sym·pa·thy - noun - feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.
em·pa·thy - noun - the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
I remember when I first learned the word empathy; it confirmed my suspicions that Ms. Mosley had run out of material and had begun to make things up. My eleven-year-old self thought: we already have the word sympathy, we don’t need this new word empathy. I simply couldn’t understand the difference between the two definitions; when my sister Katie got in trouble with my mom, I felt bad pity for her and I understood her feelings. I felt pity for her because I understood her feelings. The two were so intricately linked, I couldn’t imagine one without the other.
But now I can.
As it turns out, it isn’t hard to understand someone’s feelings when you shared a bunk bed with them for sixteen years. It’s not hard to understand the feelings of children that you grew up with, children in the same socioeconomic class as you, children who look like you. I was never asked in my childhood to empathize with plights different from my own; I was only asked to finish my broccoli because there were starving kids in Africa. I didn’t know how hard empathy could be.
But now I do.
Roxane Gay writes in Bad Feminist about overhearing white women in her PhD program discussing how she was the “affirmative action student”. She writes that “there was no one I could really talk to about what I had heard because I was the only student of color in the program. There was no one else who would understand. Sure, I had friends, good friends who would commiserate, but they wouldn’t get it and I would never be able to trust that they didn’t feel the same way” (emphasis in original). Gay is highlighting the difference between sympathy and empathy: she had friends who would feel bad that she was hurt, but she did not have any anyone that she felt would get it. She felt that she could find friends to sympathize with her, but not friends to empathize with her.
My mother had a (justified) habit of threatening to return some of our new clothes when we didn’t do what she said. When I knew Katie was in trouble once, I hid her new shirt in my dresser because I knew she’d want me to. On one hand, Katie probably deserved to lose that shirt if she really made my mum so mad. On the other hand, I was able to predict what Katie would be scared of and what would make her feel better without communicating with her. That’s understanding, that’s empathy, that’s getting it. And that is easy when you have had the same experiences as someone.
But what if nobody has had the same experiences as you? What if you can’t find someone to empathize with you? You rely on yourself, you pull yourself together, but you also internalize the entirety of the pain. Partially because Gay had no one to share her pain with, she never shook the feeling of imposter syndrome created by what she overhead: “I designed an overly ambitious research project for my dissertation that kind of made me want to die. No matter what I did, I heard that girl […] telling a group of our peers I was the one who did not deserve to be in our program.” Gay admits she had ongoing self doubts even as she graduated and began work, referring to constantly worrying as exhausting. And it is.
More often than not, I have been the only female on a team of engineers. I have been the only female tech lead on a team. I have been the only female in the room…in a lot of different rooms. I have never had a female boss or tech lead. To be clear, I don’t always notice or mind this environment, but every so often I remember my otherization.
When I’m outnumbered by men (always, except at conferences specifically for women) and one man says something sexist, I have a choice: point it out and risk being (at the very least) starred at, or I can laugh it off and feel a little pang of despair that comes with knowing things aren’t going to get better as long as people like me laugh at things like that in meetings like these.
No matter what I chose, I’m in that position because I have nobody else who has lived like me, nobody else who looks like me. There is no Alisa to my Katie; instead of knowing how I would feel and predicting what would make me feel better, I’m sometimes surrounded by people who don’t even know that they’ve hurt me (and often don’t want to know, and will tell me I’m wrong if I explain why I was hurt).
There are sympathetic, educated men all over the place, but they don’t know all the emotions hearing the word “whore” brings up (yes, I have really heard that at work, and no, I didn’t say anything). When that punch to the stomach comes, the one you feel every time you hear that word, nobody else in the room can catch your eye and knows what you’re feeling. So you shake it off, you bury it, and you try to act normal, but you’re reminded of your inferior status in this world and in that meeting.
Empathy and sympathy are different words. Ms. Mosley would be proud, but it’s sad how I learned to tell the difference. And it is sad that underrepresented minorities suffer the emotional drain of not having an empathetic support system. So hire more minorities, not just because hiring more minorities improves your image of a diverse company, but because it helps minorities form support groups. It would help me if, just once, I looked across the room and knew someone else caught the implication of what I heard too.