This has been a very hard week in what was already a very hard year. We watched with horror hundreds of thousands of people die worldwide from an invisible disease, only to see an unarmed black man killed in a very visible act of police brutality. This wasn’t the first time we’ve seen excessive use of force or its deadly effects. This wasn’t the first time we had to listen to someone in pain cry out “I can’t breathe.” This wasn’t the first time we have had to mourn as a nation and wonder how and why we have consistently failed to provide “equal protection of the laws” to minorities for 152 years since we finally incorporated it into our constitution. People are hurt and angry. They have lost faith in their police, they have lost faith in their governments, and many have lost their faith in America as a whole. That is frightening, and it is emblematic of a failure of government at all levels to respond to the needs and concerns of the community.
We cannot change what has happened nor can we alter how it made us feel. We can only decide how we invest that emotional energy and turmoil, and where I believe that investment is most needed is in empathy, self-reflection, and emotional mastery. To be empathetic is to share and understand the feelings of another. As a nation, we all must be more empathetic, and I truly mean people of all regions, races, religions, and more. Those protesting for civil rights, women’s rights, or second amendment rights all need to see in each other a shared desire for a sense of physical safety, personal liberty, and freedom from government interference in their personal lives. It is easy to hate and attack those we do not understand, but that vitriol fades when you see in another’s soul reflections of your self.
Only by investing in empathy can we see the humanity in those who have wronged us and choose forgiveness and rehabilitation over denouncement and punishment. Our society all too often focuses on force and retribution. Mass incarceration and endless wars are the result of investing more in our police and our military than community centers and foreign aid. This also means though that we must choose not to cancel those whose actions we find offensive, and instead try to show them why they were wrong and how to be better. When I saw the video of Amy Cooper, a white woman walking her dog, calling the police on Christian Cooper, a black man bird watching, I was shocked to see how hysterical she was. This woman was angry, yes, but also truly frightened. In her public apology, Cooper told the world she wasn’t racist, but those words fell on deaf ears. Christian suffered the humiliation and possible trauma of having the police called on him for asking a woman to leash her dog, and Amy would now suffer a loss of employment and endless internet attacks. Her name would forever be associated with that incident, and its record would forever live online.
Amy’s employer chose to terminate her to send a message that racism would not be tolerated, but I saw a message that people are irredeemable. That nobody deserves a second chance. When we cancel people, when we cast them out of polite society, we throw them into the arms of the racists, misogynists or homophobes we decried them to be. We invariably leave people worse off when the only folks who forgive them are the ones who think they did nothing wrong in the first place. We make the easy choice to call them discriminatory while telling ourselves we are not. We choose to see prejudice as a sin they commit instead of a curse they struggle to overcome.
I’ll never forget one specific speech/activity from the Hugh O’Brien Youth Leadership (HOBY) Conference. Our speaker told us a story about a time he was walking through an Asian metropolis with a friend who warned him to be wary of local gangs of pickpockets. However, when he unconsciously touched his back pocket to make sure his wallet was still there, it was in reaction to seeing a black man, not an Asian one. This was a horrifying revelation to him. He had just been presented with information that would lead him to be wary of young Asian males, but instinctively his suspicion landed on a black male. This was troubled him deeply and he sought to reflect on how and why that was the case. What he realized is that racial prejudice was part of his childhood. He grew up in a community where whites and blacks lived in different neighborhoods, the latter of which had significantly more crime. He remembered sitting in the passenger seat of his grandfather’s pickup truck as they drove through one of these minority-majority neighborhoods and being told to watch out because this neighborhood was unsafe. He grew up seeing mugshots of black men in the nightly news wanted for committing different crimes.
The prejudice was something that had imprinted on him, and would always be lurking there unconsciously. Prejudices are part of our evolutionary wiring. The ability to use pattern recognition to make quick judgements, to let instincts take over helped humans survive. That means we need to work all the harder on conducting that exercise of self-reflection to bring these unconscious prejudices to the forefront so we can actively counter them. Just like that speaker, I remember seeing my parents turn on the nightly news and more often than not seeing some crime on television committed by a black man. I remember being told that cities like Bridgeport, which had a much higher concentration of minorities than my largely-white town, were dangerous. I remember hearing the horror stories my parents had from growing up in New York City being robbed and beaten up by minorities. The worst part is all those things were true. Bridgeport did and does have higher crime rates than my town. Those people on the news did commit crimes, and my parents had been physically bullied in their past. The issue is the assumptions this leads us to unwittingly make and the prejudices that begin to form. Whether we realize it or not, these small seeds grow in the depths of our psyche influencing our interactions with others.
