Andrea Lobb
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The empathiser’s new shoes
The discomforts of empathy as white feminist affect

As important as empathy is to building the intimate-political assemblages of feminist solidarity, it is often perilous across the divisions of race. The capacity to empathise – long celebrated in Anglo-American feminism – no longer appears as such a straightforward ethical or epistemic virtue when read through the lens of post-colonial and critical race theory. A fortiori, it loses something of its secure tenure as a feminist virtue. This chapter diagnoses a specific form of ‘empathy trouble’ that haunts the feminist consciousness of white-settler societies under the pressure of this critical reappraisal. It explores why ambivalence accompanies the efforts of the white feminist subject who, on one hand, wants to maintain her empathetic identifications with the victims of racial oppression, yet, on the other, must divest herself of wilful ignorance regarding the potential for white women’s empathy to enact racial privilege, ‘white innocence’ and the affective intimacies of colonisation.

A local preface to discomfort

There is a bad smell in here. It wends its way down the length of the carriage, passing over the faces of the patrons of the No. 86 tram in whose company I’m travelling through the heart of my home city of Melbourne on this late autumn afternoon in the year 2019. As we move down Bourke Street, circle past the grand Victorian Parliament House, there is no escaping it. No averted gaze or phone-riveted stare can block the powerful, olfactory truth: here we are bound together in an unpleasant fug. Someone (but who?) has breached the unspoken rule of public transport: do not trespass on another’s personal space, and never, but never, get up their nose. Yet, Lord, now here we are, sitting or standing in close confinement; necks craned, heads choreographed in the delicate art of not noticing a thing – what the sociologist Erving Goffman once called the ‘civil inattention of modern public space’ – some rearing back with a trace of disdain, just so it’s clear: ‘mistakes were made … but not by me!’

At this moment, I’m assuming the collective awkwardness will dissipate as such moments usually do, along with the unedifying air that provoked it. But then, unexpectedly, a woman starts speaking, and I glance over. The first thing that I register is that she is black, an Indigenous woman – in her fifties perhaps. I’m startled by her presence, and then surprised at how taken aback I am at seeing a member of a First Nations people on a tram in the Central Business District. (What is she doing here?) Notwithstanding the decades of avowed multiculturalism in Australia, I actually can’t remember the last time I saw an Indigenous person on a tram like this, crammed full with the regular city commuter crowd. On what passes for an average day, the Melbourne metropolis rises up along the Yarra River sparkling like the Lethe, and there are few prompts to sting the white ‘quiet majority’ into awareness of the original peoples of the land upon which this city was brutally, at times murderously, ‘settled’. It is not that I forget this fact, exactly. I neither remember, nor forget. Most days, in much the same way, I neither forget nor remember that I am white. But the unexpected proximity of an Indigenous woman shifts something in my awareness of where and who I am, and I shift uncomfortably in my seat.

Perhaps it is this awkward shuffle that attracts her gaze. Because now she looks me right in the eye and declares out loud, for all to hear: ‘Ewwwwwwww, she farted! What a stink!’ ‘No, no’, I think in some desperation: ‘but it wasn’t me!’ I don’t want this public exposure, this embarrassment. I scramble to recover equilibrium while split-second judgments flash through my mind as likely facts-of-the-matter before I even know I’m party to them, let alone signed on for them. Who is this woman? She looks rough, poor, unkempt, down-and-out, definitely out of place (!) in this crowd of business and office workers. As the tram lurches forward, a heavy silence of shared/unshared history sways between us: an amalgam of accusation, shame, and, yes, this stink. It could cling to a body as it passes by – but to whose body exactly? Hers? Mine?

Only at this point do I notice that, without being conscious of it, I’ve drawn my knees tightly together. Folded my hands neatly atop my smoothed and skirted lap. Suddenly, I feel very white and ultra-respectable. Who could possibly mistake me as the source of an unpleasant smell? Or any unpleasantry at all? Heaven forfend. No, I can be pretty confident this accusation will not stick, not to this white body, not to this gentle hand. The hidden force field of white, middle-class privilege has an automatic sensor and I feel how it has activated spontaneously now and is humming unobtrusively all around me: my halo. My body knows this before I do, and it has adopted the position of respectable white femininity like a call to arms. And here’s the thing: once restored to a sense of (relative) safely that is the assumed entitlement of ‘commuting while white’, I realise I’ve really got nothing to worry about here. Balance returned, I start to feel sorry for the woman opposite me, who’s probably worried (not without cause) that everyone will assume that it is she who is the trouble here; the cause of unruly disruption, the break in civility, the source of the stink. My response to her now takes a decidedly compassionate turn. I feel concerned. Tolerant. Poor thing. ‘It must be really awful for her, to have to constantly face racial prejudice in this country’, my good, empathetic self is eager to announce – and not without sincerity or genuine solidarity either. And yet, it flickers unsteadily, uneasily – this empathic identification – and before I know it, it has ricocheted, turned back, and coiled itself around my nostrils with a distinct whiff of offensiveness all its own.


