It’s been a hell of a weekend. I wish everyone safety — and if it’s too late for that, a fast recovery. I’m still trying to process the events, in Boston and Minneapolis and DC and New York and Louisville …
Let’s take a moment to consider our African-American neighbors, friends, family, colleagues, who are enduring searing pain today, the pain of terror and grief. Vicarious trauma is a thing — especially when “there but for the grace of God go I” is all too easy to imagine.
Escaping the imagery can be nearly impossible, especially as online users post commentary and news updates. For some, it can merely be a nuisance. But research suggests that for people of color, frequent exposure to the shootings of black people can have long-term mental health effects. According to Monnica Williams, clinical psychologist and director of the Center for Mental Health Disparities at the University of Louisville, graphic videos (which she calls vicarious trauma) combined with lived experiences of racism, can create severe psychological problems reminiscent of post-traumatic stress syndrome.
“There’s a heightened sense of fear and anxiety when you feel like you can’t trust the people who’ve been put in charge to keep you safe. Instead, you see them killing people who look like you,” she says. “Combined with the everyday instances of racism, like microaggressions and discrimination, that contributes to a sense of alienation and isolation. It’s race-based trauma.”
I wasn’t prepared for the banal, casual open-air murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Or that of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia; or Breonna Taylor in Louisville; nor even the downright viciousness of the Central Park dog lady video. To be surprised would be unacceptably naïve; but shock is a different thing, a reminder that one still possesses a beating heart. I don’t ever want to be be prepared, desensitized, incapable of horror. To retain some decency means being capable of having your heart broken, repeatedly.
But it’s possible for a white person to forget, to tune out.
James Baldwin wrote recurrently about “white innocence”: The lack of a sense of tragedy in life — that we could be egregiously wrong, that the worst could happen, is happening, and has happened — which makes us arrogant, entitled, and even monstrous.
People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state on innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.James Baldwin, quoted in the New Yorker “Black Body: Rereading James Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village” By Teju Cole, August 19, 2014
White people need to stand out, not just to show solidarity with black folks, but to other white people. Getting right with this will not occur with moralizing, but with deep psychological assay, and community accountability. Even white liberals – who presumably know better and want to do better – mentally guard white-liberal spaces with a deeply buried, reflexive vigilance. Those spaces, mental and physical, are innocent: Well-meaning, unintentional, unspoken-until-they-aren’t.
The sliver of racism that lives in so many of us – as if it were the air we inhale and exhale – manifests itself in micro-aggressions on the personal level, and becomes deadly when it is wielded by those of us with power — including the power of 911.
- For a cop, racism is a mortal danger. It takes away a person’s life, liberty, and property.
- For a doctor, it deprives a person of life and health, the quality and experience of precious minutes on the earth.
- For a teacher, it deprives a student of knowledge, attention, and life potential.
- For an employer, it deprives an employee of support, collegiality, respect, income, and maybe the job itself.
- For a cultural institution or recreational space, it deprives a patron of a physical and mental space for beauty and contemplation – to take with them wherever they go. This has health effects too.
- For a neighbor, it deprives a neighbor of dignity and complexity; of welcome and a sense of home.
What seems innocent, even banal, turns deadly under the slightest pressure. Big Racism and Little Racism exist on a continuum; they are different in degree but not kind. What an immense waste of human potential, and of precious time on earth.
May we create any small garden of peace and healing where we can.