What’s scary is how we’re all vulnerable to these issues. There’s evidence that officer race does not affect potential racial discrimination in the use of force. This means that 1) this is not just a white police problem, it is an all police problem, and 2) people can be prejudiced against their own communities. I remember when I read The Bluest Eye where living in a world of white dolls and white actresses, the protagonist came to hate her blackness and just wanted to have blue eyes and be pretty. The combination of Euro-centric beauty standards with the notion that a woman’s self-worth was tied to her physical appearance led a poor girl to believe being black made her ugly and thus worthless. She grew up in a society that led her to hate herself. We have to ask ourselves where these preferences we have come from. Is it because your family looks a certain way that you are more attracted to a specific physique or aesthetic? Is it because the celebrities you saw in movies, television, and magazine covers looked a certain way? Is it because the images you had of success looked differently than those you had with failure or crime?
The virtue of whiteness is prevalent in my own community. Indian mothers are constantly commenting on the color of their children’s skin and there is a whole skin bleaching industry. Fairness, and the association with being white, is a humongous cultural fixture. I’d argue no community spends more time segmenting different shades of brown and fixating on whether someone is wheatish or dusky. I have had to fight with one of my own Indian friends who thinks that British invasion and occupation left India better off, that the level of “civilization” England brought to India was worth the human cost of life and spirit. I cannot buy into that white savior mentality.
We’ve all grown up in a world that has been dominated by Europeans (and their descendent colonies) for the last 500 years. From Kindergarten to 12th grade, there might have been 1 semester of history classes dedicated to studying non-European history. We read about wars in the Middle East, genocides in Africa, and insurrection in South America with this implicit belief that Europe and North America (the white world) is more civilized.
When you see a history of racism when you experience it, it is easy to feel angry and afraid. It becomes easy to fear that you can never make it, that the world is aligned against you that the educators, police officers, and loan officers are all colluding to keep you down. And what is truly horrible is there is evidence that racism existed and still exists in education, policing, and banking. But just as in Star Wars we cannot let fear lead to anger, anger to hate, and hate to suffering. That deadly chain leads to a constant cycle of tragedy. We are seeing a lack of emotional control every day now.
I honestly believe that no-one becomes a police officer, a vocation dedicated to helping others and keeping people safe, with a desire to hurt others. We see, however, that many cannot control their worst impulses and invariably worsen situations instead of de-escalating them. Seeing a black college student in Atlanta have his car window broken, be shot with a stun gun, and then dragged out of the car and handcuffed is horrifying. I can hate the act and cry watching the video, but I cannot bring myself to hate the black officer who shot him with the stun gun. When you watch the full length bodycam video you see an officer trying to question the two students initially. See the car drive off trying to evade law enforcement. You can hear the tint of anger as the police run after the car and start shouting for the driver to park and lower the window, beating on the side of the car with a baton. You can see the utter fear and confusion in the driver's eyes as he ignores them. You watch the police smash the window instead of trying to calm the boy, and themselves, down. You see the boy lean forward and watch the officer fire the stun gun. After they pull the boy and girl out of the car someone asks the officer who fired the shot what happened and he keeps repeating over and over that he thought the kid was reaching for a gun.
While using that stun gun was excessive and unwarranted, I honestly believe the officer was scared. There is shouting and screaming everywhere, he’s scared of a potential gun and acts. That is a lack of emotional control. Instead of creating a calm environment for the driver and passenger, the officers scared them surrounding the car with too many people, banging on it violently, smashing their windows in. Instead of using their words they used their weapons. This is happening all over right now as police fail to calm crowds instead of resorting to tear gas and rubber bullets. This is also happening as a segment of the population becomes angry enough to start burning police stations and police cruisers, hurling bricks at police officers, and looting businesses across the country which were already suffering from a massive pandemic-driven recession. Nobody deserves what is happening right now. Victims of police brutality do not deserve to be assaulted and killed. Peaceful protestors do not deserve to be gassed and assaulted by police implementing crowd control. Police do not deserve to be assaulted and killed in the multiple stabbings and shootings that have occurred this week. Business owners and city residents don’t deserve to see buildings destroyed and communities on fire.
We need a moment of calm and a healing presence. We need moral leadership and a government response that lets people know their voices are heard. Instead, we are stuck with presidential threats and a growing level of anger and animosity on all sides. We have to be more empathetic and learn to listen to each other and attempt to educate one another despite our disagreements. We have to work on identifying the prejudices that exist within all of us and consciously counteract them every day. We have to work on mastering our own emotions to be resolute while remaining respectful. We have to stop laying blame and fighting with each other and instead work together on improving ourselves. When we live in a world filled with hate and horror we hate to choose to love ourselves and one another.