I begin with this scene – inviting you, dear reader, to lurch alongside me for a few moments on a crowded tram – because in this everyday encounter lies something of the living entanglements of empathy, race and intimate affect that the following contribution attempts to theorise. The central aim of this chapter is to discuss how and why the capacity for empathy – so long celebrated in Anglo-American feminism – no longer appears to be such a straightforward ethical or epistemic virtue when read through the double lens of affect and critical race theory. A fortiori, it loses, I suggest, its secure tenure as a feminist virtue. Drawing on the critical insights of cultural theorists of affect who take a special interest in empathy (Pedwell, 2014, 2016; Hemmings, 2012), the argument foregrounds the empathy of the white feminist as an acutely ambivalent affect tied up in complex ways with the asymmetrical power relations of race.

With a focus on how inequalities are both reproduced and disrupted through circulations of affect, this chapter offers a reading of (white) empathy as a striking example of an affective practice that can re-entrench, as much as resist, the dynamics of race privilege and oppression. This ambivalent potential, I argue, escapes proper critical attention when the intimacy of empathetic relationships (like intimacy in general) is afforded an unexamined normative positivity (i.e. when both empathy and intimacy are automatically deemed, by default, to be ‘good’). In challenging this monochromatic view of empathy, this chapter aims to contribute to the general remit of this collection to mobilise affect theory in the service of reassessing some of the hardier pre-conceptions (such as ‘positive closeness’) that attend notions of intimacy in the standard sociological and psychological literatures (see Kolehmainen, Lahti and Lahad’s Introduction to this volume, p. 1).

To that end, the opening section diagnoses a specific form of ‘empathy trouble’ that haunts the feminist consciousness of white-settler societies like my own in Australia. The chapter then explores why disquiet and moral ambivalence come to permeate the efforts of the white feminist subject who wants to maintain her empathetic identifications with the victims of racial oppression, yet must divest herself of wilful ignorance regarding the potential for a white woman’s empathy to reproduce race privilege and myths of ‘white innocence’, and to further ingrain the affective dynamics of colonisation. Attention to the imbrications of racial domination and the intimacies of affect,1 I argue, dislodges the taken-for-granted normative ‘goodness’ so often ascribed to empathy within feminist theory. To explain why such a dislodgement is called for, the next section delineates the contours of this specific ‘empathy trouble’ in closer detail.

Empathy trouble

Men [sic] make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.

Karl Marx (1852)

We make our own history of affective intimacy, but of course we don’t make it just as we please. If the feminist reception of affect theory partakes of the joyful potential conveyed in Spinoza’s observation that ‘we do not even know of what affections we are capable, nor the extent of our power’ (quoted in Deleuze, 1990: 226), it must also engage with what we might call (after Ahmed, 2017) the darker ‘killjoyful’ apprehension of how affect also constitutes and endlessly re-animates the force-fields of social power and oppression. This latter critical impulse bears witness to how living bodies affect each other in ways that can transmit, as much as they can transform, inherited nightmares from the past. In the following discussion, I examine how the trope of empathy in white feminist theory offers a particularly rich site for interrogating this duality of promise and peril; of affective transmission and transformation.

At the core of my argument is a claim that white feminists in colonised-settler nation-states, like my own in Australia, have serious trouble with empathy in relation to their non-white and Indigenous ‘sisters’. This empathy trouble, however, is not appropriately understood by the diagnosis of a lack of empathetic capacity. It is not (simply) that white women fail to empathise with bla(c)k women (although they can fail in this sense too, and often do). Rather, the kind of trouble I am concerned with here is often found right at the heart of explicit ‘empathy projects’ proposed as humanitarian and anti-racist agendas; paradoxically, it can be present alongside the most fervent enthusiasm for ‘walking a mile in another person’s shoes’. For this reason, it does not reveal itself to critical scrutiny when the only place we dare look is under the spotlight thrown by the category of ‘empathy deficits’ (on this point, see Pedwell, 2014).

White feminist theory has never been exactly lacking in empathy. Many Anglo-American feminist thinkers explicitly identify the cultivation of the empathetic imagination (see Nussbaum, 1997), or the capacity to empathise sensitively with the plight of others, as integral to social, political and moral progress and the ethics of care (see Meyers, 2016; Noddings, 2010). Yet, I will argue here, when it comes to forging intimate-political affective bonds of feminist solidarity with bla(c)k, Muslim, Indigenous or ‘third world’ women, we white feminists not only have serious trouble with our empathy; there is also a certain sense in which we ‘must’ have trouble with it.

