WSU Honors College
How long will you care?
It seems that America is finally having a racial awakening… again. There are a lot of fired up people taking to the streets to protest and support Black Lives Matter. Particularly white people. …Today we care.
It seems as though our current circumstances have been the perfect storm for a social justice revival. After all, we’ve been stuck inside our homes for months and just touching public doorknobs feels like a potential health threat. From churches to grocery stores to restaurants, nothing feels the same. Life has been disrupted in a way never experienced before. Sporting events and Broadway shows cancelled. Summer vacations and study abroad trips postponed. Some have made every effort not to leave their homes at all. Many have been frustrated with the government’s handling of the pandemic. Some have asked, “where are the test kits?” and “isn’t this is far worse than the flu?” Others have yelled “open up the economy before my children starve to death!” Those not deemed “essential workers” have tuned in and washed their hands during each commercial break. Every state has taken vastly different approaches to the SARS-COV-2 pandemic. We have watched while our leaders have argued and finger-pointed as the pandemic has become more and more politicized. COVID-19 has created a shared grievance. …We suddenly cared.
As the nation slowly entered lockdown and most of us were stuck in our homes grappling with homeschooling and teleworking, we began to worry if there would be enough resources needed to fight this pandemic. Were items being delivered and stocked quickly enough? Would there be enough ventilators and test kits for the masses? Will I lose my job and livelihood from this economic fallout? As we entered the unknown and felt our own vulnerability, we noticed our “essential workers” and their vital role in our lives. They were putting their lives on the line for items that we take for granted, like toilet tissue. Those working in grocery stores, nursing homes, meat manufacturing plants, hospitals, hotels, construction sites, retail stores and loading docks were truly “essential” to our quality of living. We also noticed they were dying at a disproportionate rate compared to everyone else. And as the deaths from COVID-19 continued to rise, one statistic became more and more glaring: the Black and brown community who held many of the low-wage essential jobs were dying at a much higher rate than any other demographic. With our routines interrupted and unable to distract ourselves, we noticed the glaring inequities that are ever present in our society today. We felt empathy for our essential workers. We also needed toilet tissue. …We suddenly cared.
Then, after two months of being stuck at home, an injustice took place. For the first time, many of us decided to watch the footage of a black man’s death at the hands of a police officer. For 8 minutes and 46 seconds a man was strangled by the knees of law enforcement. While handcuffed, he yelled “I can’t breathe” countless times. He pleaded for his life. As George Floyd was taking his last breaths, he called out for his deceased mother. We were outraged. We were disgusted. Black Lives Matter! …You suddenly cared!
—Perhaps you already cared but feared being ostracized by family and friends if you spoke out. Perhaps the frustrations of the COVID-19 pandemic were compounded by this unjust murder was too much to bear. Perhaps you protested because you were tired of being on lockdown and looked for any reason to congregate and enjoy human interaction. Perhaps you always cared silently and being able to wear a mask (thanks to COVID-19) you felt greater security in joining the protests. Regardless of why, we all noticed that more white Americans cared right now that ever in our lifetime; however, many of us in the black and brown communities didn’t suddenly care when we watched the murder of George Floyd. …We always cared.
We cared in 2012 when 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was walking home from buying Skittles and a vigilante stalked him, fought him, and when he couldn’t subdue him, fatally shot him. During the trial, an all-woman jury was selected. None were black. The prosecutor was confident that a group of all women jurors would sympathize with the death of an unarmed black child leaving a convenient store after buying candy. The defense was confident that an all-woman jury would sympathize with George Zimmerman because he was light-skinned and feared for his life. His defense: Trayvon Martin had a weapon and that weapon was the pavement. Verdict, not guilty. …We cared.
We cared in 2014 when Eric Garner was choked at the hands of a police officer for selling loose cigarettes and died in similar fashion as George Floyd. His death was also caught on camera as he yelled “I can’t breathe.” However, the officer who killed Garner was assigned to desk duty while still making $78,000 per year until he was finally fired in 2019. We protested. We were outraged. The video of his death was just as horrible. …We cared.
We cared in 2014 when Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old Black boy, playing with a toy gun at a youth recreation center, was gunned down by a police officer immediately as he arrived at the scene. Again, the officer was acquitted. We wailed. We protested. …We cared.
We cared in 2015 when Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old charged with possession of a knife, died while being transported by a police van. The medical examiner ruled his death a homicide. Many of us learned that Freddie Gray had been born in poverty and that he and his siblings suffered lead poisoning due to the public housing unit where they grew up; the lead poisoning was so bad that the Gray family won an undisclosed settlement from the owner of the property. Freddie Gray was just one of the 13,000 children living in public housing that suffered lead poisoning during that time. Gray’s short and unfair life was a tragedy. The officers involved in the murder of Freddie Gray were acquitted. We protested. We lamented. …We cared.
We cared in 2019 when a Latinx 14-year-old boy, Antonio Arce, was killed by a police officer, shot in the back while running with a toy gun. The officer was granted retirement benefits and resigned a few months later. We demanded justice. Our wounds were reinjured. …We cared.
We care about Sandra Bland. We care about Breona Taylor. We care because we live in a system that fails to convict cops when they kill our men, women, and children. …We care then and we care now.
Any of these cases could have been me. As a Black man in America, I was not afforded the luxury of not caring about these issues. Some data suggest that the odds of being shot by law enforcement is on par with being struck by lightning. The odds of law enforcement being found guilty for killing a black or brown person is also on par with being struck by lightning—even when they kill an innocent child.
