In my tough conversations about race with African-American friends, the two words that most powerfully describe the systemic racism they experience daily are Trauma and Exhaustion. Not momentary or situational trauma or temporary exhaustion. By no means. These conditions, I have learned, have been etched into the psychological DNA of many African- Americans whom I respect, and in some cases, revere. Many live with trauma and exhaustion throughout their day. Everyday.
I cannot imagine what it must be like to feel continually traumatized and exhausted. I might were I a Jew in Nazi German or for that matter, a Jew in much of Europe during the 1940’s. Or, in a concentration camp not knowing whether I would be among the next to be exterminated. Or, for that matter, what ISIS victims must feel if their village was overwhelmed by these zealot-killers.
Imagine getting up each morning and not knowing whether I will be stopped when driving because of a minor infraction and then knowing that I could be the next George Floyd or Philando Castile. Imagine waiting at a department store counter for a clerk to show you a piece of jewelry… for FORTY-FIVE MINUTES as what happened to a dear friend of mine. Or just for a moment wondering what it would feel like to be white for just one day. Or, knowing that the slightest move could touch off an incident. Or that a family member might not receive the same level of care as a white patient in a hospital or clinic. Or that the sentence I would receive for a crime is more severe than what a white person would receive. Or, knowing that my children’s education would be inferior to what a white child would receive. Or, or, or?
Knowing all this, how should I think when I come in contact with a Black person? Should I feel pity? I hope not. Sympathy? Not that either. Empathy? Getting warmer. Empathy suggests putting yourself in the shoes of the person whom you’re listening to and trying to imagine what they are feeling.
According to Isabel Wilkerson, author of the New York Times bestseller, Caste, we white folks should consider radical empathy. She defines radical empathy as “putting in the work to educate oneself to listen with a humble heart to understand another’s experience from their perspective, not as we imagine how we would feel.” Radical empathy, she continues, is “not about us and what we think we would do in a situation we have never been in and perhaps never will.”
In other words, radical empathy is not just putting ourselves in others’ shoes and listening with a humble heart. It’s not just viewing their experience from their perspective. For me, it’s more: it’s putting in the work to educate ourselves about our country’s past and, for good measure, to evaluate our involvement in its future.