I Am Chris: An Exploration of (White) Empathy

When it comes to theatre, I’m not very empathetic. You probably aren’t either.

I’m not trying to offend you. Heck, until last week I would’ve considered myself an exceedingly empathetic viewer. When it comes to musical theatre, in particular, I’m an emotional liability. I can’t remember the last musical I watched that did not make me cry, which I thought indicated my empathy. I was wrong.

Here’s why: I used to think empathy just meant sharing in the pain of someone else——walking with someone through their hurt. But is that really the full definition?

As I began to consider this question——to reassess my definition of empathy——I thought of an author I love, Brené Brown, who speaks on this topic. She says, “Expressing empathy or being empathic is not easy. It requires us to be able to see the world as others see it, to be non-judgmental, to understand another person’s feelings and to communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings.” 

I re-read this quote and I literally thought phew. Score. I’m off the hook, I’m definitely empathic. But, to my momentary disappointment, the quote continued. Brown writes, “Empathy is a choice. And it’s a vulnerable choice. Because in order to connect with you I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling.” 

So if empathy is a choice, that means it is active. As viewers of theatre, we must be active to truly engage with the material, which I am. But my tears are not active. My tears might erase some makeup, but they leave me relatively unchanged by the time I finish my post-matinee dinner. And that’s where I think you and I are probably the same. If my “empathy” only extends so far as outwardly expressing itself with stained cheeks, it probably isn’t true empathy. Sympathy, perhaps. But not active, engaged, sacrificial empathy.

My——probably our——lack of empathy may already be overwhelming you. Maybe you feel guilty right now. Or perhaps even shameful. Before I proceed to deepen that wound, I want to affirm that shame is never the goal. But once I started down this rabbit hole of self-assessment, I couldn’t stop.

What is distressing to me is that this “empathy” I thought I possessed varies between shows, between people, and——dare I say——between races. I know. I went there. I’m kinda scared, too. But hang with me, okay? I need moral support.

Last week——back when I thought I was an empathic person——many students in my Theatre class expressed that sure, Nick Arnstein sucks, but Chris sucks more. I agree with this. I was far more angry and disappointed in Chris than I was at Nick. At first, I reduced this to the fact that Nick Arnstein presents himself from minute zero as a pompous a**hole whereas we first encounter Chris in a considerably more virtuous state (yes, I am aware he is in a brothel, but he does step in to “protect” Kim) which makes him more attractive. 

I thought I was more angry at Chris, then, because I had higher expectations of him than I did of Nick. However, when I really thought about my anger, it was rooted in a deep sadness for what these men did to Kim and Fanny, respectively. If I have greater anger toward Chris, this reveals that I harbor more “empathy” toward Kim than I do Fanny. But why?

After hours stuck at this very spot in my blog, I’ve come to this conclusion. Ready? Me neither!

Here it goes: my inability to directly connect with Kim’s life makes her more foreign to me——more needing of my “empathy.” 

Miss Saigon wedges space between its white viewers and Kim from the very beginning. We enter Saigon to meet Kim as she has just fallen to the ground in the middle of an airstrike. A moment passes and we have transitioned into the Engineer’s brothel with women singing “one of us will be Miss Saigon.” At the first sight of an American soldier, it is clear how opposite these two camps of people are. I watched with a knot in my stomach as the Engineer slapped a dancer and soldiers boasted their money and citizenship. Saigon did not know freedom. Saigon is maybe the furthest thing from my life in Nashville, TN.

In many ways, Funny Girl, however, draws the (white) audience close to itself through its location. New York City is the emblem of freedom. Fanny Brice endures her own struggles, of course. I am not in the game to compare traumas, rather the act of viewership. And the act of viewing Funny Girl is significantly easier than engaging with Saigon, in part, because New York City is just so overwhelmingly normal to me. And that’s the bottom line. Most things in Funny Girl feel normal to me. The most critical being… yep, you got it. Race.

In Funny Girl, white is the norm, so it goes unnamed——it’s not seen as racial, because whiteness just is. Miss Saigon is the polar opposite. The entire musical——for better or for worse——is undeniably a performance of race. Kim’s “otherness” to me only deepens her victimhood. I feel sadness for Fanny losing Nick; I feel complete and utter agony as I watch Kim kill herself for her son. 

Hard as it is, here’s the truth. In many ways, I am Chris. I am the character I hate because it is my whiteness that begs me to express empathy toward Kim. In selfish catharsis, I cry for her.

Chris sings, “I saw a world I never knew / And through her eyes I suffered, too… So I wanted to save her, protect her / Christ, I’m American? / How could I fail to do good.” I’d be lying if I said this was dissimilar from my reaction to Kim. Through her eyes I suffer — the beginning of empathy. But, like Chris, I fall short.

