empathy

How to Better Empathize with Black People Right Now

NOTICE: This post contains an imagery exercise that might be triggering for some people.

RESPECTFULLY: There is detailed description of the events surrounding George Floyd’s death. No disrespect is meant towards Mr. Floyd or anyone else. An effort is being made to help people empathize with Mr. Floyd and others.


6/2/20

This post is intended for White people who don’t consider themselves racist, but who are having trouble understanding why Black Americans are angry, and why some events are happening in our country right now. I am writing this as a White person who hopes to be of service to other White people who have a genuine interest in wanting to better comprehend everything that’s going on. I am not an expert on race, but I am an educator on empathy, and will be using this as our inroad.

First, a little context. I think it’s important to understand that George Floyd‘s death did not happen in a vacuum. It was not a singular event. Mr. Floyd’s death while in police custody happened as part of an ongoing series of events in which excessive force was used against Black people by police. And that has been happening inside of a larger context of inequality for Blacks in America. This is all part of a 400 year history of oppression of Black people in the United States of America. That’s a lot to try to keep in mind, but it’s helpful to accept that history in order for us to properly set the stage for what happened to George Floyd and how Black Americans are reacting to it.

Now, let’s take a look at what happened to George Floyd. The police suspected him of using fake money. So, they took him into custody. Try now to get the mental picture of Mr. Floyd lying on the ground in handcuffs. While lying on his stomach with his face against the pavement, a White police officer knelt on his neck. This is a fact. It was caught on video. If you are having trouble empathizing with how it might make a Black person feel to see video footage of this, instead of picturing George Floyd on the ground in handcuffs, picture someone you love.

Do you love your father, or your brother? If you love your brother, instead of picturing George Floyd on the ground, picture your brother on the ground in handcuffs. Now, picture someone kneeling on his neck. Your brother does not fight. He does not resist. He simply says, “I can’t breathe.” Now, wouldn’t you expect the police officer to get off of your brother’s neck? What if instead of getting off your brother’s neck, that police officer stayed on your brother’s neck? What if he stayed there for nine minutes while onlookers tried to help your brother, and other police officers stopped them from helping him. Does this make you angry? If you love your brother then chances are that this thought is making you angry. Now imagine that your brother later died. Now I bet you’re really angry.

This is what we White people need to do. We need to picture these events happening to our brothers or our fathers, or other people we love. Because, when Black people see video of these incidents they are picturing it happening to their brothers and their fathers and maybe even to them. Imagine if you were watching this video and something similar had actually happened to you before. That experience might really be triggering.

It is possible to us White people to better understand the feelings of Black people right now, and our empathy can help us to do that. We need to tap into our empathy and our compassion. Now that you have imagined that it was your brother who died at the hands of the police, imagine that it happened to your cousin last year and a friend of a friend the year before that. Now you might be getting really angry. Now you might be so angry that you feel like marching in the streets!

Now, imagine that you have been marching in the streets asking for police reform for over half a decade and yet these killings continue to happen. That might make you think of upping the stakes a little bit, right? When peaceful protest doesn’t work, you might consider turning to other actions to get attention for your cause… to make people listen. You might be wondering, “What do I need to do to get people’s attention already?!”

This is where we are. Black people are fed up. They started marching in the streets over all of this back when Barack Obama was still president. Now, here we are half a dozen years later and there still has not been any meaningful police reform on a national level. Black people still continue to die at a disproportionate rate to other members of the population.

Here are a couple of other things that might help you empathize with Black people right now. First, we are all human beings. Even though we look different, we are all the same on the inside. What is happening to Black people is happening to human beings who want many of the same things you do. They want to be free to live their best life. They want safe neighborhoods and communities. They want to love and be loved. Also, as stated earlier, Black people are dying in disproportionate numbers at the hands of police, but people of every race are getting killed due to excessive use of force. It’s happening to White people to, just not as much.

So, it is good for everyone to work towards police reform. It will serve us all in the end. A safer system of policing for Black people means safer policing for all people. And that’s a good thing, right? We can have positive change that is positive for all. So, use your empathy to connect with Black people during this crucial time. Get on board with making a brighter future for everyone. Black lives matter because all lives matter.

All the best to you.

With love,

Matthew Vasko

Founder, Century of Compassion

Postscript: This was a really difficult post for me to write. And I am deeply sorry if it upsets anyone – especially anyone of color. I truly love all people and want very much for all types of folks to be able to better empathize and connect with one another. I truly believe that respect, empathy, compassion, and kindness are keys to a brighter future for all.