Racial apathy is a form of emotional neglect toward Black, Indigenous, and people of color rooted in the biased belief that we do not feel pain. As white supremacist culture weaves together narratives that white people are fragile and soft while communities of color are resilient and harsh, it births a hostile environment that does not care for us in the ways that we deserve.
The ways in which these narratives thread through our lives are devastating. Studies show that white people often feel more empathy when other white people experience pain and significantly less empathy when Black people experience pain; the treatment of BIPOC immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers is worse than the treatment of white people in the same circumstances. Western responses to natural disasters are often slower or nonexistent in areas where the victims are predominantly Black or brown than where they are white.
Dehumanization is the reason why racial apathy is so persistent. When you define someone as a “lesser human,” it becomes easier to desensitize yourself to their inherent tenderness. It becomes easier for you to be apathetic toward them and their painful experiences—including their experiences with racism. It is for these reasons that society often prioritizes white people’s comfort over our pain.
I often think back to a particular incident that took place when I was in middle school. A white student said something racist toward me, and our teacher consoled the student (who was upset that I told them off) instead of consoling me (the person who experienced the harm). In a moment when I deeply needed care, whiteness was the priority. I learned very quickly that I was navigating an environment where my feelings came second to white people’s feelings. Professor Megan Boler describes this unequal emotional dynamic as feeling power. In essence, the feelings of those in power take precedence and are normalized over the feelings of those who are oppressed.
Racial apathy manifests as people minimizing and disregarding the emotional needs of Black, Indigenous, and people of color. It often involves a lack of interest, emotion, and motivation to act.
How to Tend to Racial Apathy
Feel Your Feelings
In a world that tries to deny your ability to feel, taking the time to hold space for your hurt is a radical act:
Give yourself permission to talk, cry, and journal about it.
Create art. Art is a powerful tool that helps us express our emotions.
Join in-person or online BIPOC support groups that allow you to connect with people who center your experiences.
Protect Your Humanity
Practice affirming your humanity when you are around people who are racially apathetic:
Don’t spend energy trying to make someone have empathy for you. Walk away from people who make you feel like you have to prove your humanity.
Remember that someone’s inability to see the full humanity of BIPOC is not a reflection of your lack of humanity; it’s a reflection of theirs.
Cultivate relationships with friends, family, or community who know how to hold space for your hurt and fight for you.
Promote Racial Empathy
Advocate for genuine interest, emotion, and care toward Black, Indigenous, and people of color:
Condemn selective racial empathy when you see it taking place in the media—which influences what we are taught to care about. This puts pressure on society at large to confront the ways in which they neglect BIPOC.
Amplify the need for widespread rehumanization initiatives. Rehumanization is a process of rejecting identity-based hierarchies such as racial hierarchies from our hearts. This type of transformational work may help people see the humanity in BIPOC and embody racial empathy.
Excerpted from RACIAL WELLNESS by arrangement with Clarkson Potter, a division of Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © 2023, Jacquelyn Ogorchukwu Iyamah.