I didn’t care about Trayvon until Ferguson: Why we need more empathy in America.

We need more empathy in America, which is the ability to “walk a mile in another’s person’s shoes.” 

“But he was aggressive with police!”

“But he was involved in a robbery!”

“But he was 6’4 and threatening!”

But he was unarmed.

Unarmed.

Unarmed and shot several times in broad daylight. For being stupid and irresponsible, sure. There’s no question Michael Brown made poor choices that afternoon, but does unarmed theft justify a police execution in the middle of a public street? Does anything?

It’s now the ninth day of protests, reported looting, police aggression and needless violence in a small town called Ferguson, Missouri. Two thousand miles away I sit typing, ensconced in middle class safety, watching the whir of #Ferguson posts on Twitter, the occasional mention on Facebook, and I wonder.

Will this tragic business in Ferguson be just another talking point in 2014? Will the news die down next week? Will there be another brown boy killed so needlessly as it seems to happen more and more often?

And more to the point: What can we do to stop this senseless killing?

In the past week, I’ve seen numerous beautifully written articles with ideas–posts about checking white privilege, being a good ally, questioning media bias and unfair framing of victims, following Wisconsin’s lead in developing protocol for independent investigations of police shootings… All of this is great.

I also think we–and I’m speaking collectively but mostly to folks outside of the black community, ahem–need to work on empathy. Because I know I have no idea what it’s like to be black or anything other than my pasty safe shade of Italian in 2014 America. And what’s more, I haven’t tried to understand. And because of that, I am ashamed to admit I’ve kept up a guarded and publicly apathetic stance towards racial politics, even in the face of recent tragedies.

It wasn’t until I heard A’Driane Nieves speak at the #BlogHer14 conference last month, sharing her post entitled “America’s Not Here for Us” that I started to really question myself. Nieves discussed her young son’s questions: “Mom, are we still slaves? Do people still hate us, African-Americans?” With blistering passion, she recounted numerous instances of decisions in modern America that led her to conclude “America is still not here for people of color.”

As she spoke though, I vehemently disagreed with her in my mind. I felt defensive and annoyed. Her rendering did not feel fair to me. I wanted to reply “Not all white people…!”

And then I realized she wasn’t talking about me. Or even “white people.” But about the system that is America right now. The rampant hate that continues to run such that when a young man gets cut down before his life even starts, people are quick to focus on ancillary details and stereotypes instead of the sickening loss of a human life.

And I realized that my “buts” and deflections–like many I’ve seen discussing Ferguson lately–prevent me from trying to understand what it must be like for a family, for a community to lose a precious member… and then watch as it happens to another family, another community. Again. And again. And again. I especially can’t imagine how it feels to believe our country doesn’t even care.

While the issues are incredibly complex and systemic, I think cultivating empathy is a necessary beginning step to making change. What does that mean exactly? Listening. Asking questions. Perspective taking. Bracketing stereotypes and bias, and considering things from another point of view.

For instance, it really didn’t occur to me until recently that I’m not afraid of the police. Not on an everyday-will-I-be-treated-fairly-if-I-move-wrong-will-they-shoot-me level? I wasn’t raised to fear authority, but rather to question it. It wasn’t until I watched this video of Professor Javon Johnson at the 2013 Poetry Slam in Boston that I considered how my orientation to law enforcement shapes how I look at the events in Ferguson and why it was hard at first to understand the public outcry.

Johnson speaks about driving with his 4-year old nephew and what it’s like to raise black boys in this country. Specifically, he discusses what it means that his nephew was conditioned to hide from the cops before he could read and how that reflects the vastly uneven playing field for black boys. He says: “It’s not about whether or not the shooter is racist. It’s about how poor black boys are treated as problems well before we’re treated as people. Black boys in this country cannot afford to play cops and robbers if we’re always considered the latter.” (Please take 3 minutes and watch this incredible performance, my description doesn’t do it justice.)

Watching the performance, I found myself wiping away tears. I hate the injustice that requires people of color to work and worry so hard. I hate that children are being raised to fear and despise law enforcement. I hate that police officers in some places fear and despise the citizens they serve. And I hate that my silence helps perpetuate these problems.

So I’m following Janee Woods’ advice about “12 things white people can do now because of Ferguson” (or maybe just “people”), in particular her suggestion to “Use words that speak truth about the disempowerment, oppression, disinvestment and racism that are rampant in our communities.” And I hope that you can do the same.

xoxo,
shawna

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