Our system fails us again and again. America sends us black fathers a clear message: If the ground that my son walks on can be seen as a weapon in the court of law, then my black son is always armed and dangerous. Trayvon died and his killer went unpunished. Like Amhad Abry, he was not killed by a police officer, but a member in the community that saw his mere existence as a threat. When Amhad Abrey was killed, I lamented. I wailed. …I cared.
Research shows that Black boys are viewed as older and less innocent than white boys. I know from experience that this data is accurate. At the age of 15, a police officer pulled his gun on me and pointed it at my face. I was in the back seat of the car during a traffic stop for an expired license plate. I had dropped the candy that I was eating onto the floor of the car and had reached down to pick it up. That alone had provoked the cop to draw his weapon. When the cop pulled out the gun and said, “Hands where I can see them!” I was not a child to him. I was a threat. But I’m not counted in any statistical data. I was not killed, arrested, or choked; however, from that point on, my amygdala detected every encounter with an officer as a threat to my survival.
The amygdala has a fascinating function—it is our brain’s lookout patrol, constantly scanning everything we see for threats. When your amygdala detects what looks like a threat to survival, it puts you in fight-flight-freeze mode. Like many Black and brown men, my amygdala is triggered during any encounter with police. My heart races and my hands stay as visible and still as possible. I still remember that gun pointed at my face as I was holding a bag of Twizzlers. I am not an anomaly. Ask any Black or brown American who grew up in a predominantly Black or brown community and you will hear about countless encounters involving teenage boys being overpoliced, targeted, and threatened by police. The ones recounting the stories may still be alive to speak about their experience, but the trauma remains.
I’m grateful that America cares about these issues right now. I’m especially grateful that white America is giving itself permission to speak up about issues of white supremacy and racism in public spaces. I’m grateful that my white supervisor asked me to write this article. The questions that I’m wondering are…
Will you still want to fight racism when you return to your jobs and your regular lives?
Will you have time to watch the footage of the next black death after the coronavirus lockdown has lifted and you’re able to return to your normal distractions?
Will you still care after the protests have died down and the news cycle shift topics?
Anger has its place, but it is not sustainable; however, awareness is boundless. How can we turn these emotions into sustained coalition building?
…How long will we care?
In the words of Tupac Shakur:
There is no fear in a shallow heart
Because shallow hearts don’t fall apart
But feeling hearts that truly care
Are fragile 2 the flow of air
And if I am 2 be true then I must give
My fragile heart
I may receive great joy or u may return it
Mindfulness as a tool for Social Justice
While the moment is ripe, I’d like to encourage you really incorporate mindfulness practices into your daily life. My personal definition of mindfulness is “trained attention.” As you begin to really pay attention to what your mind is doing, you will probably find that there’s a great deal of thoughts and feelings going on behind the surface. Those thoughts and feelings can be draining and obstacles to peace and contentment. As Socrates famously stated: “Know thyself.”
As you embark upon your own practice of mindfulness, begin to really examine your mindset about race. We usually don’t see the effects of our mindset because we are too identified with the beliefs behind it. Our mindset doesn’t feel like a choice that we make but an accurate assessment of how the world works. Chances are, you probably don’t realize how that belief affects your thoughts, emotions, and actions. Kelly McGonigal calls this “mindset blindness.” The solution is to practice mindset mindfulness: paying attention to how your current race mindset operates in your life.
To get to know your race mindset, start to notice how you think and talk about race. Notice how thinking and talking about race makes you feel. Does it motivate you? Exhaust you? Paralyze you? Do you talk about race at all or make every attempt to avoid race discussion? Begin to examine what your family and upbringing taught you about race. Reflect on your earliest memories of your own race and racism. According to Janet Helms, our racial identity is a developmental process. There is an upside to understanding our racial identities and the mindset that comes with that understanding. Awareness is boundless. The true mindset shift that matters is one that allows you to hold a more balanced and honest view of race and the racism in our world, to deny it less, to trust yourself to handle what comes with its truth, and to use it as a resources for engaging with the lives around you.
For those like me who identify with a marginalized group, there’s another amazing benefit to incorporating mindfulness into your daily lives: there is an ability called “response flexibility” which is the ability to pause before you act. Your amygdala might be sounding the alarms, but your emotional stimulus is strengthened in a way that you will not react as you normally would. If you’re like me, my amygdala will sound the alarms to perceived threats, even if they aren’t actual. This can also drain a lot of energy and be an obstacle to contentment. Taking time to practice stillness and paying attention to your thoughts, emotions, and sensations can lower your impulse to feel threatened and give space for deeper insight and healing.
If we really look at the beautiful practices of mindfulness and self-compassion, we will begin to see these exercises could be the tools for coalition building. We may start to see the intrinsic order and connectedness that exist between ourselves and “the other.” We can increase our awareness for the suffering around us and really address some of these issues plaguing our communities. Knowing the history of our society, I’m cautiously optimistic that this moment will produce real change. But real change will only happen if our empathy and compassion are sustained.
Mindfulness Practice: Sit in silence and really ask yourself …How long will you care?
About the Author
Trymaine Gaither is the MESI (Mindfulness Based Emotional Social Intelligence) Coordinator and Recruitment Coordinator for the WSU Honors College.