Empathy is not enough — we need to remake the world through ‘acuerpar’

Leila Billing
9 min readApr 4, 2024


Picture: Crumpled piece of dark blue paper with white capital letters spelling out word EMPATHY. Credit: Kevin Malik

A few years’ ago, I attended a conference in a Southern African country. The theme of the conference was girls’ rights. At the time, a big part of my job was working in partnership with NGOs, UN agencies, donors and governments who were working to end child marriage. Towards the end of the conference, I attended a panel where a prominent European women’s rights advocate spoke to a handful of young women who had themselves been married at a young age.

One young woman’s story particularly stirred the audience. It is not my story; I won’t go into specifics here. Suffice to say, her marriage was deeply abusive and had adversely impacted the lives of herself and her children. She was visibly emotional while she recounted it. The moderator ended the session with much talk of how ‘we cannot but feel empathy’ for these young women’s ‘ordeals’. As audience members, she invited us to to ‘walk a mile in these women’s shoes’.

I started to feel very uncomfortable about the moderator’s words — but had no time to process them until the next day, when I was with some funders and a couple of UN technical experts discussing post-conference next steps. These professionals spent some time reflecting upon how powerful the session with the young women was and how moving the speakers were. There were outpourings of empathy and compassion. One American researcher said, ‘My daughter is the same age as the speaker was when her family married her off. I tried to imagine how I’d feel if the same thing happened to her.’

And then it hits me. The reason for that lingering discomfort I had been feeling. Yes, there is a discussion to be had about how the development sector instrumentalises people’s trauma for fundraising and advocacy purposes — but this wasn’t what was bothering me this time. It was more that this torrent of ‘empathy’ was infused with power relations: here were a group of well-paid, mostly white western development sector workers expressing their compassion for these former child brides from global majority countries. At the conference, these privileged women had been confronted with their visible ‘other’. And empathy was their response. The whole thing felt distinctly — at the time I struggled to find the correct descriptor — paternalistic? Othering? Colonial?

Since that episode, I’ve wondered what function empathy really serves if it doesn’t seem to change anything except, perhaps, the inner emotional life of the empathiser. These development workers felt a lot of empathy for the young speakers on the panel, but nothing was really going to change about the way they did their work. These young women’s ideas weren’t going to be central in the next-steps planning. Hell, they weren’t even invited to the next steps planning meeting! For all this talk of ‘empathy’, for all the rhetoric about ‘walking about in someone else’s shoes’, this group of technical experts — me included — remained very disconnected from the young women we had just encountered. These outpourings of empathy were resonant of white saviourism.

Whenever I am in social justice spaces and I hear people waxing lyrical about empathy, they are usually talking about their interactions with a racialised/gendered/classed ‘other’. I sometimes wonder, ‘What if ‘the other’ doesn’t want the type of empathy that’s being offered to them? What if they couldn’t care less whether the empathiser feels empathy for them or not?’ Towards the end of that conference on girls’ rights, I approached the young speaker who had been so upset during the panel. I checked in with her. Of course, she didn’t know me well and had no obligation to share her true feelings with me. I thanked her for speaking on the panel and asked her how she had been feeling since she’d spoken. She shrugged. “I just want to return home and go back to my kids,” she told me.

Empathy, Inc.

As a feminist who works on leadership programmes, I am a keen observer of the ways that empathy gets mobilised and monetised in leadership discourse. Many, if not most leadership gurus, prominent centres of leadership, leadership curricula and publications celebrate the importance of empathy as a core leadership skill. Of course, I am not advocating for the eradication of empathy. I don’t think we need workplaces to be less empathetic. Too many of us are toiling away in toxic environments and more empathy would certainly be welcome.

But I am not concerned with mainstream approaches to leadership. It’s leadership with a feminist agenda that interests me. And here is where I do think this fetishization of empathy is sometimes misguided. That it doesn’t always deliver what it promises. I want feminist leaders to explore the ways in which empathy might have a dark side. I want us to imagine beyond the versions of empathy that are being sold to us — because I think they limit us. And because I don’t think they necessarily facilitate the radical change we need.

Perhaps no-one has monetised the links between leadership and empathy more than leadership behemoth Brené Brown. Beloved by many (aspiring) women leaders I know, and a darling of business leaders in the West, Brené Brown has made millions preaching the doctrine of empathy and vulnerability through her books, podcasts and leadership ‘hubs’. In her book Dare to Lead, she breaks down empathy into a set of skills. Each skill is concise enough to fit on a Post-It note — perfect for the busy executive who has no time to grasp anything deeper or more nuanced. One of these empathy skills is ‘To see the world as others see it’. Is this even possible, I wonder? Can I really overcome all my blind spots and inhabit someone else’s perspective? This advice frustrates me. I can’t see the value of becoming some sort of ‘empathy tourist’ who temporarily steps into another world and then steps back into my cocoon of privilege. How will a brief sojourn into someone else’s world spark good deeds or end any kind of injustice? The Yale academic Paul Bloom agrees with me — in his book Against Empathy he presents substantial evidence of how we have limited capacity to step outside our own subjectivity in the way that Brown is suggesting we can.

