I wrote the following yesterday. And at the risk of being told I am shedding white woman tears I am going to post this anyway.
I have been working on not shutting down my empathy and compassion. The last few years have been a real challenge for me in this regard. So much pain and suffering by so many… I feel it so acutely. Anyone who knows me in real life knows that I have a fairly dark sense of humor bordering on real cynicism. There is a reason for that, that I have also been working on for many years. I know what compassion fatigue looks and feels like. And I also know that is is damaging to everyone involved.
I never thought of myself as particularly empathic. Even though I have spoken the words, “I can emotionally scan the room to see where the danger lies” it didn’t occur to me that this ability was/is empathy. Heavy sigh, sometimes I can be a little slow on the uptake. Anyway, my story:
The other day I was driving out of my subdivision to pick my son up from school. There is a bench in the open space. It is not shaded by anything and so, this being Texas, no one really sits there unless it is evening or cool out. On this day there was a man sitting there in a white tank shirt (and is was very cool out) with his head in his hands and I could feel his heart breaking as I drove by. I mean, I was feeling normal happy driving to get my kid and then this rush of anguish flooded in as I drove by him. I kept driving for a few seconds stunned and then I turned around to go see if he was okay.
I pulled up to the curb and rolled my window down and said, “Sir? Sir? Are you okay?” he looked at me somewhat confused and said, “Ma’am?” I asked again, “Are you okay?” he replied, “Yes ma’am.” I asked, “Are you sure?” he replied, “Yes ma’am.” We locked eyes for a moment and I nodded and went back on my way.
Since that day the moment has been playing over and over in my head. I wish I had told him I could feel his heart breaking…that I wanted to give him a blanket and a cup of hot tea or a shot of whiskey or something to help him. An ear to listen… But then I realized that I live in Texas, I’m white. I drive a truck and he is black. I remembered that we were just several houses away from a house that has Trump for president sign in the yard. My impulse to offer comfort may have filled him with fear, probably filled him with fear. And that my impulse, no matter how well intentioned, was probably neither helpful nor wanted. My mom used to say often, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions (you know, presupposing a belief in hell, but I’m sure you get my drift.).”
Today on my walk I realized that racism seeks to dehumanize and make those that do not look like us “other” and dangerous. And what it really does, while dehumanizing people we think are others, it dehumanizes US. Racism robs everyone of their humanity, both the perpetrators and the victims (while it is clear the victims suffer more immediately and with greater damage). It makes us suspicious of people offering compassion and it makes us unlikely to offer compassion and often become unable to feel empathy for the suffering of others.
We hear daily, the demonization of all kinds of people, including those that look like us. We are given scary images and anecdotal stories of murder, rape, and other horrors. We are taught that “those people” have “no regard for life…not like us.” It matters not what racial group you are in, every group has the group it hates and directs its fears at and holds responsible for whatever suffering they may be experiencing. Often those loudest in hate speech have never met anyone different from them, not in belief, not in country of origin, not in language, not in skin color.
I’m over here shaking my head trying to figure out the best way to say what I want to say…
Other people’s hatred and bigotry means that even if we do not harbor those hatreds or bigotries we must understand that it does not mean we will be trusted simply because we do not. NOR SHOULD WE BE. Undoing centuries of oppression and bigotries towards all kinds of “others” will take generations, no matter how well intentioned we are. Trust must be earned. I wish I could go back and apologize for my intrusion on this man’s agony. My intention to help was one of those bricks on the road to hell… And I hate that. I never wanted or intended to add to this man’s pain. Racism robs us all of our humanity. Both in offering and receiving empathy. I’m hoping that I can remember that as I work to dismantle racism and not add anymore bricks of good intentions to another person’s burden, another person’s agony.