Guest Post: “Privilege limits imagination”

by Kay Olson

[edit 04.23: originally posted as a comment in response to this post – mb]

With everything that has happened recently in the feminist blogworld (Seal Press, discussions of intellectual appropriation, BFP quitting her blog), and Angry Black Woman’s proposal for a Carnival of Allies, I’ve been thinking a lot on “empathy”, what exactly it is and how far it can get us in understanding each other.

In being effective allies, I don’t believe empathy can get us where we want to go. It’s a good place to start. Probably the best and only place to begin, but even with a generous definition of empathy as something that encompasses all manner of attempt to put oneself in another’s shoes, it still relies on the limits of an individual’s imagination. One has to be able to think of whose shoes to stand in and have some inkling of how they might feel. And privilege limits imagination.

Privilege is the ability to look around a room and not notice who is missing, because they weren’t invited, couldn’t take time off work, didn’t have the means to get there, or weren’t allowed in the building because of, oh, dress code or lack of ramps. CripChick notes in comments to her own post that she doesn’t feel able to participate in a discussion like the one over at Feministe that questions her own right to parent, and she’s not alone in that sentiment. Why show up for a debate where your personhood is in question? Why keep blogging when you (and the people you write about) are not given equal footing in discussions about your own lives? Why keep trying to bulldoze your way into parties where your absence/silence is apparently unnoticed?

What I’m saying is that the misplaced empathy and the silencing: they’re related, you know.

Writer/activist Kay Olson blogs at The Gimp Parade and Alas, a Blog.

Recommend this post at Progressive Bloggers

8 thoughts on “Guest Post: “Privilege limits imagination”

  1. Yes. Thank you, Kay.

    Personally I’m a fan of centering interdependence and interbeing, rather than empathy. In Buddhism we have a bunch of words along these lines: empathy, sympathy, pity, compassion. We generally say that compassion encompasses and pre-requires empathy, but is also rooted in interdependence and interbeing, which is what takes it beyond individual imagination. Well, okay enough of my nerdy mystical talk.



  2. Hmmm, I’m not sure I get it. I think the human imagination is potentially unlimited. As any other part of the human brain, it will behave differently depending on how it is informed, how it interacts with intellect and emotion and so forth, but is not innately limited. Nor is empathy. I think. Or perhaps I’m missing the point? Or perhaps it’s a semantic difference that I’m missing. Hey, wtf, I thought I was a big, strong feminist woman – why am I apologizing? lol


  3. I think you’re saying that the ability to be an ally and to work with marginalized groups does not require placing yourself in someone else’s shoes or reaching out to lift someone to some invisible pedestal. Because that’s often what “empathy” translates to — the desire to be a more benevolent or responsive dictator.

    If that’s what you’re saying, I fully agree. If it isn’t, then… I’ll read it over again! :-p


  4. This guest post was a comment to Matt Bastard’s “Misplaced Empathy” post, so it was written as a direct response to that and CripChick’s post on the Feministe thread on the recent court decision against sterilizing a disabled woman in Illinois.

    When I say that I don’t believe “empathy” can get one there, to being a full, effective ally, I am thinking how people can be “committed” to equality (in regard to race or ability or whatever) but still not see past their own privilege. Expressed commitment to justice doesn’t always mean humility and an ability to listen and learn, as we’ve seen recently, for example.

    Kai, I think interdependence is an effective way of looking at disability/ability and seeing past the stereotypes of who needs help and who doesn’t, who is disabled and who isn’t. I hadn’t thought of it in a Buddhist context before. Cool.

    [link fixed – mb]


  5. My apologies for not including a link to the post that you were respoding to, Kay nor posting a contextual explanation that it had originally appeared as a comment.

    Shall do so now.


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