From the Cambridge Dictionary:
- empathy: the ability to share someone else's feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person's situation
- sympathy: (an expression of) understanding and care for someone else's suffering
If you aren’t the target of an adversity, then your ability to empathize with targets of that adversity is limited. If you do not experience an adversity directly, then you are ignorant of what it is to experience that adversity, and all it entails. In fact, to presume to empathize with any experience that you do not share is disingenuous. As a white male, I am ignorant of the lesbian experience. I cannot empathize with the experience, and if I speak of the lesbian experience, I will misrepresent it in ways that I simply cannot understand.
One person cannot sufficiently empathize with the experiences of another only by being sensitive and receptive enough. It is a fool’s errand; we should not attempt it, and we should not expect it. A white American cannot genuinely empathize with the black American experience, and a white American does a disservice to black Americans when he or she presumes to able to. Of course, a white American can sympathize with black Americans. However, sympathy originates from empathy, and thus, any human can sympathize with black Americans from the common ground of the human experience. That is the common ground of empathy. Of course, the greatest adversities of black Americans do not arise from the human experience. Sympathy is genuine. Sometimes sympathy seems like it isn't enough, but it is honest.
In no way does this mean that we cannot, or should not take offense or react when we witness behavior that causes another harm. It only means that we should be genuine in our offense, and realize that the empathy we share is limited, whereas the sympathy is not. We are most beneficial when our defense of others originates from our own experience, and from our sympathy that originates from the commonalities of human experience.