QCEA reads #1: Radical Empathy by Terri E. Givens

QCEA reads is a new series reviewing books related to QCEA’s values and work on peace, justice and equality. Working in Brussels on EU policy, policy briefs to read are some of the most common literature we are exposed to but they can be technical, abstract with little connection with everyday life. Fiction, essays, poetry etc. give us insights into people’s lives and how they experience the consequences of policies. 

QCEA reads is a deliberate choice to broaden our horizon beyond the “policy bubble”, to keep our work grounded in lived experience and the felt impact of EU policies in Europe and beyond. A better future and new solutions require us to open our imagination. To put the human at the center of policy making, what better way than taking inspiration from the aspirations, achievements and experiences that can be found in the pages of a book?

If you would like to suggest books for QCEA staff to read and review, please send us an email.

Radical empathy: Finding a path to bridging racial divides 

by Terri E. Givens, 2021

Pamela Nzabampema, Outreach and Community Organiser: As part of our work of challenging assumptions and promoting alternatives to the dominant thinking and practices on European Affairs, the Human Rights (HR) programme decided to explore non-European experiences of living and working in Europe. 

Terri Givens’ recent book ‘Radical empathy: Finding a path to bridging racial divides’ caught my eye because in 2020, the HR Programme offered a course to EU practitioners on radical empathy. Although the book focuses primarily on US-American experiences, racial injustice is also a reality in Europe.

Lena Hofmaier, Communications Assistant: ​​The book is part memoir and part practical guide and essay on the impact and history of racism in American society and how radical empathy might be able to help bridge racial divides.

Givens defines radical empathy as “encouraging each other not only to understand the feelings of others, but also to be motivated to create the change that will allow all of us to benefit from economic prosperity and develop the social relationships that are beneficial to our emotional wellbeing. (…) Empathy allows us to see the humanity in others, and radical empathy moves us to work towards social justice and change that will benefit us all” (p. 1). 

This echoes Quaker testimonies in several ways:

For one, according to Terri Givens, radical empathy requires the ability to be vulnerable. Being vulnerable touches upon the Quaker testimony of ‘integrity’ which is: “The need to deal honestly with all others and with oneself”. In the journey towards radical empathy, one has to look honestly at some of the entrenched beliefs as well as their positionality and privilege. Secondly, the book seeks to address racial divides. This relates to the work that Quakers have done in advancing social justice for centuries. Of course, it also fits with the Quaker testimony of equality: “Friends hold that all people are equal in the eyes of God and have equal access to the “inner Light.” This profound sense of equality leads Friends to treat each person with respect, looking for “that of God” in everyone.’ 

What I appreciate about Givens’ concept of radical empathy is that it takes empathy a step further and inspires action, which empathy itself does not necessarily do.

Pamela: According to Terri Givens, radical empathy entails:

  1. A willingness to be vulnerable
  2. Becoming grounded in who you are
  3. Opening yourself to the experiences of others
  4. Practicing empathy
  5. Taking action
  6. Creating change and building trust (p. 21).

The way the author uses her personal journey towards radical empathy spoke to me and made me reflect on my biases and internalised oppression. For example, her experiences at the family, community, local, professional, national, international etc. levels made me think further about what can be done both at the personal and community levels to change broader systems.

Lena: The strength of the book lies right here: in the way Givens weaves together history and explanations about root causes of structural and personal racism with practical approaches everyone of us can take to move forward towards unity. Each chapter closes with practical impulses, which inspire thought and action and which help to draw connections to one’s own life and circumstances.

The chapters which will probably stay with me the most are the ones on external and internalized oppression, radical empathy and leadership, and the chapter on restorative justice. In the latter, Givens describes lessons in restorative justice from South Africa and post-war Germany and motivates readers to work towards change on the national level.

As a German myself, this chapter was interesting because it shows the way Germany is continually wrestling and dealing with the Holocaust in a quite positive light. However, I cannot help but mention that there are also horrifying aspects of German history which are not wrestled with in the same way or given enough attention in German society and education. These include for instance the atrocities perpetrated by Germans in the colonies. 

Pamela: Givens points at and tries to bridge several divides. As an academic and also having worked in policy and with NGOs, I recognise what she describes as ‘divides between academe and the general public, and the divides between those who are activists and those who see activism as voiding our objectivity as researchers.’ (p.12)

The author’s honesty and ability to be vulnerable and write a book about such personal experiences is an inspiration to embark on a similar journey towards radical empathy. I also agree with the author that, in order to have empathy for others, you need to practice it on yourself. The book emphasises that radical empathy at the personal level is only one step and that it can be applied in parallel at the community/meso and systemic/macro levels.

Lena: The vulnerability of the writer allowed me (as a white reader) to understand the personal and individual consequences of external and internalized oppression and white privilege better than I did before. 

This rather slim book touches on so many important facets of white privilege and racism. I think it is a good read for people who are only just starting to learn about these issues.

Pamela: I appreciate that the book does not claim that this is an antidote to racism and nor that radical empathy will be enough to address it.  It is intended to be a tool towards a personal journey to radical empathy through understanding entrenched biases and internalised oppressions – and  most importantly towards taking action!

More radical empathy is needed in EU policy-making. It offers a departure from the prevailing International Relations theories and practices, which frame  humans as selfish and create rules and regulations accordingly. Making and implementing policies grounded in lived experiences, that seek to address vulnerabilities, foster trust, and create change for all… that would be truly transformative!

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