White women aren't supposed to cry about racism...
Have you read about Tyre Nichols this week? If you’re like me, you may have scrolled passed the first several articles, wary of introducing the stress of yet another police killing into your already busy week. Or maybe you read the articles, but hesitated at the video. Doom scrolling or social media surfing—both of these are ways that we witness the world without really taking it in. Whatever you have done or not done, I invite you to refrain from judging yourself. You have made choices this week to learn, to witness, to empathize, to ignore. I invite you to track it, to notice your actions without judgement.
For me I was boarding a plane when I first read about Tyre. It hit me hard as I read the news story and saw the photos of the five officers who killed him, upending many of my assumptions about which police engage in this kind of vigilante violence. I read Ben Crump’s wise assessment that, “it is not the race of the police officer that is the determinable factor of the amount of excessive force that would be exerted. It is the race of the citizen. ”And then I got to my seat and turned my phone to airplane mode.
After you track your own process around learning or not learning Tyre’s story, I invite you to schedule 30 minutes this week when you can be alone with his story. For me it was in the car while waiting for my daughter to finish a music lesson. I knew the videos had been released and I felt I needed to witness even a small part of it. But I could feel my hands and feet tingling as I prepared to open the news apps. My body wanted to run away—to go for a walk, to buy groceries, to call a friend. Once I opened my news app, I wanted to move away from the videos, scroll over to the advice columns or check out Facebook. I didn’t want to go there because I knew it would be painful. And maybe, on some level, I knew I didn’t have to. I closed my eyes, took some deep breaths, and then I started reading—and watching.
The videos upset me, as did many of the articles I read. But I wasn’t full-on sobbing until about 20 minutes in, when I read this Washington Post article about how Tyre stopped by a farm every day to take pictures of the sunset, and how his friends say he was the person who taught them how live fully as themselves.
Now, I know that White women crying about racism is a thing. We’re not supposed to do it. Crying is a strategy that many White women use to get out of trouble by feigning innocence or hurt. Crying can be a strategy for refocusing conversations about injustice on our own pain and discomfort. Tears can be performative. Tears can be full of pity.
And yet I write this because I am a White woman and I need to cry about racism. I need to feel the weight of systemic injustice in my gut. I need to sob because a man lost his life, his parents lost their son, his child lost a father. I need to sob in my car as if that could have been my friend or my child, the same way I sobbed in my car when I first heard the news of the mass shooting in Newtown, CT.
I don’t typically cry about the deaths of unarmed Black people in this way. Racism has been too successful at teaching me that I’m fundamentally separate from Black people in America. Our lives are largely segregated in ways that make our pasts and futures feel separate too. I don’t look at Black children and think, “That could be my child.” But why not?
Howard Stevenson, PhD, professor of human development at the University of Pennsylvania, teaches that this isn’t a new phenomenon, that White people learned how to numb themselves to the pain of Black people beginning with enslavement. If I don’t see Black people as fully human, it’s easier to ignore the inhumane treatment they experience. If I don’t believe Black people are fully susceptible to pain and humiliation in the same way I am, it’s easier to assume that they will be okay regardless. If I can’t imagine that Black people are as fully embedded in family and community as I am, then it’s easier to look the other way when the fabric of that community is torn.
This is why I need to cry. I have been taught to see Black people, their experiences of injustice, and their deaths as separate from me and mine. I have been taught this by my society: by jokes that make Black people and Black names laughable, by movies that kill the Black character first, by the normalization of segregation, in which it feels okay for schools attended by majority Black children to be underfunded and underperforming, by a geography that still has “Black communities” and “White communities” in 2023. This is antiblackness. And it does exactly what it was designed to do—to so dehumanize Black people that I minimize or ignore their pain.
There is no amount of empathy that I could generate that could have stopped Tyre’s murder in Memphis. Even in my own life, all the love, connection, empathy, and shared resourcesI put into my relationships with Black people cannot eliminate the impact of systemic racism on their lives—and on my own.
But here’s the thing, systemic change cannot and will not happen without millions of people—including White people—feeling the sadness of injustices like Tyre’s death in their gut. Systemic change happens in a democracy when enough people can see clearly what is wrong and what is right. Until we are able to witness it, feel the wrongness of it, understand that “that could have been my child or my loved one,” we won’t be able to resonate emotionally with the people involved.
Systemic change in a multiracial democracy requires that we look across racial lines and see one another as sibling, as child, as parent, as neighbor, as friend. It requires that we cultivate the understanding in our guts that we could be family. That is hard to do when we travel in well-worn racial tracks that were forged for us before we even got here. The neighborhoods, streets, schools, relationships, clubs, and even religious institutions that populate our lives are situated around those tracks in deeply racialized patterns that we did not create. We go round and round on tracks that are entwined—but closed—loops, like matchbox cars. We pass each other, we see one another out the window of the car, but we don’t connect; we never find ourselves on the same track. Breaking out of those tracks and learning to see one another as more similar than different is a life-long practice.
Developing this practice cannot happen immediately. But I invite you to find 30 minutes to sit with Tyre’s story. Not so you can tell people you did so. Not so you can cry publicly. But so that you can engage the practice of building empathetic connection across racial lines. Empathetic connection alone can’t save our society. But fascism feeds on racism, on separation, on a lack of connection across divisions. Empathy is the fuel that can help us stay engaged for the long hard work of waking up day after day and continuing to challenge the systems that shape our lives, the systems that are killing Black people. And I guarantee that after those 30 minutes, you will be changed in a way that leads to clarity, connection, and an increased commitment to change in your sphere of influence in the coming week.
Ali Michael is the co-author of the recently released Our Problem, Our Path: Collective Antiracism for White People
Photo credit to Karolina Grabowska