Paul Kusuda’s column
Is Empathy Possible?
By Paul H. Kusuda
Is empathy possible? Is it the same as sympathy? Can there be sympathy without
empathy? I had follow-up thoughts after writing my September 2010 article “Culturally
Insensitive Praise.” Cultural sensitivity is difficult to achieve, and most who think they have it,
To answer the question of whether there is a difference between empathy (an essential
ingredient of cultural sensitivity) and sympathy, one could turn to a dictionary or thesaurus for
help. I did and figured out the vital nuance in definition.
Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary Tenth Edition (copyright 1993) a gift from my
wife in June 1993, is what we have on our bookshelf. Sympathy—“…mutual or parallel
susceptibility of a condition brought about by it…inclination to think alike; emotional or
intellectual accord b. feeling of loyalty; tendency to favor or support…” Empathy--…the action
of understanding…being sensitive to, and vicariously expressing the feelings, thoughts, and
experiences of another…without having the feelings, thoughts, and experiences fully
communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”
I consulted another source on our bookshelf, William Morise (Editor): The Clear and Simple Thesaurus Dictionary
(copyright 1996). It had no entry for empathy but did for sympathy: “understanding, tolerance, sensitivity, pity,
compassion, mercy, eommiseration, condolence.”
Having empathic feelings is difficult to achieve because an important part is “…vicariously expressing the feelings…
without having (my emphasis) the feelings, thoughts, and experiences.” My question is, “Is empathy truly possible?
When I was a public welfare social caseworker in Chicago in the late 1940s, my caseload consisted of clients
receiving financial assistance for ADC (Aid to Dependent Children), BA (Blind Assistance), and OAP (Old Age Pension).
My responsibility was to approve clients for public assistance if they met legal requirements related to income,
residence, disability, etc. Professional guidelines included that staff should understand and accept the social
conditions in which clients found themselves. Even though we might “feel” a client’s problems, we were expected to
remain objective. Our role was to help clients meet their problems, not become overwhelmed by their extent.
The guidelines encouraged sympathetic understanding and acceptance of the client’s situation but avoidance of
being in the problem situation with the client. The rationale was that the staff role was to help the client, not just
commiserate about injustice or unfairness. In effect, although sympathy was encouraged, empathy was to be guarded
against. At the time, I was not sensitive to the reason why an ADC mother said, “How can you help me with my problems
as a single mother when you’re a man, not a woman?” My response as a young social worker was a recital of ways in
which the agency I represented could help.
Later, I realized that the young mother had an excellent point. As a male, how could I really be empathetic with her
and all of the problems she faced? All this is related to the article I wrote last month and to which I referred in the first
part of this article.
Many good-hearted, well-motivated, well-intentioned people truly believe they have a “feel” for race relations; they are
“color-blind” in their interactions with those of another race, color, or ethnicity. Some they, “Walk a mile in their shoes,
and you’ll understand and feel the way they do.” The fact is, empathy is not that easy to attain. How can an Asian
American really feel and understand how an African American or Hispanic American feels about a specific
circumstance? Or vice-versa.
For example, might a Japanese American seeking employment in the South have empathy for an African American or
Hispanic American seeking the same job if each has equivalent or similar qualifications? Ideally, yes; however, past
and present experiences differ so much that empathetic feeling is not truly possible. Understanding, yes. Acceptance,
So it is with dealing with differences other than race, such as ethnicity, color, religion, gender, gender preference,
weight, height, etc. Differences may be obvious, and some of us may have negative reactions. Desirable is
understanding, not necessarily acceptance or
tolerance, and a concomitant commitment not to
allow the negative reaction to affect decision-making,
action, or activity.
That’s why I cannot accept the do-gooder’s cry to
eliminate racism, its brothers. its sisters.
Institutional racism will always exist whether we
dislike it or not; however, negative manifestations
should be recognized and stopped before they
My wife, after reading this article, said that she
feels she is racist or prejudiced from time to time,
but she tries to be polite and fair to everyone. As for