To get an intimation of this paradoxical trouble you can get into even though – or even because – you have empathy in spades, we might turn to some of the problematising genealogies of Western moral affects and sentiments offered by scholars such as Amit Rai (2002), Kyla Schuller (2018) and Carolyn Pedwell (2014, 2016). In each of these careful works of genealogical reconstruction, Western discourses of moral affect and sentiment are revealed to have a deep, if disavowed, connections with the history of white and European imperialism. They get deployed as discourses of legitimation for the colonisation of Indigenous peoples under the guise of fulfilling the project of moral and civilising human ‘development’ (even if the notion of ‘sympathy’ also serves progressive agendas such as the Abolitionist movement in the United States (on this point, see Rai, 2002: xi)). What these critical genealogies of sentimental affect show is the extent to which humanist (and avowedly ‘anti-racist’) agendas can function, paradoxically, as the sentimental ‘arm’ of a white racist social imaginary. This has led critics such as Pedwell to conclude that the cultural politics of empathy within Western liberal-style democracies is itself in urgent need of decolonisation (Pedwell, 2014, 2016).

In this context, there is likewise something problematic when white feminists call for more empathy for ‘poor, brown women’, for Indigenous women, or the ‘average third world woman’2 in the absence of any critical interrogation of how colonising power and supremacist assumptions can travel within the discourses and practices of white empathy itself.

For Schuller, contemporary feminist theories of affect need to look more closely at the ambivalent roots of the Western genealogies of sentimental affect in order to note that these were not automatically or always on the side of the subaltern or resistance to racism: they are also found to be internal to the discourse of white supremacy (Schuller, 2018). The prospect that a well-cultivated capacity for empathy can operate as a technique of white privilege and power intimates the kind of empathy trouble that haunts white feminist thought today. To place the affirmations of empathy as a virtue – such as we find in Nussbaum (1997), Noddings (2010) and Meyers (2016), among many others – alongside the problematisation of empathy by feminist ‘trouble-makers’ – such as Pedwell (2014, 2016), Hemmings (2012), Ngo (2017) and others – reveals the degree to which empathy is a sort of normative ‘duck-rabbit’ in contemporary Anglophone feminist theory. What appears from one angle to be an anti-racist, humanitarian, ethical and epistemic feminist virtue, from the other looks closer to a white feminist vice par excellence.

But how can the affective response of empathising with others be guilty of reinforcing (rather than redressing) oppressive power structures? Consider, by way of example, the phenomenon of ‘himpathy’ identified by philosopher Kate Manne as a feature of the affective landscape of misogyny. ‘Himpathy’, Manne contends, occurs when pre-existing sexist ideology effectively derails or hijacks the affective response of concern owed a victim of sexual assault or harassment. Rather than empathy and support flowing to the (usually female) victim, it can instead flow to the (usually male) perpetrator when, say, the latter is a ‘golden-boy’: one of the privileged young men in prestigious institutions whose promising careers (as lawyers, high court judges, etc.) would be imperilled (and their lives ‘ruined’) by a rape charge, for example (Manne, 2017).

An analogous misdirection of empathy from victim to perpetrator can also occur in the intimate affective landscape of racism. Ruby Hamad’s critique of ‘white woman’s tears’ points precisely to such a pattern of misallocation of empathy in the affective dynamics between white and black women. She contends there is a predictable sequence that unfolds in those intense moments when a white woman is pulled up or confronted on her racism by a woman of colour, particularly when this occurs between women who understood themselves to be intimates, or allies. The former declares she is misunderstood, hurt by the accusation of being a racist and cries ‘white tears’. Reacting to those tears, the (white) bystanders who witness the interaction respond with a flood of sympathy to the distressed white woman, and offer her their emotional support and comfort, chastising the black woman for her ‘aggression’. For Hamad, this mobilisation of collective feeling (through the stimulation of empathy for fellow white women) is a secret power ploy that reasserts racial domination. The trouble here cannot be described as an empathy deficit because the racism is not enacted through an absence of empathy, but rather through its presence. It is not that empathy is missing from the scene, but rather that a subterranean racism has already pre-determined the channels that this transmission of affect will most readily take, reconfirming those ‘proper’ assemblages forged by (white) intimates through the strategic mobilisation and (mis-)direction of affect. The reinforcement of intimacy between the white women is a circulation of affect that simultaneously reinforces the exclusion of the black woman. While the empathetic response in question (to white tears) is, arguably, responsively attuned in one sense, it is also mis-attuned by the racial power dynamics in play. As a channel through which affective states are transmitted from one subject to another, the mobilisation of empathy does not always or necessarily bridge racial divides: it can, as in this case, deepen them.

