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September-October 2016

What it means to practise radical empathy

How we connect our relationships to ourselves, pain, and struggles with others

Sheila Sampath@sheilasheila

ThisMagazine50_coverLores-minFor our special 50th anniversary issue, Canada’s brightest, boldest, and most rebellious thinkers, doers, and creators share their best big ideas. Through ideas macro and micro, radical and everyday, we present 50 essays, think pieces, and calls to action. Picture: plans for sustainable food systems, radical legislation, revolutionary health care, a greener planet, Indigenous self-government, vibrant cities, safe spaces, peaceful collaboration, and more—we encouraged our writers to dream big, to hope, and to courageously share their ideas and wish lists for our collective better future. Here’s to another 50 years!


My first foray into activism was a training session at a rape crisis centre. That night was a crash course in anti-oppression and identity-based frameworks as we split into group and caucus: straight women’s group, queer women’s caucus, white women’s group, women of colour caucus, and so on.

I was 18 and it was the first moment in my life where I found myself in an intentionally politicized space with other women of colour. It was uncomfortable.

The facilitator started by asking us to look to the other women in the room and to think about the ways in which we are socialized to compete with each other, to put each other down, and to be suspicious of one another. She asked us to think about how nobody understands our experiences more than someone who faces the same oppressions, yet we so often distance ourselves from one another.

This was an incredibly simple statement, but it was my feminist moment, a moment upon which all my other feminist and anti-oppressive politics were built. I saw that my distrust toward other people who looked like me came from a deep distrust in myself—an unfortunate byproduct of colonialism and the patriarchy, and I started to understand that in order to resist these systems, I needed not only to honour my own feelings, but also to value the connections that we share as marginalized peoples.

When I think about a future that is more just than the present, I think about the concept of radical empathy—a politicized practice of empathy that connects our relationships with ourselves to our relationships with others. Radical empathy connects our pain and struggles so that when 49 queer people in Orlando are massacred, hundreds of people in Toronto shed tears; when a national celebrity is acquitted of charges of sexual violence, hundreds of survivors feel rage; and when a police officer in Lousiana murders another Black man, we feel profound loss everywhere. It also connects our joy, so that when you see someone finally breaking ground, or loving themselves, or being appreciated or honoured by their community— you feel joy and pride as well.

This empathy already exists—we see it in protests and public outcry every day, and (admittedly less frequently) in public celebrations. The political piece comes in the ongoing reflection on who we choose to connect with in this way, who we choose to identify with, and who we choose to see as human in the same way we see ourselves as human. The radical piece comes in how we choose to honour this historically feminized way of knowing, alongside other ways of knowing, the valuing of feelings alongside thoughts and active listening.

When marginalized people take up space with all of the feels, we are giving value to something in ourselves that we’ve been taught not to value. When we connect these feelings to other people, we transform the hyper-individualization that comes from living under capitalism; we form meaningful relationships; we think and feel more collectively; and we engage in activism that builds loving communities.

This approach to empathic ways of knowing allows us to not just engage in political dialogue and argument, but to feel. It adds clarity to processes of activism that embody the politics we want to see in the world, and it allows us not just to resist, but to transform, imagine, and speculate.

Sheila Sampath is the editorial and art director of Shameless magazine, and is committed to practicing art and activism from a place of love and friend-making.

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