Who Gets Historical Empathy?

In an age of violent extremism, including the transnational white-power terrorism that we saw targeting Muslims in New Zealand this weekend, one tool that U.S. history instructors have for combating toxic ideologies and challenging white supremacy may be “historical empathy.” But there’s a problem with the way some of us, particularly (I suspect) white men like me, try to use it.

The concept itself is highly intuitive for history teachers. When we bother to define it, we usually adopt something like the formulation offered by Kaya Yilmaz, who calls historical empathy “the ability to see and judge the past in its own terms” by using historical evidence—in other words, “the ability to view the world as it was seen by the people in the past without imposing today’s values on the past.”[1]

Historical empathy means putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Many of us believe that by teaching students this skill—and helping them practice on dead people—we can help them resist the lure of hatred and ethnocentrism today.

Now, as Jason Endacott and Sarah Brooks have argued (PDF), historical empathy really involves three processes: historical contextualization, perspective taking, and affective connection. That is, students must recognize how the past context was different; try to understand a past person’s way of thinking within that context; and connect that person’s emotional life to what the students have experienced. The convergence of the three processes allows students to understand their own perspectives as historically situated and limited, while also inspiring themselves to ethical action (for the good of other people) in the present.[2]

When fully realized, the three-way effect does make historical empathy a powerful tool for reshaping students’ imaginations to resist prejudice and bigotry.

But I think we need to consider a fourth part of historical empathy, which I’ll call historical recognition—acknowledging the historical salience of people whose perspectives are less often taken by members of the dominant culture. Without this fourth process, I fear, we can easily train students to be highly empathetic bigots.

Let me put it this way: It’s a good idea to pay attention to which figures from the past get the full walk-around-in-their-shoes treatment in our classes. Do they always somehow turn out to be same sort of person?

In our courses, do powerful men have their perspectives explored in detail “without imposing today’s values” on them, while the women in their lives remain anonymous? Do deeply flawed white figures get the benefit of contextualization, while the people of color they oppressed remain in the background? Do we present the past as a series of debates about which Euro-American men were the best rulers? Do we treat any given moment of dispossession or marginalization for people of color as a foregone conclusion? If so, our attempts to create the conditions for historical empathy will probably backfire.

In other words, the critical question is this: Who are we training our students to think of as “us,” and who are we training them to think of as “them”?

To teach a U.S. history course is to populate an imagined community. When we use primary sources in class, or when we build lectures around certain characters, we are making some people into representatives of that community while ignoring others. Who gets the speaking roles in the community? Who gets to write its songs and be painted in its portraits? Who gets to be flawed yet still empathetic? For anti-racist purposes, that is the real argument of the course.

It’s one thing to take anti-racist positions, and another to build an anti-racist imagination—one that recognizes not only the presence but also the subjectivity, agency, and full moral equality of the oppressed and marginalized.

“Be aware of the limits of your empathy,” Ijeoma Oluo warns white anti-racists in her recent book So You Want to Talk About Race. “Your privilege will keep you from fully understanding the pain caused to people of color by systemic racism, but just because you cannot understand it, that does not make it any less real.”[3] In a U.S. history course, I think, the limits of empathy are on display every time a well-intentioned instructor allows white supremacy to define “the past in its own terms.”

My particular fear, based on seeing what some of my fellow white historians say about empathy, is that some of us—in the name of objectivity!—may spend a lot of time thinking about how to get our students to understand the perspectives of powerful racists (naively assuming that’s where the most distance will be), and not much time thinking about how to model for our students a true and pervasive respect for people of color, members of religious minority groups, or less favored groups of immigrants by deliberately taking their perspectives.

I hope I’m wrong about how common this problem is. But I’ve often found it useful to examine my own work for signs that I’m lapsing into it.


[1] Kaya Yilmaz, “Historical Empathy and Its Implications for Classroom Practices in Schools,” The History Teacher 40, no. 3 (May 2007), 331.

[2] Jason Endacott and Sarah Brooks, “An Updated Theoretical and Practical Model for Promoting Historical Empathy,” Social Studies Research and Practice 8, no. 1 (spring 2013), 41-58.

[3] Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want to Talk About Race (New York: Seal Press, 2018), 209.

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