Black skin, white empathies

To further explore the ambivalence of white empathy and the affective intimacies that it can reinforce and refuse, I turn now briefly to a discussion by feminist philosopher Miranda Fricker on the relationship between empathy, racism and testimonial injustice (Fricker, 2006). Fricker describes how a central element of the injustice of racism is that it deflates the credibility granted to the testimony of black people. By way of illustration, she invokes the case of the fictional character Tom Robinson, the black man falsely accused of raping a white woman in Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird.

Giving testimony before the jury as to what he was doing in the yard of a white woman, Tom explains that he sometimes helped Mayella out with her chores ‘because her life seemed hard to him and he felt sorry for her’ (quoted in Fricker, 2006). That a black man should express sympathy for the misery of a white woman or empathise with the hardships of her life has an abrupt and explosive effect on the white audience. It triggers currents of outrage in the white courtroom, and Tom himself ‘immediately realises his “mistake”’. But what mistake, exactly, has he committed? Why does the prospect of a black man empathising with the unhappiness and bleak circumstances in the life of a white woman – and his expression of concern for her – create such blank fury in the white subjects who witness it? For Fricker, what this indicates is the racist jury’s ‘perverted’ reading of the expression of ‘natural sympathy’ that one person might feel for the hardships of another. But in my view, this misses something: by confirming the ‘innocence’ of empathy as a ‘natural response to suffering’ this interpretation makes it impossible to recognise that the imbrications of empathy and racial power are not, in fact, innocent at all.

What unfolds in the courtroom in the face of a black man’s empathy might also be read as an illustration of how thoroughly context-dependent the meaning of empathy is. Rather than a ‘simple’ goodness untouched by power relations, every empathetic response is embedded in the social and affective fields of power. When a black man empathises with the plight of a poor white woman, he actually commits a serious breach of the ‘feeling rules’ (Hochschild, 1979) of white supremacy: these rules insist that empathy and ‘feeling sorry for’ is a prerogative of white privilege. Empathy belongs here to the white man (arguably, even more so to the white woman), if such a white subject deigns to feel it ‘downwards’ for the racially inferiorised other. If a black man empathises with a white woman, he has overstepped the mark and forgotten his ‘proper station’ in the social world. Paying attention to the rules of the social field, we might say that he goes against the ‘natural order’ as defined by the ideology of white supremacy: he is empathising ‘up’ and hence showing himself to be ‘uppity’. By feeling empathy for Mayella, Tom is acting as a black subject who can recognise and respond with concern to the vulnerability of a white subject. To the white supremacist, for a black man to hold (and, even worse, publicly declare) that he has such knowledge of white vulnerability amounts to an act of seditious rebellion.

What does this fleeting glimpse of ‘forbidden’ empathy felt by the black subject for a white woman do to the proposal that empathy be conceived as an epistemic virtue that can correct the wrongs of testimonial injustice caused by racial prejudice? To my mind, it helps make more explicit whose empathy exactly is being envisaged here. It only makes sense to grant empathy such corrective power if in fact the empathy we are talking about is allocated as a virtue of the dominant subject. In other words, it is not the cultivation of Tom’s empathetic imagination that is the focus of attention. It is not the subordinated subject whose ethico-epistemic virtues are to be the object of any cultivation, but the more powerful subject who can engage in ‘empathetic listening’. The risk here is that this empathetic relation, even as it promises to restore epistemic agency to the other, subtly reproduces an implicit power asymmetry that takes away with one hand what it gives with another. Here is the paradox: Tom Robinson could exercise all the empathy in the world, but it is not his practice or capacity for empathy that is being proposed as the lever with which to effectively shift the scene of epistemic injustice resulting from racism. The agency still lies disproportionately with the empathising disposition of the dominant white subject. Affirming the epistemic virtue of the (white) empathetic listener as the chief strategy to combat the testimonial injustices of racism risks inadvertently re-inscribing the power dynamic of inequality between black and white subjects. Empathy (as virtue) still ‘belongs’ to the dominant white subject.

