As I have been watching the news on TV and social media, my heart has been grieved. It is painful to see a city, and a nation, suffering so. I am a white American. I do not feel what black America feels. I can only hear about the experiences of others and attempt to understand.
Understanding the Mentality of the Oppressed
While violence and rioting is never the answer, I’d like to share with you the way that Tupac explained the mentality of the oppressed to hopefully shed some light on what may get a person, or a people, to that place.
(This is paraphrased and elaborated in various areas by myself)
Imagine you’re in a restaurant, quietly sitting and waiting for the waiter to come bring water and see what you’d like to eat. You slowly notice that the wait staff has come to every single table except yours.
You notice not one of the wait staff has acknowledged your presence. They have all come and gone to each and every table multiple times. You’re hungry and thirsty. You flag a waiter down and he ignores you. You raise your voice… “Excuse me! Sir! May I have a glass of water and a menu! Sir!” … You’re ignored again.
You stand up. You try to have a conversation with a waiter to see why no one will pay attention to you. You have been polite for hours, and now it is time to be firm. You speak to the manager, they tell you to be patient. They try to appease you, calm you down for a little while longer. You go from being assertive, to being loud just to get someone to pay attention to you.. you plead with the person at the next table, “Sir, you’ve had an entire meal and even sent back the soup that wasn’t hot enough.. can you get their attention for me? I am starting to feel faint…”
“Just be polite. Do the right thing. Stay in line and wait,” he says, and rolls his eyes while he rejoins his party.
You feel defeated.. frustrated.. exhausted.. hungry. You’re trying to do the right thing, but no one is listening to you while you suffer. You get desperate. You make a scene. You break a glass. You yell. You demand service. You demand your basic need be met.
You demand justice.
You have continually been oppressed while those around you have not only been treated fairly, but been given the benefit of the doubt.
You are so caught up in demanding this justice that listening to reason and constructive solutions in this place of desperation is too little too late. Why should you calm down when the people that have been ignoring and depriving you of equality haven’t been held accountable yet? You’re so desperate for justice that it may potentially cloud your judgment…
Here’s the link to the 1:08 video in which Tupac explains this mentality.
This Hurt Is Engrained
You see, this mentality was not just adapted overnight. It is deeply engrained into the black community after many years of being treated different… of being less.
The Sixties, miniseries directed by Tom Hanks, originally on CNN and currently available on Netflix, has an episode (Episode 5: A Long March to Freedom) that I felt really did a good job of explaining the civil rights movement in a very real way. And one of the most shocking aspects about this is… it was only 50 years ago.
Let me repeat that.
The civil rights movement was only 50 years ago.
Remember the first black girl that went to an all white school? Many are very familiar with this picture:
That little cutie’s name with that adorable bow in her hair is Ruby Bridges. Today, she is only 65 years old.
SHE IS ONLY 65 YEARS OLD TODAY.
She walked into an all white school on November 14, 1960. She could only eat food from home because someone threatened to poison her every single day. Seriously. Someone threatened to poison a 6-year-old girl every single day she walked to school. The US Marshals were dispatched to ensure her safety. Someone put a black baby doll in a coffin and stood with protestors outside of the school doors. She had to have weekly counseling sessions. Her father lost his job. (Source)
For many of you reading this, Ruby is the age of your parents. Can you imagine your mother enduring this when she was just trying to go to school? Just trying to go to 1st grade and learn about adding and subtracting… how to read.. how to tell time.. but every day someone threatened to murder her?
Schools in America have only been integrated for 56 years. That’s it.
It is really, really important for us as a society to remember that.
Why #BlackLivesMatter is Important
I think one of the most vital aspects of the nation’s progression to change is for the population of white America that does not regularly have meaningful engagement with the black community to stop having an opinion on the matter… stop denying that systematic and institutional racism exists… and stop over-simplifying this issue by saying, “All lives matter,” and “Just act right,” is not only unhelpful, but it’s insulting.
A friend of ours said, “Not a day goes by that I’m not reminded I’m black.” Another friend, Beni Atibalentja, said “It’s hard to forget you’re black in America. It often feels like everything we do is in the context of being black.” When a white man succeeds, he succeeds. When a black man succeeds, he’s doing good for a black man.
Beni also said something else really profound to me when we were discussing this issue and how some people in America just don’t seem to understand or believe that black people are treated differently. She said, “Usually the largest barrier to acknowledgement is our inability to look past our privilege.. to believe that others don’t have the same experiences we do.”
I remember years ago, before the #BlackLivesMatter protests began when we were talking about racism in America. She said that whenever she goes to a party or a gathering, she’s frequently the only black woman there. She said it is palpable when you walk into a room full of white people because you know they are waiting to see if you’re going to fulfill the stereotype of black people they have and you get this reaction of approval when you don’t act the way they expect you to. I’ve never felt that way walking into a room. I tried to put myself into that situation and the feelings of stress that came with it would be enough to make me want to avoid it honestly.
(Side note…are we done with #AllLivesMatter yet? Yes, all lives do matter… just like all of the bones in your body matter. But if you have a broken bone and you go to the doctor and she says… “I realize that bone is broken… but actually all of them matter so we’ll treat them all the same and hope it heals on its own,” that doesn’t address the problem at hand. Everyone’s life is valuable, but black people are systematically treated like theirs do not. That is why #BlackLivesMatter is not only valid, it is important and those that respond to it by saying #AllLivesMatter are missing the issue entirely.)
