Sometimes, when I’m lying in bed at night, I like to pretend that America has truly overcome the injustice of systemic racism. I like to imagine that I live in a world where my family is safe from the prejudice that our skin color brings, because we have moved past judging a person by the amount of melanin that is produced in their body.
When I get out of bed, drive myself to work, and settle in with a cup of coffee, I know that my hopes for an inclusive America are almost a pipe dream. It is hard to ignore how different the lives of black and white Americans are experienced. You have seen black people pushed out of their homes by gentrification, killed by police, vilified for our skin color and denied basic human rights because of the way we were born.
I am disgusted- to say the least.
I am disgusted because George Floyd was not the first victim of systemic racism in our country and without a doubt, he will not be the last. As a mental health therapist, I was taught the strategies for coping with negative emotions: disgust, anger, fury, sadness, to name a few. And although I know that I cannot dismantle systematic racism on my own, I want to offer some solace to those seeking to quell the pain of continuous injustices directed towards the people of color in America.
The reason behind the riots.
I often find that understanding the motive behind an event helps me to come to terms with it. Right now, over 30 cities have erupted in protests over the treatment of racism in our country. I have seen a lot of judgement and a lot of hate circulating in these past days, and I believe it is because the protesters and the rioters are being seen as one group. In fact, they are different.
The rioters have been highlighted by the media in order to discredit the Black Lives Matter movement. Rioting is a direct consequence of 400 years of oppression that people have color faced. Similar to the actions of a traumatized child, individuals who feel that they are not being heard or supported escalate to violence in reaction to their trauma. Rioting is not appropriate, and not a way to effectively communicate, however, it is a form of communication. There is also conflicting evidence as to the demographics of the rioters, if some were professional, majority Caucasian-decent or people of color. The rioting is an image of grief, grief that is real in the hearts and minds or the rioters and protesters.
The Protesters, on the other hand, more accurately represent the Black Lives Matter Movement.
Can you imagine?
Imagine yourself when you were seventeen years old. A peer offers you a bag of skittles on your walk home from school. As you walk through the door to your house, your mother has collapsed, sobbing on her knees. You rush to her side, look up at the TV screen and see someone who looks just like you. He is seventeen. He is holding a bag of skittles. And he was murdered by a police officer a few miles from your home.
Can you imagine seeing someone on the TV screen, whose body is now cold, and thinking to yourself – that could have been me? That could have been my father, or my little brother? That could have been the boy who sits next to me in Biology every day? Or the boy who took my sister to prom?
Now imagine that happening every day. Imagine living in constant fear that someone you love and care about will end up on the wrong side of a police-issued pistol? Imagine the amount of terror you would live in every day knowing that you cannot trust the very officers who are meant to be keeping you safe as long as they are protected by qualified immunity.
Imagine…how tired you would be. How exhausted. How entirely hopeless you would feel about the world that you must live in, love in, raise a family in?
That is why we protest.
We protest for the same reason that the crowds behind Martin Luther King Jr. did all those years ago. We protest because we can imagine a world in which we do not have to live in fear, and we believe that world can be achieved. It is important that all of us, being members of the society that we live in, speak up.
The protesters that are populating those 30 cities across the US are using their voices to drive us into a world where we are not plagued by systemic racism. Every day, they are risking their lives and safety to stand up for what is right. We stand for the murderers to be held accountable for their crimes.
There is an unfortunate truth behind the protests, though. Change does not happen overnight. Derek Chauvin is not going to wake up tomorrow and become a champion of equality. White supremacists are not going to suddenly understand that a person’s value does not depend on their skin color. Change takes time, and there is no telling how long we have left to go through this madness.
So, in the meantime, the big question is this:
How do we cope?
How do we, as people of color, cope? How do we live in a world that is not safe for us, and manage happiness? To be quite honest, there is no one definitive answer. After all, ignoring everything going on in our communities is not an option. The easiest option for peace of mind is ignorance, and we are long past that.
There are a few pieces of advice that I have as a mental health therapist. The first thing to know is that being in control of the situation around us often brings us comfort. A large portion of fear and unrest is being caused by feeling out of control, feeling like you have no say in the events of our own life.
However, it is a myth that you do not have any control over racism in our world. You do have control; your control is in how you respond to the terrible acts of racism in our country. If you feel strong enough to protest, find comfort in protesting. If you feel unsafe, it is entirely okay to use your voice from behind the front lines – talk to your friends and family members about how you are feeling or make a well-informed statement on social media. You may find that not everyone agrees with you, but you have been honest about how you are feeling, and you have established how you view the issues around you. Sometimes it helps to see your struggle written out before you – because you have regained some control.
On the other hand, if you find yourself feeling grieved and overwhelmed by the tragic outcomes of systemic racism – like the death of a father like George Floyd – you should know that you have every right to feel how you feel. You have every right to grieve, to be angry and to be overwhelmed. When you reach that point, the best thing you can do is allow yourself to disengage. Give yourself a break from the social media outpour. Common ways to express your grief can be through art, song or sports. Taking a step back and prioritizing your own self-care does not make you any less of a valuable member of the community. You are not selfish or uncaring for putting your own mental health before the madness.
Some parting words.
As we walk through these incredibly painful days, it is important to remember that we are all part of a community. There is love to be had between us, even as we endure all of this pain. The pain will ease, but slowly. Change will come even slower. But until then, it is important to remember that we are strong, resilient, talented and we are many.
Our day is coming. Until then, please remember to love and care for yourselves, and not let yourself be drowned in the grief or the anger that the public is emitting in waves. Engage, but safely. You are the most important thing.
And of course, I have to add: Rest in peace, George Perry Floyd.