually two kinds of empathy, typically called affective empathy and cognitive empathy. Affective empathy can be described as reflected emotion. We see someone who is happy, and we feel a little happier ourselves. We see someone who is sad, and we feel a bit sad, too. It is affective empathy that gives us the push to help. That usually only happens when we're dealing with a negative emotion, like sadness. The way it works is that negative emotions create what's called an aversive state. Simply put, they don't feel good, and we would like to stop feeling that way. It is the desire to make the feeling go away that motivates us to take action. In the case of affective empathy, our bad feeling is due to the reflected emotion of someone else. So by making their bad feeling go away, we can make our own bad feeling go away as well.

Affective empathy motivates us to act, but it doesn't tell us what kind of action to take. That is the job of cognitive empathy, which can be described as perspective taking. For example, imagine you see that your friend is sad. You also know that your friend enjoys playing board games. So, you might offer to play a board game with your friend, in the hope that it will cheer them up. Note that cognitive empathy is about understanding what the other person would like, not what you would like.

Enter the kryptonite

Empathy seems like a beautiful system, and often it is. But like just about every other system humans have, it is imperfect. It can be derailed, and end up being ineffective or downright harmful. The key thing to remember is this: The system does motivate action, but the purpose of the action isn't really to make the other person feel better. It to make yourself feel better.

To see the full implications of this point, let's start with cognitive empathy. To do effective perspective taking, you need what psychologists call a mental model of the other person. You probably have good mental models for people close to you. We use those models to predict things like whether a person would like a particular movie or book, how they would respond to a particular gift, or whether it's a good idea to bring up politics and religion when talking to them.

A good mental model is built from lots of data about the other person. When we don't have a lot of data, we often use our own perspective to make an educated guess about how the other person would see things - to fill in the gaps, so to speak. This works pretty well when the other person is similar to you. But when the other person has had very different experiences than you have, your own perspective is probably going to be a pretty poor guide. This is one reason why well-intentioned white people - including myself - often end up saying or doing things that don't actually feel helpful to the people of color we're trying to support.

There are undoubtedly limits on the extent to which a white person can truly see things from the perspective of a person of color. However, in general you're going to do better with lots of good, high-quality data than with small amounts of biased or distorted data. Many white people don't get that good data just from their everyday experience, so building a decent mental model requires making a concerted effort to seek it out.

Seeking out that data is a form of taking action. It's not the endpoint - many people of color point out that white people have had a lot of time to educate themselves, and need to be committing to activism, not just understanding. Activist Leslie Mac put it this way in a Vox article on being an ally:

Antiracism is about doing and not just knowing. ...being an antiracist is an action, it’s a verb. It’s not something that you just learn and you stop, it’s about how you change your behavior every day, every week, every month, every year to move your community, your family, yourself toward a more just and equitable society.

Yet it remains true that effective action needs to be informed by understanding. For example, in the same Vox article activist Ben O'Keefe said this:

It’s really important to learn the history of the struggle you’re putting yourself into, to learn about the systems of oppression that exist and how you’re complicit in them, and then, again, remember that it’s not our job to educate you. It’s not hard to educate yourself. You can literally google it.

Now let's go back to our understanding of how empathy works. Remember, the idea is that by taking action to address whatever is making the other person feel bad, we will make ourselves feel better. That's where the motivation to act comes from. But for this particular issue, it's also where things can really go sideways. Because for a white person, informing yourself about the struggles of people of color is unlikely to make you feel better. If my own experience is any guide, it may do just the opposite - in the short term at least, you may feel much worse, as you come to recognize how bad the problem is, and the many ways in which your own actions or lack thereof allow it to continue.

Thus, persisting with your efforts requires a seemingly paradoxical position - feeling good about feeling bad. By allowing yourself to feel some of the pain and hurt that people of color experience every day, you are in a better position to actually be helpful. And you should feel good about taking that step. But not too good, because if you are truly committed to being an ally, you need to keep feeling that pain until the problem no longer exists. Which, sadly, is not going to be today, this week, or this year.

Finding the superpower

Here is the take home message of all of this: If you are a white person who, like myself, leads a fairly comfortable and secure life, a good sign that your empathy system is working is that you are feeling awful. Not your own awful, mind you, other people's awful. The reflected emotion of affective empathy. The natural tendency of people is to try to make that feeling go away. We want to feel good about ourselves, not bad. So we often search for a way to reframe the situation so we can feel something else, something that feels more positive. Righteous indignation, perhaps. Please don't. From what I've seen, that's one of the major ways you get a disconnect between how white people see the situation and how people of color do.

What I hope for is that more and more white people shift from running away from the negative feelings to leaning into them. It's the bad feeling that's the superpower, because it's what motivates you to take on something that's hard, risky - and necessary. In the business world we like to talk about recognizing opportunities, and there is opportunity in recognizing the pain. The people feeling that pain are your customers. Use your empathy to better serve them. The people experiencing that pain are your suppliers. Use your empathy to partner more effectively with them. The people experiencing that pain are your employees. Use your empathy to nurture and empower them. The people experiencing that pain are in the communities in which you operate. Use your empathy to strengthen those communities. These are all areas in which business goals are also human goals.