Wilfully ignorant empathy

Sandra Bartky has noted the presence of ‘powerful ideological systems that serve to reassure whites that the suffering of darker-skinned Others is not of their doing’ (Bartky, 2002: 154). In this section I explore whether it might be possible for white subjects to respond empathetically to the suffering of racialised others, yet in ways that establish powerful affective systems that likewise bolster their reassurance that this suffering is not ‘of their doing’? Here I propose that one serious risk in framing empathy as a virtue in feminist and moral theory is that it may offer the affective correlate of the ideological reassurance of which Bartky warns. The subject who takes her empathy for another’s suffering to be evidence of ethical practice and epistemic virtue thereby sets up an affective reticulation of ‘good feeling about being good’ – thereby garnering an implied reassurance of moral rectitude with regard to the plight of the other (with whose suffering she empathises). The virtuous white empathiser gets both character reference and moral alibi that can facilitate ‘not knowing’ about the viciousness of the structural location she actually occupies as a privileged beneficiary of a racist society. The trouble I am attempting to flag here is that when ‘we’ white feminists conceptualise empathy as a humanist and anti-racist virtue in the specific context of a colonised white-settler society, this comes perilously close to affording just the sort of reassurance through which the myths of white innocence gain their ideological purchase.

In such a context, the affective system of wilfully ignorant empathy – like all forms of wilful ignorance – requires a careful maintenance of strategic not-knowing at the heart of any explicit commitment to know or understand (in this case, about the suffering of the other). In common with examples of the misallocation or mal-distribution of empathy (described above in the case of Hamad’s ‘white tears’ and Manne’s ‘himpathy’), the trouble here is not a matter of empathy being absent or missing from the scene. However, in contrast to those manifestations of empathy trouble, the harms of wilfully ignorant empathy don’t come about through the misallocation of empathetic attention, resources or concern to the ‘wrong’ object. Rather, insofar as the capacity to empathise with suffering is taken by itself to be demonstrative of moral character, it offers license to the virtuous white empathiser to not know something essential about the very suffering to which her empathy gives her some (however limited or distorted) phenomenological access: namely, it blocks knowledge of how she stands (as a participant and beneficiary, if not an active signatory, of white racism) in some structural complicity with the causes of that suffering.

This is not to rule out that a white feminist might get some phenomenological insight into what it ‘feels like’ to live under the weight of racist oppression by cultivating her empathetic identification with black, Indigenous women or women from the so-called ‘third world’ (although for an incisive dissection of the limits of this knowledge, see Ngo’s essay (2017) on ‘embodied empathy and political tourism’).3 Yet, while she might be empathetically attuned to such experiences of suffering, where this empathy simultaneously generates a feedback loop of good feelings about herself, this reassurance can affectively reinforce the maintenance of wilful ignorance regarding her structural complicity in the racist system responsible for that suffering.

I don’t mean to suggest here, of course, that all empathy of white people is wilfully ignorant in this way. What I want to draw attention to is the potential for white empathy to be wilfully ignorant, and to warn that may be quite possible to manifest both a highly sensitive, affective responsiveness to the lived experience of another’s suffering, and yet still maintain a blank disavowal of any implication or complicity in the structural or systemic situation that lies at its causal root. Even worse, by framing empathy as the sort of thing good and virtuous people do, the affiliation with the project of cultivating empathy might even increase the ease of the latter’s denial. In short, where it operates as a confirmation of the white empathiser’s ‘reassurance that this suffering of the darker-skinned Others is not of her doing’ (Bartky, 2002: 154), we white feminists are still deep in empathy trouble.

The white feminist’s two empathies

What else might a white-settler Australian feminist come to know, if her empathy with Indigenous women were not of the wilfully ignorant sort described above? And what remains of the ‘empathy projects’ of white feminism if the white, middle-class investment in empathy as a virtue is potentially complicit in the affective ‘habitus’ of white racism itself, and particularly of privileged white womanhood?

Several Anglo-American feminist moral philosophers have endorsed empathy as a method of ‘de-centring’ from the narcissistic preoccupations with the needs and perspective of the self in order to become receptive and attentive to the experience and vulnerability of others (Noddings, 2010). Yet, this de-centring has arguably not been extended radically enough to include the normative decolonising of Western empathy itself (as revealed in the problematising genealogical constructions of the discourses of affect and sentiment in Pedwell, Rai and Schuller). Were it to be deployed as a more radically de-centring force, then ‘walking a mile in the shoes of the other’ may well include an unscheduled encounter with an uncanny double of the good and civilised white self, but this time perceived afresh from the ‘elsewhere’ of the oppressed social margins. Such a shock-inducing swivel of perspective was, arguably, demanded of white Australian feminists of the academy when in 1994 Indigenous feminist Aileen Moreton-Robinson first published Talkin’ Up to the White Woman. There, Moreton-Robinson observed how