Therefore, if you live in a predominantly white community and your only experience with black America is when you watch TV or when you see one black person at the grocery store every other week…it is not only hard to understand this massive issue or have enough experience to be able to deny racism exists in this country, it is absolutely impossible.
A physician can’t merely peek into a patient’s room and say, “That patient has a heart murmur, depression, and a low potassium level,” and begin to write orders for medications, treatments, and therapies. No, they must walk into the room. Meet the patient. Talk to them. Learn about them. Perform a physical assessment. Order diagnostics. Listen to their heart. Only after this, can they definitively say whether or not these issues exist. Only then can they know what to do.
I feel like those that do not regularly engage with the black community, but are extremely vocal about denying the existance of institution racism and coming up with solutions are just like that doctor. They take a look at a patient from a far and make a diagnosis without any diagnostics, physical assessment, conversation, or relationship with the patient. They act like they know it all, know what’s best, and push this treatment plan that doesn’t make sense. How can we create a treatment plan if we never even assessed or acknowledged the problems in the first place?
I recently heard Nina Turner who is a member of the black community, wife, mother of a son who is in law enforcement, and senator, articulate this in this interview. (Go to 5:10 to hear her thoughts specifically)
Good Nurse, Bad Nurse… Good Cop, Bad Cop
I do want to make sure to say that it is important to acknowledge and appreciate law enforcement who put on their uniforms each day and put their lives on the line to protect and serve, and do so with the utmost integrity. I work in a neurosciences intensive care unit, where life and death is a normal day at work. I cannot imagine putting on my scrubs and also putting my life on the line every single day to just go do my job. Knowing my patient’s lives are in my hands is enough. I cannot imagine if my own life was on the line as well. I sincerely, with all that I am, appreciate those this do with honor and integrity.
However, I realize that not all uphold the law with honor and integrity. Like Nina Turner said, it didn’t start with the police… but it is system-wide, institutional issue. There are many honest and wonderful law enforcement officers out there that are part what is right… who are in the middle of the storm enduring anger from both sides while they’re trying to hold steady. Again, I cannot imagine being in that position and am so humbled and thankful for them.
But this disparity between people doing their job well and poorly applies to all fields. However, the stakes are higher in health care, and higher in law enforcement. Job performance is not just something that affects the performer, but it profoundly effects those that we perform our job on… and also the integrity and honor of our profession and country. This is why it is essential to have professional accountability. Just like if I see another nurse doing something unsafe, it is my duty to intervene, correct, and educate. The same should hold true in law enforcement. If a coworker is not following the protocols, is too rough, is blurring the lines, then a colleague needs to call them out so that it is not continuing to be ingrained into the culture.
The Deepest of Wounds
I truly believe that fixing policies and protocols is only a band-aid.
To use nurse-terms, I believe this issue of race relations with law enforcement is like a large Stage IV pressure ulcer.
(Don’t know what that is? Here’s a definition.)
These wounds are life altering. Yes, your arm may work just fine, but if you have a Stage IV pressure ulcer on your coccyx, if it is not addressed, it will eventually be your downfall. These wounds are not just on the surface. They penetrate deep… literally to the bone.
The hurts and injustices of the black community run deep… deep into the bone of America. They are not easily and quickly healed by simply acting right. The healing that is needed is incredibly difficult and labor-intensive. You can’t just put a big piece of gauze on it, secure it with nursing tape, and wait.
These wounds must heal from the inside out. These wounds heal very slowly with very diligent and deliberate action.
We Must Start With Empathy
So what’s the solution? I honestly don’t know what this should look like, but I do believe empathy is the key to the beginning of healing and progress.
(Not sure what empathy really looks like? Remember, it very different from sympathy. It’s not feeling bad for someone, it’s feeling with someone. Going to and understanding their pain and experience without an agenda. Here’s a powerful and quick explanation. I honestly didn’t really understand true empathy until a few years ago.)
We must be able to feel with one another. We must feel one another’s pain and experiences, without trying to tell each other how to feel, what to do, or how to just fix this problem so we can move on.
I also believe that part of an empathic response to someone’s suffering and pain is acknowledging it. Again, I am not black… but I am trying to imagine what it would be like to live my life surrounded with injustice. And I am trying to imagine what it would be like to try to communicate this to others, and instead of trying to validate my feelings, they tell me it’s not an issue and refuse to acknowledge it. I would need to hear them say it. I would need to hear them verbalize that I am oppressed. I am suffering. My suffering is real, even if it’s not their experience.
I believe empathy and acknowledgement of the issue is the beginning. Accountability and justice must follow. Accountability for those that literally murdered defenseless people… accountability for situations in which law enforcement was antagonized…accountability for flaws in police protocols and procedures… accountability for throwing rocks and bricks into the faces of police officers just trying to do their job.
Do leaders from the black community and law enforcement in all cities of the country, as well as rest of the community, need to sit down with each other, acknowledge injustices, own up to mistakes, talk through past scenarios, miscommunications, frustrations, and hurts? I don’t know. I’m not a member of the black community. I am not a police officer.
But what I do know is that whenever hurts have occurred in relationships, there must be acknowledgement, accountability, justice and forgiveness before there can be healing and progression.
We must heal from the inside out.
A whole lot of hurt, anger, bitterness, and hatred is evident in people. We all have preconceived notions, agendas, and belief systems that we want to be validated. But how many of us actually want truth? Not truth about a police case or murder, but the truth of our own racist, prideful, and bitter attitudes. The truth is, we are all prone to sinful, prejudiced behavior and attempt to simplify the narrative to fit our prejudices.
Justice without forgiveness and grace is revenge.
Judgment without empathy is ignorance.