Another piece of advice Brown gifts us is that we don’t need to connect to someone’s experiences, ‘we must connect to the emotions that underpin those experiences’. This feels almost… vampiric. Not to mention slightly selfish. Why? Because I wonder who truly who benefits from this emotional extraction. The empathiser or the person who is being empathised with? This guidance feels like an emotional palliative that makes the empathiser feel like they have taken a meaningful action. Personally, if I were suffering, I would much rather people took solidarity action than tried to inhabit my painful emotions. Brown’s advice is of course well intended — but could it be a distraction from the real work that needs to happen if we truly want to alleviate suffering?

Nowhere have I been more sceptical about the function of empathy than when I read Brené Brown’s recent essay on ‘the Israel- Palestine conflict’. I won’t add to the existing critiques of this article — after all, no-one could do a better job than Rafia Zakaria who has already taken a scalpel to Brown’s words. Brown’s piece is truly a masterclass in how white feminism can mobilise ideas of empathy in order to smooth over horrific inequalities. Let me explain. There’s a hierarchy of empathy on display in the essay — from my perspective, she is playing favourites. First and foremost, she centres herself, which is quite a feat when one is a wealthy white millionaire writing about violence which has killed thousands of people, many of them children. For example, she writes about being attacked for not speaking out earlier about Israel and Palestine, explaining her mother has recently died which has prevented her from doing so. Brown draws the reader’s attention to her grief. (Of course, that is how whiteness tends to show up in leadership behaviours. It insists on centring its own feelings, needs and emotions.) Next up, Brown extends her empathy to Israelis. Throughout the article, her offerings of compassion for Palestinians come last on her list. I recall Brown’s leadership advice to ‘see the world as others see it’. Her own ability to do this does not extend as far as Gaza or the West Bank. Her advice is beginning to feel hollow.

Which brings me to another question I have: what is the utility of empathy as a leadership skill when it enables us to deny any complicity with the root causes of people’s suffering? Her ‘both-sides’ rhetoric and what feel like banal expressions of empathy towards ‘all parties’ illuminate her unwillingness to take a clear-eyed, historical perspective to explain the violence that we saw on October 7th, 2023. She deploys empathy in a way that gives the suffering of Israelis a history yet effaces the injustices and violence perpetrated against Palestinians for decades. Her article makes no mention of settler colonialism or genocide. This is empathy as shaped by colonial dynamics.

I wish I could say Brené Brown is an outlier here, but many feminist groups and women’s rights organisations will express profound empathy for the vulnerability of Palestinian women and girls, yet they don’t seem to want to engage at all in their politics. They’ll call for a ceasefire, just don’t expect them to mention the need for occupation to end. What use is empathy if it is not only conditional, but also devoid of any politics?

From empathy, to acuerpar

I think feminist leaders can do so much better than the apolitical versions of empathy that are being sold to us. Which is where indigenous feminist Lorena Cabnal comes in. I learned about the notion of acuerpar from her work defending the indigenous territories of the Maya-Xinca people, and realised that what she is describing is a very special practice that cannot be summed up using the inadequate English term ‘solidarity’ as a stand-in. She tells us, ‘Acuerpamiento or acuerpar is the personal and collective action wherein our bodies, outraged by the injustices experienced by other bodies, self-convene to provide themselves with political energy. [This act of gathering] generates affective and spiritual energies. It provides us with closeness and collective indignation but also revitalization and new strength, so that we may recover joy without losing indignation.”

A critical part of acuerpar involves physically putting our bodies into action. It is about showing up with others. It invites us to attend that march; be present on that picket line; grieve with others at the vigil. In doing so, we are able to build connection across borders. By stressing the importance of embodiment, acuerpar brings us closer, rather than disconnects us. A perfect example of acuerpar that comes to mind are the actions of women behind the Viva Berta Feminist Camp in Honduras. These feminists gathered from different countries in the region and were present every day outside the trial of one of the men accused of murdering the environmental and indigenous rights activist Berta Cáceres. Together, the women not only cooked and cared for each other, they used the camp to bring to light the failings of the justice system and give voice to all those activists who, like Berta, have been persecuted for their beliefs and activism.

Within acuerpar, there is no space for saviourism or paternalism; no ‘othering’. There is no need to ‘inhabit’ another person’s experience or to ‘occupy’ their emotions. It is a collective political practice that surely offers us so much more scope for coalition building than the types of emotional empathy I’ve described above ever could. In the wake of a global pandemic, in which we endured so much enforced separation, it strikes me that practices of acuerpar are so important. They encourage us to provide each other with child care, to organise fundraisers, to dance and cry together. They demonstrate that we are not alone. Acuerpar allows us to render diverse types of bodies visible — challenging the idea that only ‘normative’ types of bodies belong in the public sphere.

Acuerpar is a kind of prefigurative politics — in practising it, we are building the world we want to see. And in doing so, we don’t erase or distance ourselves from injustice — we expose it, we give it shape, we name it. And we proceed from there.

I wish that impulses towards empathy reliably provoked the kinds of actions that we saw in the Viva Berta Camp. In my experience, they don’t. Perhaps it’s time to simply ask ourselves what we think empathy can accomplish — and what can it not do?

Leila Billing is co-founder of We Are Feminist Leaders. You can follow her on LinkedIn