White women participated in gendered racial oppression by deploying the subject position [of the] middle-class white woman both unconsciously and consciously, informed by an ideology of true white womanhood, which positioned Indigenous women as less feminine, less human and less spiritual than themselves. Although the morphology of colonialism has changed, it persists in discursive and cultural practices. (Moreton-Robinson, 2000: 24)

The ‘empathy trouble’ of white post-colonial feminism, as I have attempted to formulate it here, comes out of the uneasy confrontation with the following question: to what extent do the ongoing attachments to empathy as a (white) feminist virtue still operate ‘informed by the ideology of true white womanhood, that by implication positions its target – the Indigenous woman – as less’? When do the affective habits of ‘whiteliness’ (to recall Marilyn Frye’s memorable phrase (Frye, 1992)) intermingle with the ‘feeling rules’ of middle-class femininity to cultivate a particular mode of white empathy that reinforces the inequalities of race relations, even in the moment of expressing a passionate humanist solidarity with its victims? And how deep does this current of ‘empathy trouble’ run as a tension that disrupts (even as it aspires to build) any meaningful solidarity between white and Indigenous feminists? Consider, for example, the repudiation and fierce reproach to white feminists sounded by the Australian Indigenous writer Melissa Lucashenko:

because you insist on burying your own racism under an avalanche of pseudo-solidarity; because you do not know whose traditional land you stand on; because you are baffled by the idea that Black women are justified in fearing you; because you want to ‘help’ Black women; because you presume that having attempted our genocide you can attempt our ideological resurrection; because you think that Indigenous culture survived for millennia in this country without Black feminists, and because of your imperialist attitude that you alone hold a meaningful concept of female strength and solidarity, for these and for many other reasons, we Black feminists are not a part of the Australian women’s movement. (Lucashenko, 1994: 24, original emphasis)

Given the extent of the trouble discussed above, should a white feminist still persist in cultivating her empathetic identifications (with her non-white, Indigenous ‘sisters’) at all, let alone in the name of a commitment to anti-racist politics? While it seems essential to deconstruct the positive account of empathy as virtue in white feminist theory, the deeper purpose of making empathy trouble in this way is not, ultimately, to abandon the idea of empathy as a site of feminist investment altogether. It is instead to accept the necessity for a continual problematisation of that investment.

If wilfully ignorant empathy can sustain racism under a rhetoric of a civilising humanism, this does not preclude it from also having the potential to function differently: it can also be a method of a deflation and ‘unlearning’ of the affective habits of white racism. This is why it remains both ‘indispensable and dangerous’ (see McCarthy, 2009: 8). This duality in normative potential is reflected in the fact that ‘taking the perspective of the other’ can be undertaken in either a ‘thin’ or a more profoundly transformative or disruptive way. When de-centring is sufficiently radical it can generate affective states that dislocate and prime the deflationary unlearning of the habits of white privilege and narcissism. ‘Empathising while white’ in this more radical way means relinquishing the reassurance of feeling virtuous. Instead of that moral reassurance, the empathiser is displaced from the centre of goodness by the affective force of ‘feeling her way out’ of an identification with the white virtuous self.

Clare Hemmings (2012) has proposed that an ‘affective solidarity’ that includes dissonance, disunity and difference between women across different social locations offers a much better model for feminist solidarity than one rooted in the feminist investment in empathy (with its emphasis on finding union, sameness and harmony). While I am sympathetic to this view that affective dissonance (rather than unity and harmony) is a productive generator of feminist reflexivity and critique, what I’m proposing here is that empathy, where it functions as a centrifugal force that allows one to ‘feel one’s way out’ of one’s own perspective, is not necessarily an affective state of harmony and consonance at all. Rather, empathy can itself be a source of critical ‘affective dissonance’ within the white subject. Such dissonant and disquieting empathy is conducive to a kind of self-critical, self-reflexive consciousness in the sense that it involves a way of experiencing the relation of the self and other ‘twice over’; from both ‘here’ and ‘elsewhere’. Its particular nature might be usefully illustrated by contrasting it with another well-known critical doubling of perspective that American feminist Patricia Hill Collins ascribes to the American black woman as the figure of the ‘outsider-within’. Hill Collins observes:

Domestic work fostered U.S. Black women’s economic exploitation, yet it simultaneously created the conditions for distinctly Black and female forms of resistance. Domestic work allowed African-American women to see White elites, both actual and aspiring, from perspectives largely obscured from Black men and from these groups themselves. In their White ‘families’, Black women not only performed domestic duties but frequently formed strong ties with the children they nurtured, and with the employers themselves. Accounts of Black domestic workers stress the sense of self-affirmation the women experienced at seeing racist ideology demystified. But on another level these Black women knew that they could never belong to their White ‘families’. They were economically exploited workers and thus would remain outsiders. The result was being placed in a curious outsider-within social location, a particular marginality that stimulated a distinctive Black women’s perspective on a variety of themes. (Hill Collins, 2000: 10–11)

