Once again this week we have been hit with two stories that leave me, and I know many others, repulsed by their brutality. One in McKinney, Texas where video footage revealed a police officer violently engaging with black teenagers outside a suburban pool party. The other, a tragic story about the suicide of Kalief Browder, a young black man who spent three years in Riker’s Island prison, including long stretches of solitary confinement and violent treatment, without a trial or formal legal charge after being falsely accused of stealing a backpack.
Like many of you, both of these incidents leave me in a mélange of feelings: anger, sadness, outrage and, perhaps most of all, deep frustration and hopelessness. Unless you are blind, you cannot help but notice the regularity of these kinds of incidents. The assembly of names has become so familiar that they need little explanation: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, and on and on, quite literally ad nauseam, because these violent incidents around race have become the norm. It is tragically easy to reflect on the number of deaths at the hands of law enforcement officials in recent months and to feel resigned to their prevalence in our society.
And then, of course, the punditry, which either tries to justify and ignore the obvious racial nature of these incidents, or the need to demonize all law enforcement officers for the behavior of the reprobate. And in all of it, so little attention to the underlying systemic issues that produce these, to all too many, “individual” incidents.
Yet, beyond the task of grappling with these human tragedies, I found myself struck by the normalcy of the now almost weekly events. And, even more importantly, the part of me that is so tired of feeling the pain of these events that I don’t want to watch the news, read the articles, or even talk about it anymore. And I know this is not personal. The story that once captivated us for months now becomes a couple of days in our twitterized cycle, replaced by the next and the next. As a society, we don’t want to see any more, feel frustrated anymore, march anymore, and talk about it anymore. We try to block ourselves from exposure to the pain associated with the violence, which, at its core, might be telling us that our fundamental moral principles may be hollow platitudes.
This desire to escape, to look away, is a foreboding underlying problem. In our culture, out of our pain and frustration of not knowing how to stop these occurrences, we stop looking. When we stop looking we stop feeling. And when we stop feeling, we stop doing anything about it. Those whose children look like the victims of these crimes, often find themselves needing to contain the rage and hopelessness, because it may otherwise not only consume their lives, but also create greater isolation. And those for whom those children are “the other” all too easily turn the other way.
There is no mystery to this. Researchers who have studied human empathy have found unequivocally that people are more likely to feel empathy for those who look like “us.” This is universally true, whether in the United States, China, Italy, or anywhere else. My own observation and study has demonstrated that dominant groups tend to notice group patterns less than non-dominant groups. And so a parade of African American and Hispanic victims of police brutality, to some “has nothing to do with race” even as the statistics show that two-thirds of unarmed people killed by police this year alone were from those two racial groups.
And who controls the message?
This understanding of the research is especially important for people in power, be it titular in organizations or socially dominant groups. Those in dominant groups tend to lose empathy, often not for being bad people, but because the very nature of having power makes those who possess it focus on accomplishments and retention of power rather than the needs of others. Power changes how the brain responds to others.
And, putting all of that aside, we are tired of being outraged. Of crying. Of railing against the fates. Of feeling shame and guilt. Of marching. Of defending “people like us.”
We are just tired of hurting.
And so “tsk, tsk, tsk…so sad…let’s find something better to watch”.
So what is there to do about what I imagine is the shared feeling of helplessness at the volume of violence in our country?
First, we have to stop acting like the children are “their” children and not “our” children. Like it or not, we live in a diverse, interdependent society that is larger than our tribes. And the more we treat those different from us as “the other,” the less empathy we feel. The more we objectify each other, either through bias or vindictiveness, the less responsible we are for our larger social order.
Second, we have to manage our guilt and shame, which are fundamentally contractive emotions. Think about it, do you want to spend more or less time with people who make you feel guilty? Shame is an emotional response that has us withdraw to safety rather than engage. It can diminish our willingness or ability to do anything about those issues that most need our addressing. We have to replace guilt and shame with responsibility: the responsibility to find solutions that involve our entire community, not just the ones who look like us.
Thirdly, we have to allow ourselves to feel the sadness and pain. To not turn away from it, but to lean into it. Our ability to be compassionate and have empathy, and therefore to take action, is directly related to our willingness to feel the sadness, frustration, and pain. This doesn’t mean we should react blindly or lash out in vindictiveness, but to feel how deeply these recurring scenarios impact and hurt our culture, which claims equity. I have felt for a long time that homelessness could not exist in this country, for example, if everybody was required to shake hands and ask the name of every homeless person they encountered. The large majority of the population would be too struck by the inhumanity of their situation to allow it to exist. But instead we turn away, and “find something better to watch.”
And we have to continue to speak out, even if it feels like our voices sound like shouting into the winds. When more voices say enough is enough, society begins to examine the circumstances behind the calls for action.
Finally we have to stop acting like we can “leave these feelings at home.” Our workplaces provide unique environments where we can interact with different kinds of people. This communal spaces shared by diverse individuals with a shared goal are not shielded from the events that take place outside of their office walls. When young people of color are treated poorly on the streets, particularly by those meant to protect and defend ALL members of the community, it impacts relationships in the office. When LGBTQ teenagers commit suicide four times more frequently than heterosexuals, that energy invades the relationships of straight and gay co-workers. We have to own that these events influence us and find constructive ways to learn to dialogue about them, understand them better, and create more empathy for each other. At the workplace we can discuss their influence on a daily basis and create a safe environment where we can engage respectfully and thoughtfully on how to grapple with these issues, rather than turn away.
Don’t stop watching! We are way past the time when we can afford to turn away. As emotionally trying as tackling these issues head on can be, it is the only way to maintain the empathy needed to find our common humanity and catalyze positive change.
I invite you to follow me on Twitter @HowardJRoss.