books race

Book review: Radical Empathy, by Terri Givens

A few weeks ago I reviewed Roman Krznaric’s book Empathy. I read the book as part of my research for my new book, and I was particularly interested in how empathy could be used to overcome racial divisions. That specific question only gets a passing mention in Krznaric’s book, so I was delighted to discover that Policy Press were publishing a whole book on that exact topic – Radical Empathy: Finding a path to bridging racial divides.

It’s by Terri Givens, an American social scientist and higher education expert, and her insights are spun out of her own story. The book investigates “the impact of structural racism on the people I love”, sharing her family’s experiences in order “to help those who mean well to understand the damage that structural racism and lack of empathy is doing to this country and to ourselves.”

This isn’t a particularly dramatic story, and Givens is no radical. She came from a middle class family and has had a succesful career as an academic and then in university leadership. But as she says, racism works on identity and inequality in all sorts of ways, and those more moderate stories often go untold. The book explores the more subtle politics of assimilation, drawing on her childhood experiences of her family moving into a majority White neighbourhood. Her parents seemed cut off from her wider relatives. They had made a choice to move away from their roots and from Black culture that, for the author, represented a kind of internalised racism. “Many people of colour lack empathy for themselves because of internalised oppression” she notes, a kind of inferiority complex that only serves to perpetuate White supremacy.

There’s an honesty and vulnerability about the book, which isn’t afraid to mine personal details or ask difficult questions about her own family. One chapter talks about dating and relationships, and the complications of multi-racial marriages – something that was still illegal when she was born. The most poignant chapter talks about her father’s death from heart failure, and the health inequalities that make Black men at greater risk of heart disease.

The book’s main answer to the problems it describes is radical empathy, which Givens describes as empathy in practice. “Social justice will not happen because we are nice to each other” she writes, so just understanding each other isn’t enough. We have to move to empathy as a practice, “moving beyond walking in someone else’s shoes to taking actions that will not only help that person but improve our society.” As she acknowledges, this is in some ways a social science re-stating of what Jesus said when he instructed his followers to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.

At a social level, one of the best expressions of this is restorative justice, and I was pleased to find a chapter on this. (Restorative justice gets a chapter in my book too.) She looks at the examples of South Africa and Germany, and the work that was done to reckon with a troubled past, asking what America could learn from these processes to deal with the trauma of segregation, slavery and structural racism.

I really liked Radical Empathy. It balances the personal and the political, the social and the domestic. It felt like a book written with anger and with compassion, with modesty and with hope.

Radical Empathy is available from Earthbound Books UK and US.


    1. I’m not sure I’d give that survey much credence, personally. It’s very difficult to measure these things at all, let alone across cultural divides.

      I also note that they ignored the whole of Africa except South Africa, which is typical of international studies…

      1. What gets me in regard to the US can you have people saying they are empathetic while at the same time saying poverty is the fault of the individual and they should pick themselves up by their shoelaces?

        1. The same goes for Saudi Arabia. From the outside it looks like one of the least empathetic places in the world, with its medieval punishments and systematic oppression of women and ethnic minorities. Self-reported findings like this might even tell us more about dishonesty or self-delusion than they do about empathy!

          There might be a way of measuring outcomes rather than self-reported feelings. Or it might be the kind of thing that just resists quantification and ranking.

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