From Identity to Empathy through Art

A few weeks ago, I attended a lecture given by author and journalist Ruby Hamad called, ‘From Identity to Empathy through Art’ (read more here). The overarching question of this lecture: ‘How can art be utilised to foster empathy rather than perpetuate a myopic focus on subjective identity?’ Hamad unpacks this question by exploring how people of colour are often defined by their experiences in a white-dominated society, a society that tends to pigeon-hole artists of colour (and people of colour more generally) as only able to create work that reflects their trauma. This, explains Hamad, creates an expectation that people of colour ‘serve up their trauma’ for the benefit of western society, so that it might indulge in its ability to sympathise for those it deems as ‘other’. Hamad says that, in doing so, the possibility for empathy (rather than sympathy), ‘of a connection based on human similarities rather than our differences’, is denied.

There is an important distinction between ‘sympathy’ and ‘empathy’. Empathy is about seeing yourself in another and feeling what they feel in a thoughtful and meaningful way. Sympathy, however, can materialise as something else entirely. Hamad gives an example of what she calls ‘war porn’: a photo that you might recall seeing in 2018 of Omran, a five-year-old boy who survived an Aleppo airstrike that killed his family and destroyed his home. Plenty of people, people with good intentions, shared this photo alongside their thoughts and prayers, reminding their friends and peers to be grateful for what they had and to hold their loved ones a little closer. Then we moved on.

The photo of Omran became what CNN called ‘a vivid reminder of war’s horror’, a symbol for the terrors that are largely invisible to the western world. In this sense, Hamad discusses how the suffering and experiences of people of colour, when perceived as removed from western society, operates ultimately as entertainment, thereby reinforcing the cultural and racial superiority that ‘serves to maintain the barriers rather than take them down’, disabling us from experiencing empathy in its true sense. Black and brown bodies (the media would never circulate such graphic images of white children) serve as objects of pity, because these photos allow us to engage on merely a cursory level, thereby validating what Teju Cole calls the White Savior Industrial Complex. According to Cole, this complex ‘is not about justice. It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.’

There is no easy way to navigate this, and as one of many white people sitting in the audience, I felt somewhat helpless as I was introduced to a theory that, much to my own shame, I had never made the effort to explore before. I ultimately took it as an opportunity to consider more deeply my role in engaging with, and responding to, images of warfare and ideas about the trauma people of colour experience. Particularly, I want to place more importance on the rhetoric we use to discuss these things, and most importantly, to remind myself that my emotional experience and my inherent privilege is secondary to the true point of these images and ideas. Empathy comes first.

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