My failure to truly be empathetic, then, holds a much higher cost for Kim than it does Fanny. Where my “empathy” is higher, I am being asked more of myself. So when my tears dry and my life returns to normal, I’ve done a greater disservice to myself and others by failing to act. At this point, you might be expecting me to wrap all of this up in a nice little bow. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I can’t do that. I don’t have an answer to this. I think radical empathy begins with acknowledging that you’re not there yet. I’ve done that part. But what next? I haven’t come up with a way to fulfill the last step of empathy——to put forth genuine effort to act upon that which I feel sadness. But for now, maybe Miss Saigon isn’t asking me to do that. For now, I think I just need to sit in this development. For now, I think I need to study the ways that I am Chris.

Musical characters

11 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Brooke, I would like to begin this response by first saying: wow. What an incredible piece you’ve produced, truly. As someone who holds myself to a very high standard in writing, reading this post was humbling. You are an amazing writer; your ability to establish a casualness and a comfort between yourself and the reader through your rhetoric and transparency is something so many authors struggle to do, and yet you did it with such ease. Bravo! I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. It was one of those pieces that you read and first think “damn, I wish I could steal this writing voice”, and then you get into the piece itself and think “damn, I wish I thought of this!” It was a bittersweet read solely because I’m envious of your writing ability and creativity with this paper. Your argument is so compelling – so valuable to the discussion that we must have not only as spectators of theater, but as people in general. Your assessment of the complex role that empathy plays in viewership (and in human emotion at large) is so interesting; when you write “If my “empathy” only extends so far as outwardly expressing itself with stained cheeks, it probably isn’t true empathy. Sympathy, perhaps. But not active, engaged, sacrificial empathy” it forces the reader to look upon themself and question the legitimacy of what they perceived as their own expressions of empathy. Beyond this, the way you conclude the essay with the powerful quote “Hard as it is, here’s the truth. In many ways, I am Chris. I am the character I hate because it is my whiteness that begs me to express empathy toward Kim. In selfish catharsis, I cry for her” is just perfect. SELFISH CATHARSIS. Wow. I am seriously so impressed by the consideration that you clearly put into this piece. There is nothing I appreciate more than honesty and self-awareness, and your piece embodies these things to the highest degree. This post is so valuable.

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  2. I LOVE how this essay starts off. It catches my attention, draws me in, and hooks me into the essay right from the beginning. Starting off the essay by talking about being empathetic while watching theatre is clever. The idea that the tears shed during a production is sympathy rather than empathy presented me with a whole new idea. I also really appreciate the fact that Brooke connected the audience by using “our” and assuming we have mutual feelings. The writing continues to be interesting and the variety of syntax used makes me want to continue reading. While reading, I clearly understand your ideas while following along. I related to the statement about feeling more empathy towards Kim because she is more of a “foreign” character. I feel connected as I read through this essay; it vividly expresses your emotions and connects the audience to your writing due to the shared emotions the audience shares with you. In the line “Saigon is maybe the furthest thing from my life in Nashville, TN,” it really made me think. I live a comfortable, worry-free lifestyle and Saigon truly is the opposite of the life I live everyday. This is a bold, yet well said statement. In Funny Girl race does not seem as apparent as in Miss Saigon, and the amount of empathy shown for the characters within the two productions is very different. Relating yourself to Chris was so interesting to me: you related yourself to the character you despise. The conclusion of the essay ties back to your introduction of empathy, which I liked. I felt like it was a really god way to wrap everything up. Overall, this essay makes me think and reconsider my initial thoughts while watching Miss Saigon and Funny Girl. I, too, need to “study the ways that I am Chris.”

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  3. Brooke, I thought this essay was definitely thought-provoking. The title, first of all, was a great way to draw readers in and, upon seeing it, I immediately knew I wanted to read it. I also love how self-reflective it was because it really allowed you to be vulnerable with your audience and willing to share the good and the bad about how you felt and how you reacted. One thing that I’d like to civilly disagree with you on is the idea that you empathized with Kim more than Fanny due to her “otherness.” I, personally, do not think you’re a Chris. Kim’s SITUATION was due to her otherness, with the positions she was put in having everything to do with where she was from and the culture she was immersed in. However, I don’t think it’s a racial issue when you see yourself empathizing more with someone who had no success or joy in life and killed herself to provide a better life for her son rather than a woman with lots of Broadway success and a family who (still sadly, don’t get me wrong) lost her husband and the love of her life in divorce. I don’t agree with comparing traumas, which I know is something you mentioned in your post, however I believe this is a subconscious comparison of the struggles they faced. Although the struggles themselves absolutely were representative of Fanny’s whiteness and Kim’s “otherness,” I don’t believe race was the thing that made you feel this way. It might have emphasized it, but I feel that most people would probably subconsciously believe “Wow, Fanny lost Nick in the end but Kim’s WHOLE life SUCKED.”

