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More Empathy for the Privileged?

The limits of Brené Brown's approach to racism.

Public intellectuals DeRay Mckesson and Brene Brown (McKesson the civil rights activist and Brown of one of the best-loved TED talks, a powerhouse author and part of the Oprah Network since) taped a live discussion about “race, privilege, and shame” at New York’s Riverside Church.

Psychology Today's Tara Well highlights features of Brown's general approach here. The genesis of the event was a twitter conversation where Mckesson put some gentle questions to Brown: how does she get white people to recognize racism? She tweeted back:

Best approach? Start with “this has nothing to do with how hard you work or how you’ve had to bust your ass for what you have.”

Mckesson also asked how Brown's stock-in-trade, the benefits of more vulnerability, would apply to those who already experience racism.

Brown's view is now very well-known, of course. Everything is about connection, and empathy is necessary for connection. "Empathy is a choice and it's a vulnerable choice. In order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling."

So Mckessons's question is such a good one! When "whiteness" is a matter of directing and taking all of the attention, why would non-white people be expected to grant this any further, if we are to make progress addressing racist self-conceptions?

To me, it was not clear that she ever gave an answer (you can check for yourself here), but I supposed the discussion at Riverside was supposed to solve that. And yet, watching it (it was only available on livestream for a day) made me more convinced that Brown was not keeping up with either Mckesson's questions or points. Mckesson was offering some answers she just did not seem to be able to register.

I could not help but notice the following:

  • Brown has clearly not read recent philosophy on this subject
  • Empathy for the privileged does not seem a very promising way to move forward.

And I could not help but wish that Brown had prepared by reading some philosophy on race. If she had, certainly she would have recognized how valuable McKesson's points were (his points included a very vivid illustration of how some of us think of ourselves as needing to earn rights and others of us think we already deserve them).

Instead, she takes a bit of time to describe an imagined white person not wanting to hear about race when their child is extremely ill.

What a bizarre example, when children of all races fall ill. And how does anyone even imagine that regarding others fairly has something negative to do with your child's health?

Mckesson (again, very gently), after listening to the story of the imagined white person with an ailing child, explains that the "pain" of white people already takes up a "lot of space in conversations like these."

Boy, does it. Brown had made his point for him. But she never caught on.

I wish Brown would begin by reading philosopher George Yancy. There she would learn that we can think of "whiteness" as a self-identity with some very particular content. One thing a person who considers themselves "white" tends to believe is that it is normal to be white, standard, regular, best. Yancy has endless examples of this. One is in the form of the title of one of his books, "Look! A White! Philosophical Essays on Whiteness". "Look! A White!" seems a strange thing to say and a strange thing to point out, when being "white" is what is taken to be standard, regular, expected, the norm.

Because "whiteness" is made up of certain beliefs we maintain about ourselves and others, Yancy explains that white people can indeed be held accountable for their racism. (It is not just like a backpack of privileges that remains attached to you.) There are ways to reject false beliefs. And it is wrong to think something incidental about you makes you first, most important, normal, standard, best.

How do we figure this out? The process involved does not differ otherwise from that involved in thinking through other aspects of our personal and interpersonal ethics. It is a matter of intellectual engagement with what is right and what is wrong. Brown's suggestion, that we should practice more empathy for the privileged, seems an alternative to this more standard philosophical approach. (And put bluntly, if empathy results from being treated empathetically, racism would have ended a long time ago.)

In the Riverside discussion, Brown, sounds very defensive (and talks over Mckesson) to ask, should we "operationalize whiteness?" She repeats the question for, I guess, emphasis: "Should we operationalize whiteness?" ("Operationalize" meaning come up with some way to measure and test it.)

I think she expected the idea to sound ridiculous on its face. (She at least seems to be treating it as a mere rhetorical point, because she turns immediately to a new topic, saying corporate welfare is also oppressive.) If she had read philosophers on race, she would know that analyzing what it means to think of one's self is "white" is an incredibly fruitful undertaking, one as easy to relate to classic approaches to virtue as any other.

Brown's final advice is that we merely "show up" and "do the work." But without bringing any theoretical resources to these debates, are we going to get any more than bromides and reminders about white people's pain? I expect more fruitless conversations, ones that involve the same bad behaviors that a focus on race is supposed to curb.


Yancy, G..Look, A White! Philosophical Essays on Whiteness. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012.