As Hill Collins tells us, because the material and economic exploitation endured by black women occurs in the sphere of the affective intimacy of the elite white family, it also gives them a unique standpoint of privileged insight and knowledge. Privy to, and participating in, the close and intimate caregiving relations in the white household (with which, we might say, she also ‘empathises’ – including practising a kind of (allo-)maternal empathy with the white children she cares for), the black woman nevertheless does not belong to that elite white world; she is exploited by it. The white world she knows intimately, she also knows ‘from elsewhere’; from the marginalised position of the permanent outsider as a black woman. This simultaneous ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ positioning or standpoint is, for Hill Collins, key to the epistemic friction (and epistemic privilege) integral to critical black consciousness and black feminist thought (Hill Collins, 2000).

The ‘doubling’ of perspective open to a white subject that I’m proposing here as the potential of radical empathy is not, of course, the unique ‘double-vision’ of the ‘outsider-within’ that Hill Collins ascribes as the source of the critical reflexivity of the black woman. The empathy of the white subject in a racist world still starts, we might say, ‘from above’ – from a social location of privilege – not ‘from below’. The critical reflexivity of the black ‘outsider-within’ (born from being both inside the circle of white familial intimacy and yet excluded from it and exploited by it) is therefore very different from the affective dissonance of the white ‘insider-without’ (whose ‘taking the perspective of the other’ allows her to catch a critical glimpse of herself from the outside as a beneficiary of the oppression and exploitation of the woman whose intimate-political solidarity she may also seek in the name of feminist solidarity).

Kimberly Davis (2004) has described this more radical potential of a white woman’s empathy for black women as one of ‘reflective self-alienation’ (Davis, 2004: 410); Kaja Silverman calls it ‘spectatorial self-estrangement’ (quoted in Davis: 411). What affect theory allows us to add here is that this self-alienation is not just experienced from afar in a distanced register of spectatorship, but rather is also felt in the body; in an affective, as much as a reflective, register. The felt estrangement from the racist embodied ‘habitus’ is experienced as affective dissonance: as an embodied sense of not being at home in one’s white body.


As I described in the opening vignette of this chapter, the movements and responses of one’s own body can provide an uncanny opportunity to literally feel the legacy of racism move in and through the body. This legacy persists in the way one affects and is affected by other bodies, operating below and above the level of conscious awareness in ways that are both deeply alien and alarmingly familiar. The affective oscillations of empathising as a white ‘insider-without’ may at times allow one to catch those embodied habits of white racism in motion, and, if not to master them, at least to feel at odds with them and to begin to deflect them into a different iteration. The living encounter with the presence of the other’s body can be the impetus to an empathetic ‘self-estrangement’ from one’s own embodied ‘habitus’.

My contention here has been that to confront the ‘empathy trouble’ that haunts it, white feminism needs to be prepared to relinquish the attachment to feeling virtuous and good, and the misplaced moral reassurance this can provide. By working instead with the affective dissonance of ambivalent empathy available from the location of the white ‘insider-without’, it also becomes possible to fathom why the most heartfelt expressions of virtuous ‘whiteliness’ at times arouse acute impatience and irritation in the Indigenous women who become its chosen ‘object’. As Clare Hemmings observes, ‘feminists [who] acknowledge that the other, the object of empathy, may not wish to be empathised with when the empathy is “bad” tend to assume that “good” empathy will always be appreciated’. ‘But what if’, she muses, ‘the other refuses the terms of the empathetic recognition?’ What if ‘the subject […] may already consider your position as part of the epistemological terrain rendered problematic by their own experience’ (Hemmings, 2012: 152–3)?

It is striking that while the texts of black (and blak) feminists have invoked the power of empathy as a source of solidarity, it is rarely the ‘vertical’ empathy of privileged white women (flowing ‘down’) to oppressed black women that they have in mind. Where there is active endorsement of practices of empathy, this is the ‘horizontal’ empathy that black women feel and express for each other, and the powerful internal support this gives to sustain them in the face of white oppression. There is, understandably, much less enthusiasm on the part of black and Indigenous women to find themselves located as the grateful objects of virtuous white empathy, and certainly far less enchantment shown with such a relational dynamic than is likely to be expressed (or assumed) by white feminists themselves (including those keen to thereby ‘rehumanise’ the dehumanised Indigenous woman).

