The Colour of Empathy (by Jacqueline Peters)

Jacqueline Peters received an Honours BA in Linguistics from Concordia University, a MA in Linguistics from the University of Toronto and is a Doctoral Candidate in Linguistics at York University. Her doctoral dissertation, “Feeling Heard”: The Discourse of Empathy in Medical Interactions, is a qualitative study on Empathy in Medical Interactions. Jacqueline’s research has been funded by a Master’s SSHRC and a Doctoral SSHRC.

Her publications are “Black English in Toronto”: A New Dialect? (Co-authored with Laura Baxter) Conference Proceedings of Methods in Dialectology 14. 201, and ““(Be)coming Jamaican”: (Re)Constructing an Ethno-Cultural Identity.” In Identity through a Language Lens. Kamila Ciepiela (ed). Lodz Studies in Language (23). Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien: Peter Lang Publishing House. 2011. Pgs.109-118.

Jacqueline has previously examined identity construction of non-European immigrants living in Montreal and young people of Caribbean descent in Toronto, and has presented her work at numerous international linguistic conferences on linguistic variation, ethnic identity, and medical interaction. Her research interests include empathy, ethnic identity. intercultural communication, narrative analysis and discourse analysis.

“When a person realizes he has been deeply heard, his eyes moisten. I think in some real sense he is weeping for joy. It is as though he were saying, “Thank God, somebody heard me. Someone knows what it’s like to be me”.” Carl Rogers

“Someone knows what it’s like to be me” –the essence of empathy. At its simplest, experiencing empathy means to walk in the shoes of another; at its most complicated, it involves mirror neurons. It’s the cognitive and affective mix that makes us social beings and that has allowed us to live with one another, albeit often within our separate groups.

It’s just my luck that I began to study empathy just when it appears to be in such short supply. I’m not sure how people who truly believe in the superiority of one group over another can be coaxed to stop and think about what it would feel like to have your belonging, identity and language questioned on a daily basis; where diversity would mean not being the only or not being the first.

With all that’s happening in the world, especially in the world to the south of us, I needed to step away from my research looking at empathy in medical interactions and look at, or rather look for, empathy in contested spaces.

It appears that of all the things that have been lost since Brexit, the American Presidential election, the rise of the “alt-right”, and all of the other international activities that have turned me into a news junkie, empathy seems to have been forgotten, tossed aside, dissolved. Not only is there little walking in another’s shoes, but there is now a question of whether the other deserves to even have shoes. The precarious tolerance that allowed for relative civility has been torn asunder. Without empathy we have lost the ability to live side by side, at least with those who don’t look like us.

What has this to do with “belonging, identity, language and diversity”? Everything.

There is no sense of belonging in spaces where the mere act of sitting, or nodding off, or participating in a college tour results in the police being called to deal with your sitting, nodding off, or participating.

Your very identity is called into question when you are followed around a store or ignored at a store counter or asked where you are from while in the country in which you were born.

In a time tense with racial animus, political leaders have often used “instructive language as techniques for fostering solidarity with one group and setting up boundaries for lessening empathy for others” (Calloway-Thomas, 2010:75). Building on unwarranted fears leaders use a “language of attachment [that] has been used to create cultural warrants” ([and]that have allowed insiders to justify their actions both communicative and physical against outsiders. They have “[spoken] violence into existence” using the “language of bifurcation” (144).

Words can be used to hold some groups together and break others apart. Language has been skillfully employed to establish nation-states creating spaces that hinder their members’ ability to empathize with non-members. A change in political ethos has made political correctness appear as a way of forcing whites to atone for centuries of ethnic oppression by having to carefully choose words that avoid any indication of racism. (92)

In analyzing language, we talk about choices; choosing to describe a group of dissenters as either looters or protesters, a group of youths as either thugs or teenagers, a murderer as either as terrorist or a misunderstood young man. Underserved communities demanding fair treatment have been referred to with metaphors of disease, criminality, and even zoology. This use of language creates the cultural other, rendering them either invisible or so visible they induce fear.

The language that is used to patiently or forcefully explain why you don’t deserve to be wherever you happen to be, why you don’t deserve access to healthcare, a decent education, or safe place to live, is a lexicon reminiscent of earlier times of hatred and intolerance. Diversity has gone from being a word that brought hope and promise to those that have been left out of hopes and promises, to a word that now brings fear and loathing to those that are trying to preserve and protect what was never really theirs.

The language of empathy as described by Calloway-Thomas, “includes such phrases as I understand, I see..” (219), “this”, she says,” helps to create a world of broader possibilities” (ibid). This, I say, is at least a start.

There is no easy answer to getting back on the road to healing historical wounds, but a little empathy would go a long way.

“I’m determined to disagree with people without being disagreeable. That’s part of the empathy. Empathy doesn’t just extend to cute little kids. You have to have empathy when you’re talking to some guy who doesn’t like black people”. Barack Obama



Haugh, S., & Merry, T. (2001). Rogers’ Therapeutic Conditions: Evolution, Theory and Practice, vol. 2: Empathy.

Calloway-Thomas, C. (2010). Empathy in the global world: An intercultural perspective. Sage.

Barack Obama, Obama to Graduates: Cultivate Empathy: Northwestern University News

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