I (still) can't breathe: Preaching, but not practicing empathy

Today marks one year since Eric Garner lost his life to police brutality. This post is a reflection of what can be learned from his death and countless others. 

Original Post Date: Dec 19, 2014

From general observations, we can get a loose grasp of the outcomes of certain activities or challenges before we actually experience them. We may never give birth, but we can agree there is intense pain inflicted on the mother. We might not have ever broken a bone, but we've seen the discomfort and restriction resulting from a cast. Once we switch from observing to engaging in that specific activity, we gain an evolved understanding and our perspective begins to rotate. I think now is one of the most appropriate times to highlight this notion of empathy or how to understand and share the feelings of another within another person's frame of reference-- not our own.  

We are born with the ability to access our emotions absent of being exposed to the emotions of others. The first reaction the majority of us exhibited was crying after our first breathe. Whether from fear, confusion or anxiety of entering an unknown world, in that moment after our birth we all inherently reacted and accessed our emotions. What we are taught as we grow older and 'mature' is how to process our emotions. This is where the greatest human err unfolds.  

Empathy is the force that breaks our ingrained nature.

From this point forward, we observe the actions of those around us to assign appropriate responses for our own interactions. If we are deeply saddened, we cry or become withdrawn. If we are excited, upbeat or we laugh or smile. If we're angry or frustrated, we shout or retaliate. Although the reactions to these types of events vary, they are still an ever present and unique experience for each individual. Our learned responses come from those closest to us and can be especially strong if consistent over generations. Unfortunately, behaviors can become so ingrained and reactions rehearsed that we become inbreeds.  

What does this mean in respect to empathy? Empathy is the force that breaks our ingrained nature. It is the safety feature given to escape the behavior we've learned so well over the years. Those learned emotions are often second nature; implemented as a defense mechanism to mask true emotion.

With momentum gathering and the recent highlights of the injustices towards the African-American community (as seen through major cases such as Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner), I can’t help but use this as a learning opportunity for myself and others. As one of only a few African-Americans in my church, work and school environment, the absence of indictments in both the Brown and Garner case pierced me deeply. I felt isolated from my peers. I went through a series of ‘emotions,’ some expected, some a surprise, but all valid.

  • I was hurt. Working with troubled youth in the past, I know that all too many of our young people are products of a failed system and then demoralized, demonized and reprimanded for not escaping that system.
  • I was ashamed that we as Americans could so quickly forgot our pasts and the mistakes we made in our youth (and adulthood) that have since been realized and corrected.
  • I was confused at how execution, and not arrests, were now commonplace in our judicial system and how this ‘martial law’ has disproportionately targeted people of color.
  • And strange enough, I was relieved. With the transparency and the world seeing where we're severely lacking, I and the rest of nation (even for those who are vehemently trying to protect their view of 'America, The Beautiful,') no longer have to question whether we are in a post-racial society. We know we are not.

To give context to my perception, I grew up in a two-parent household. My entire family was heavily involved in church and school activities-- the main two components of our lives. When I was seven, my father passed suddenly, leaving my mother to raise me and my six siblings with the love and support of extended family.

At this point, most would assume a narrative of a struggling, impoverished, single parent trying to make ends meet, which is all too often the case for many Americans. The same Americans who are berated for seeking government assistance and seen as leeches of the state. (I have come in contact with many families who utilize these systems who are a far cry from the stereotypes cast upon them.) Unlike these many misjudged Americans, this narrative was not my family's.

We had the conversations that all too many African-American parents and families are familiar with— how to be Black in America.

My father made provisions for us to be taken care of in the event of his death and my mother continued working part-time to remain present in our lives and provide us a typical middle-class lifestyle. Even though I went to a public school, it was in one of the most privileged communities in the state of Alabama. Still, I would not consider myself even close to the society I was surrounded by. We lived a lifestyle that put service and quality time over material needs. My mother made sure there was no extreme excess or shortage of life experiences for my family, but she reminded us daily of how we were different from the people who surrounded us. Not in negative way, but in a life-preserving one. We had the conversations that all too many African-American parents and families are familiar with-- how to be Black in America. 

If you’re wondering why this information is pertinent to my objections, strong emotional ties to recent events and my isolation from some of my peers, I’ll get to it...

Our life experiences overlap in the least sense because of the color of our skin, but that cannot solely be the predication of seeing the situation for what it is.

I had very little in common with Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and countless others who have died at the hands of those meant to 'protect and serve.' I presume we didn't have the similar lifestyles growing up (although I remain leery of the negative framing the media can push of these victims). We were not surrounded by the same influences. Our life experiences overlap in the least sense because of the color of our skin. That alone cannot be the sole predication of seeing the situation for what it is.

I put myself in their mother's, wife’s and children's shoes. I reached back to my experiences watching and hearing my brothers deal with blatant racism and not knowing how to react. I did, however know I had a right to try to feel and understand how they felt. Because of these vantages, I was able to gain a greater perspective on their realized truths of being targeted, mistreated and ultimately murdered. Empathy, though often preached, is rarely practiced. When we are faced with an opportunity to share our thoughts, we do not seek to digest the perspective of the opposing first, but rather to impress our views upon them.

I did not take to bringing up the issue of racial profiling and discriminatory law enforcement practices in my graduate class or other environments right away as the platform was very limited and I needed time to process the opinions around me. After the incident of Michael Brown, one of my peers shared comments about their reaction to the hearings. They were tasteless, faulty and insensitive to say the least, but rather than being upset about her comments, I took it as an opportunity to take a step back and evaluate my own biases and judgments. I researched more information about the case from reputable sources, poured over witness testimonies, but above all, remained silent until I could adequately process the situation from an alternate perspective.



However, based off my past experiences, how would I initially react to such news as the murder of a father and troubled teen? Yes, a 'troubled teen.' Not a raging beast or violent criminal, but exactly what we would label him had he been of another hue. All of my reactions would be validated given my and my family's encounters with discrimination and prejudice.

Growing up, I had felt the embarrassment of being judged, teased about my ethnic features (mainly my unruly, curly hair) or followed around in a stores and witnessed others being characterized by the color of our skin. I still battle the well-masked, but still quivering intonation of my voice as I assert my provocative thoughts against discrimination (and the utter frustration of still feeling voiceless). And at that moment, I realized that my classmate had never felt those feelings having never experienced being black in America... or even a person of color. However, not having an experience is never an excuse for not seeking understanding and wisdom.

Empathy, when earnestly practiced, is not just understanding, it is anticipating the feelings and reactions of another in order to appropriately adjust. By adjusting, I do not mean straying away from our own opinions, shying away from our truths or pacifying one another. I mean suspending judgment and questioning the roots of all perceptions in order to reach a deeper truth... one that you may find contradicts your own. In the case of recent events, I urge us to emphatically immerse ourselves in the history and cultural context of people of color in the United States. Engage in conversations with your peers about, race, religion and sexuality. Challenge your own truths and above all, seek the truth that is revealed only through empathy.