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  4. This is such a well-written and thought provoking essay! I love your tone as you consistently speak directly to the readers. It really helped draw me into your argument and force me to reassess my definition of empathy and where I stand with it. I also like how you use the word “we,” addressing that we all should feel called to reflect on the thing that’s inside of us that causes us to sympathize with some characters over others. However, I would have never thought of myself being like Chris. I can’t really relate to his “white savior complex,” but I think that, even independent of race, we all can relate to the feeling of pitying those less fortunate than us. Quite frankly, Kim is a walking sob story. So, I understand Chris’ desire to help her. It was undeniably “American” of him to do so. I only hope that my efforts to put my “empathy” into action aren’t as misguided and selfish as his. You might not have figured out the final step to reaching true empathy, but I think your essay does a very nice job of starting a dialogue and encouraging people to assess what drives their “empathetic” responses to such stories. Well done!

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  5. Brooke, you strike an excellent tone in this piece. You engage the audience immediately by directly addressing the audience in a captivating and jarring manner. Since people are obsessed with themselves, this action has the same effect as almost a Buzzfeed personality quiz in which you stay tuned in order to find out more about why you are the way you are. Your tone continues to shine throughout the piece, easily moving from line to line, feeling nothing like a traditional essay but a true snapshot of the ideas traveling around your brain. You utilized language that is easy to access and understand. In addition, I am incredibly interested in the point you make regarding Chris and Nick (on the basis that they both suck but who does more and why is truly my ideal discussion). I think you make an incredibly compelling point regarding your capacity for empathy. This is also something I had considered but now have a much stronger grasp on, how well articulated. However, I also wonder if the reason we hate Chris so much is that he threatens Kim’s necessities while Nick is just a bottom feeder if that makes sense. Chris has a lot of agency and abuses it while Nick has an emotional impact on Fanny, he doesn’t threaten her livelihood necessarily. Overall! A wonderful essay, I look forward to reading more of your work!!

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  6. I absolutely love the way that you wrote this essay! It was so engaging and unique that I didn’t even realize it was over 1,000 words. The way that you used your own voice to describe such a complex and personal topic was just what I needed to feel truly convinced and captivated by your argument. I completely agree with the way that you assessed our empathy towards others: it is clouded by your own shared experiences and subconscious bias. I think it is easy to try to convince ourselves that we have empathy for other people when really it is just sympathetic pity. We try to protect ourselves from the true suffering and sacrifice that comes with empathy by allowing ourselves to feel sorrow for others situations without imagining that it could possibly be our own. However, real empathy, as you said, is active and engaged. We need to learn to translate feelings into actions and resolutions.

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  7. Hi Brooke! I want to start off by saying that I was struck (in a good way) by the tone and style that you chose to approach your essay with. I know that Prof. Essin encourages us to experiment with our writing and not be so academic, but I think you’ve mastered how to be conversational and still get serious points across in your writing. Your voice as an audience member is clear throughout, and your honesty only draws the reader further in. This piece is as much an analysis of you as it about the characters in the musical — which is really brave. Pulling information, quotes, or insight from established outside sources always bolsters an argument, and the argument you’re bolstering is about you. You’re walking the line between academic and raw, critique and introspective. And I love it!

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  8. Brooke –

    Quite honestly, your piece was one of the most engaging pieces of critique and theory I’ve read in a long time. However, everyone else in this blog post has said something similar, so instead I wanted to take the time to talk about your incredibly persuasive and convincing voice. It should be the goal of all of us to write as convincingly as you have here. By mastering the conversational nature of this assignment, you “threaded the needle” and really managed to make your piece simultaneously persuasive as well as (more importantly) argumentative without seeming as such. What I mean there is that your arguments regarding empathy don’t even come across as something that is debatable in your work, they just seem as though they are factual statements. While I happen to agree with them, it would be incredibly hard to argue against this form of effective prose. Awesome job!

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  9. Brooke, I loved reading your essay. I could see the vulnerability through the tone and style of writing you chose. It felt intimate and close, and I could tell how much you trusted the reader enough to adopt this style. “My –probably our”, “Ready? Me neither!”, and “Yep, You got it” aren’t long, off the hand remarks. They show personality and are seamlessly placed into the writing. I think that’s what I liked most about your writing: you interweave analysis with your own two cents. You illuminated a lot of things for me that I hadn’t considered. The whole idea that performative empathy, no matter how genuine, isn’t enough as a viewer is such an important concept. The way you explained how your whiteness set you up to be more empathetic to a person of color is insightful. I understand how critical the distance between yourself and a character can be in setting up power dynamics. Your point that Miss Saigon was “undeniably a performance of race” is particularly interesting. As I look back on it, you are absolutely right. Miss Saigon’s story is dependent on racial power imbalances, stereotypes and bias, in a way that Funny Girl simply can never be. Overall, really enjoyed your essay!

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