Empathy and Privilege in an Interdependent World

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Miki Kashtan

Miki Kashtan (international teacher of NVC, author, and co-founder of Bay Area Nonviolent Communication), draws on the complexities of her experience of privilege and oppression as a Jew and an Israeli immigrant to explore the topics of empathy and privilege. The fruit of her inquiry is wisdom and guidance for dominant groups seeking to redress the harm done in their name, by their actions, and/or as a form of inheritance. This article has been slightly abbreviated for White Awake. You can read the full piece here. To access Miki’s latest work, check out her blog “Facing Privilege“.

For some years now, I’ve been pondering this sentence I’ve heard, often, from my colleague and friend Kit Miller, director of the Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, and former director of BayNVC: “Empathy doesn’t flow uphill very easily.” Oppressed people already know it doesn’t flow downhill easily. As my late sister Inbal put it, when oppression is present, those in power see the oppressed as subhuman, the oppressed see those in power as inhuman, and neither sees the other’s humanity. When there is a strong power difference, and that power is used to oppress a group, empathy gets blocked – both as a precondition for and an outcome of the oppression.

I can immediately see the appeal of the conclusion, or dream, that bringing individuals together from across lines of oppression, and getting them to hear each other’s stories and develop empathy, would be a step towards transforming the oppression. After all, empathy is liberating, whether we receive it in response to our own suffering, or when we open our hearts widely to shine its light on others and to recover our sense of their humanity.

Except that in practice, what I have seen in groups I’ve been part of is not supporting this hypothesis. Instead, what I have seen and heard of, in contexts of power differences, has finally led me to the opposite conclusion. Unless some very specific ways to focus attention and choice are part of the picture, I now believe that the goal of having “both sides hear each other” reinforces rather than transcends the power differences.


1986: I am living in Manhattan, and my very first German friend is visiting. He has had too much to drink, which worries me a bit. Then he starts crying. I learn that both his parents were Nazi identified; his mother was in the Hitler Jugend, and his father in the Wehrmacht. He wails as he recognizes that the violence of all this is deeply situated in his body, and will never leave him. I had never before spoken intimately with any German, let alone the son of Nazi parents. I realize how much easier it is to be on the side of the victim, when morality is on my side.


1988: I am in Israel, visiting, in the middle of the first Intifada. I am in a room full of about 100 Israeli women who came to hear from a few Palestinian women, as part of ongoing efforts by women across the lines to create peace. (Incidentally, as has been the fate of women for so long, their work was never publicly recognized when the talks leading to the Oslo accord took place, on ground prepared by them.) Everyone is open, clear, present, curious – until the Palestinian women start sharing personal stories about what happened to their families and beyond at the hands of Israelis. At that moment, the Israeli women become furious and start shouting.


2004: I am co-leading the BayNVC Leadership Program with Julie Greene. There are about 25 participants in the program, of which about 8 are men, and yet we count, over the first few days, that much more than half of the time, men were the first to speak in response to a question, and spoke longer and more often than the women in the room. (This is not an unusual occurrence. This is documented statistically, and I have been obsessively observing this phenomenon for decades in pretty much all groups I am part of or lead.) Julie and I decide to dedicate a session in the program to engaging with this and learning from it. At the next large group session, we make the observation and invite a discussion about it. The men protest, crying out to be seen as individuals and not just members of a group.


2009: I am in Auschwitz, as part of a nano-delegation of four women: one each from Germany, Poland, Israel (though living in the US), and USA. Here’s what I wrote about it at the time: “In the midst of the ruins of the human heart, we experienced magic amongst us as we walked around the camps, primarily speechless, but united in our quest for love and healing, especially a desire to understand the unimaginable: what made it possible to do it… We tried to imagine being staff at the camp, getting up in the morning to go to work, how to do it. I feel more whole for having done this, for having managed to make some small progress toward being able to imagine what it could have meant. It feels somehow essential to the integrity of doing the work of teaching NVC as a spiritual path to be able to see and understand the human logic that led to these choices.” I am also reminded now, as I am writing this piece, of the moment in which, while reading Alice Miller’s account about Hitler’s life, I felt compassion for the child that Hitler was and the brutality of his life. I knew right then that my own liberation became that much closer for being able to hold him with compassion, even if only as a child.


2015: I am talking with an African-American woman about the various ideas I’ve had in preparation for writing this piece. She is excited, and spontaneously shares a personal example. At a gathering specifically designed to explore matters of race and privilege, she is paired up with a white man. When it is her turn, she speaks about how much she wants to be able to have contexts where she can just talk about her experiences as an African-American woman and be heard, without defensiveness, without responses, without being asked, indirectly, to then hear someone else. The agreement for the activity is that each person speaks for themselves, not in response to what another said. She is done, and it’s then the turn of the man she was paired up with. He proceeds to speak about how hard it was for him to hear what she said, and what he wants to be seen for.