It is perhaps this that impelled Gomerei woman, lawyer and Indigenous activist Alison Whittaker to declare in a recent Melbourne public lecture that First Nations people have ‘had enough of calls for more education and for more empathy with their situation’ (Whittaker, 2019). What is behind this black feminist irritation with always needing to appeal to white empathy? And what kind of moral failing would it be – even, what kind of failure of empathy would it amount to – for a white empathiser to insist the other enter this empathetic relation, even when the supposed beneficiary of it has grown weary of finding herself on the supplicating end of it?

The more radical kind of ‘walking in the shoes of the other’ (of the ‘insider-without’) proposed here, means reckoning with the possibility that this ‘perspective-taking’ does not return the white feminist to herself as a good woman: instead, it can deliver the full-blown discomfort of coming face to face with herself as a structural incumbent of white racism, and this regardless of whatever individual disposition or character trait she might seek to cultivate. This racism is embedded in the affective responsiveness of her body to other bodies, not just what she consciously thinks about racism. If transformative empathy only comes with ‘struggles and loss of authority’ (Hemmings, 2012: 152), then part of the package deal may also include having to accept the loss of moral authority that empathy has traditionally secured for the white feminist.

The contribution that the empathy of white Australian feminists might make to cross-racial solidarity does not lie, then, in the promise of harmonious unity or a universal sameness of shared humanity with Indigenous peoples (who may not even want or welcome that white empathy, given its propensity to re-inscribe power asymmetries). If a white feminist hopes to become otherwise through ‘feeling her way into’ the Indigenous experience of dispossession and grief, this must also be a ‘feeling her way out’ of self-identifications with virtue, benevolence and white innocence that identifying with the role of a good empathiser once confirmed. The alternative potential of ‘post-virtuous’ empathy is the ‘unbecoming’ of the white subject that disrupts what it means to be at home in a white body.

If affect theory rightly alerts us to the fact that ‘no one has yet determined what the body can do’ (Spinoza, quoted in Gregg and Seigworth, 2010: 3) – thereby honouring the transformative potential of affect – it also demands that we be prepared to ask: what has this body and (white) bodies like mine done, of what intimacies has it been (in-)capable, and how does this still operate as an affective force-field on the bodies of the living? Perhaps this is what the white double-consciousness of an ‘insider-without’ most usefully reveals: for a white-settler feminist living on stolen Indigenous lands, empathising may well mean accepting that empathy becomes an impossible virtue to claim as her own – not for her, not from here – without once again courting some degree of wilful white ignorance. If, under these conditions, you still want to take a walk in the empathiser’s new shoes then you had best prepare, at the very least, for a long and unsettling mile.


I would like to thank Dr Miriam Bankovsky for her helpful comments on this chapter. This work was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship.


1 When read through theories of affect, what is meant by ‘intimate life’ and ‘intimacies’ becomes a much more polymorphous conception of ‘connections that impact on people’ (Berlant, 1998: 284) than ever dreamt of, for example, in the canonical works of the modern sociology of intimacy (such as Giddens (1992) and Beck and Beck-Gernsheim (1995)). Affective intimacies can be understood to extend to those ‘modes of attachment that make persons public and collective and that make collective scenes intimate spaces’ (Berlant, 1998: 288). What affects (and moves) us in intimate ways, then, might involve the unscheduled intensity of bumping up against the living presence of others (and other bodies) with whom we share the world, and involve currents of material-­affective transmission that penetrate and crisscross the boundaries of our individual ‘selves’ (even, for example, via the smells that ‘get up our nose’), as much as they demarcate what we consciously embrace. So too, the conceptualisation of empathy as a ‘component part of intimacy’ (Jamieson, 2011: 3) morphs in curious ways if we take the plunge and follow the blandishments of affect theory to drop ‘below’ or move ‘above’ the humanist self.
2 Mohanty uses this term to convey how Western feminism often constructs ‘third-world women as a homogeneous, “powerless” group located as the implicit victims of a particular culture and social-economic system’ (Mohanty, 1988: 66). How problematic, we might add, to then proceed to ‘empathise’ with this imago because such empathy results in a ‘closed-circuit’: namely, a circulation of affect with the empathiser’s own projections, not with the actual other.
3 Helen Ngo offers a critique of empathy-projects like the ‘wear a Hijab for a day programme’, and online ‘empathy apps’ that invite white people to virtually simulate the experience of racist abuse. As Ngo points out, there is a fundamental difference between donning an oppressed subject position (at will, for a designated time period) and then shedding it with the same ease, and what it means to be black or Muslim in a racially hostile world. Indeed the ‘donning and doffing’ of oppressed identities re-enacts the disparity in freedom to move at will in and out of spaces and identities that is the marker of (white) privilege (see Ngo, 2017: 115–16).


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