Built-in Asymmetry

It is a little later in 2015 in Oakland, and a group of participants in a workshop are listening in as I am talking with my friend and colleague Aya Caspi, also from Israel, who has just come back from leading a small group of Palestinians and Israelis in an NVC Family Camp in Vashon Island, Washington State. The intensity is visible on her face as she tells me some of what happened when Israelis and Palestinians were trying to listen to each other. Aya had a particular concern about how to be open to Palestinians’ pain without dehumanizing Israelis. As I listen more, I realize that Aya, like many Israelis, is only familiar with the official story we both grew up on, even as she is open to the possibility that all or some of it is not true. Her heart is weeping with grief for the plight of the Palestinians, and yet she hasn’t chosen, until this conversation, to look deeply into what happened. I have found sources that, to me, are incontrovertible (though of course others would dispute; such is the nature of major political conflicts), with quotes from early Zionist leaders that leave me shivering with anguish, struggling to breathe. I can barely look at it, and yet I can’t not.

As I listen to Aya and navigate the complexity of the situation – there is this person I love dearly, whose pure heart I trust beyond measure; there is the pervasive and deeply reinforced collective ignorance and denial hanging in the air, even as we both challenge it, of what we have done to get to have a country and language we can call our own after 2,000 years of ongoing persecution; there are the people, a whole group of students, listening to our conversation, watching how we navigate the challenge; and there is the intensity itself, within me – all the pieces suddenly come together for me, and I see a path forward. It is an asymmetrical path, completely different from the simple frame of “we are both wounded and need empathy.” I realize, finally, that this frame itself is a challenge to breakthrough.

This is a path of paradox.

Path of Liberation

I still believe that what I have always intuited and experienced is true, that opening to the humanity of the oppressor is, indeed, a fast track to inner freedom and liberation… EXCEPT I now realize that it cannot be expected of the oppressed person. Given the pervasiveness of pain, suffering, and especially the inner and outer assault on the dignity of the oppressed, this expectation then becomes one more aspect of the oppression, regardless of how liberating it would be if done voluntarily.

Because I am both in privileged groups (e.g. an Israeli Jew, and a person with access to white privilege and untold amount of educational privilege) and in oppressed groups (e.g. a Jew, with the history this entails, and a woman in a world dominated by men), I can recognize the strength and rigor of this kind of commitment. As the one with privilege, I want to remember to always welcome and never expect someone else to hear me if it’s not their complete and voluntary choice; all the more so if that person is a member of a group that mine continues to oppress. As the one without privilege, I experience the space to choose to move towards my own liberation on my own terms, without expectations, without a timetable. I smell the freedom, I want it, and I can only go there when I can, even though I know that going there will accelerate my liberation.

However appealing being heard might be, I now believe that what is most liberating for the oppressor, the member of a privileged group, is to focus, instead, deliberately and deeply, on looking as openly as our human heart can tolerate at the actions done in our name or even by us, with or without knowing, with or without intention.

This is clearly not an easy path. How many of us have enough sense of self, enough trust in our human beauty, that we can continue to hold onto it when we hear of harm we have done to others? Few. This is, in my mind, why the Israeli women became angry at the Palestinian women.

Hearing the suffering of the Palestinian women could not lead to the expected compassion and care because it interfered with the “official story” that was the justification for the treatment of Palestinians. Their real life experience, their basic human suffering, was threatening the trust in the self, making it that much harder to maintain a positive moral self-image.

I still remember, with immense sorrow and tenderness, a time when I acted like the man in the last vignette above. It was 2005, and I was oblivious to the dynamics of what was happening in the room. Despite years of participating in talking, feeling, reading, writing, and struggling to transform relations of power, I was entirely absorbed in wanting my innocence to be seen. I was focused on how much my intention had been misunderstood, clearly leaving unattended the effect: the pain of the African-American woman who was responding to the action I had taken.

Like all human beings, we have a deep need, a true hunger, to be seen in the fullness of our own humanity, especially our own suffering and the meaning that our actions have for us, separately from any pain we may have created in the world. We habitually allow this very understandable longing to make us unable to be fully present to the ones suffering as a result of actions we or members of our group took. Opening our hearts to the effects of our actions is a powerful antidote to that tendency. Of course we need to be seen for every small bit of our humanity. And yet we can only receive this gift from those who choose to give it to us.

For more information on the 1988 vignette see: “The Pain, The Anger, and the Hope: Women Peace Workers in Israel,” Magazine of Creation Spirituality, March 1992.

Miki Kashtan is a co-founder of Bay Area Nonviolent Communication (BayNVC) and the NVC North America leadership program. She is inspired by the role of visionary leadership in shaping a livable future, and works toward that vision by sharing the principles and practices of Nonviolent Communication through mediation, meeting facilitation, consulting, and training for organizations and for committed individuals. Miki blogs at the Facing Privilege. She is the author of three books (including Reweaving Our Human Fabric: Working together to Create a Nonviolent Future), and her articles have appeared in the New York Times, Tikkun magazine, Shareable, Peace and Conflict, and elsewhere. She holds a Ph.D. in Sociology from UC Berkeley.

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