“It’s not time to exhale…yet!”
I’ve been working around the clock supporting and helping my clients write statements denouncing the inhumane murder of unarmed, non-resistant George Floyd, a Black man killed while in custody with four Minnesota police officers on May 25, 2020. While I was working with one of my White clients and she asked “Nicole, but how are YOU doing?”
I deeply inhaled. – paused –
I tried to find the “right” words to answer her question as my mind raced through the wave of emotions, I experienced over the past 14 days. Suddenly, I realized that while supporting my clients, colleagues, friends, and others, I had not prioritized time to process my own emotions about witnessing the modern-day Emmett Till lynching that unfolded right before my eyes. The image of the White police officer, Derek Chauvin, nonchalantly kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, with his hands in his pocket, for 8 minutes and 46 seconds as Mr. Floyd pleaded, “Officer. Please. I. Can’t. Breathe!”
I exhaled. – still struggling to find the words –
How do I explain the heaviness that we, as black people in America feel every day as racism penetrates every aspect of our daily lives? I thought about racial battle fatigue as coined by my colleague at the University of Utah, Dr. William A. Smith, a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Racial battle fatigue describes the social and psychological stress response when black people witness a heinous act towards a member of our community. I thought about the feelings of helplessness we as Black mothers, sisters, and aunties feel every time our loved ones leave the house understanding the possibility they may never return.
Inhaled. Exhaled. – very slowly –
But, how do I share “that” with my White client who is asking “what can I do?” Is it even possible to help a person who has lived in the racial privilege in this country to understand the frustration, fear, anger, and helplessness that Black people in America experience as we walk through the dense fog of racism that permeates our interactions, our schooling, our jobs, and professional opportunities, where we live, where we shop, etc. every. single. day?
So, how did I respond? I responded the way we as Black people, particularly those in my generation, are trained to do – I reduce. I shrink to allow others to feel safe. I press through my raw emotions. I push past my personal needs. And, I pivoted. I pivot my emotion to take care of someone else’s needs. “Officer. Please. I. Can’t. Breathe!”
Although my workload piled up quickly these past two weeks, the truth is that I have struggled to write this story because, to do so, I must relive an ugly truth. Honestly, pivoting and providing the support to others felt more comfortable than centering my own personal needs, and burying myself into the work was easier than actualizing my own emotions.
Every time I sat down to write this story, I froze or a weirdly experienced a sudden, out of the blue, deep need for sleep. I realized now that I was expressing a depressive action to the sadness, I was having but not yet acknowledged. I had not acknowledged the fact that I have heaviness. I have a blockage. I am exhausted. I feel broken.
Violence against Black people in this country under the name of law and order has been evasive for over 400 years. Police violence toward Black Americans – both men and women – is experienced daily in this country. “Officer. Please. I. Can’t. Breathe!”
As much as I’ve tried to forget, seeing the killing of George Floyd triggered my own visceral memory of being a two-time victim of police brutality. The most egregious act occurred 10 years ago and seeing Mr. Floyd’s murder triggered the suppressed memory of the incident.
As much as I try, I cannot forget that “regular” Sunday evening when I realized I had left my laptop in my office at the University. My friend and I decided to stop by the university to pick it up on our way to dinner at a local restaurant.
The process to retrieve my laptop took no more than 10 mins, but the proceeding events continue to plague daily. Upon exiting the campus perimeters, we were suddenly swarmed by eight or so police cars with floodlights and all guns pointed towards our vehicle. I quickly watched my friend “do the routine” – remove the hat, both hands on the wheels, eyes straight ahead. I was baffled about what was occurring as two police officers approached both sides of the vehicle, opened both doors, and pointed the guns inside from both sides. I was pulled out the car, pushed to the ground and my hands were handcuffed behind my back as the officer asked, “Do you have anything on you that would harm me?”
Really?!? I thought. But I responded the way my father taught me to respond in order to make it home “No sir; I do not.” Yes, it happened to me! Dr. Robinson, Professor, department head, non-threatening me. Please understand that policing happens to us on a daily basis.
What seemed like an eternity, eventually ended with a “oh sorry, mistaken identity” (they were looking for two males, in their 20s). My friend and I never spoke about the incident. Until today, it was our unspoken secret between the two of us.
So, how did I respond? I did what we as Black people, particularly those in my generation, are trained to do – I reduced; I shrank to allow others to feel safe, pressed through my raw emotions, pushed past my personal needs, and pivoted myself emotionally to take care of the needs of someone else. I went to work that Monday taught my classes as if nothing happened. “Officer. Please. I. Can’t. Breathe!”
So, as I pivot back into my work today. I feel obligated to provide an answer to the question I’ve been asked repeatedly, “What can I do?” To my White clients, friends, colleagues, many whom I love dearly, here is my attempt to answer your question. Unfortunately, I cannot provide you with a simply packaged answer, nor can I provide a neat checklist with step-by-step instructions of specified actions to complete. The answer is as complex as it is simple.
To White people in America, We. Need. You. Only YOU can dismantle the system of racism. How do you do this? Do not remain silent and not take action against macro-level policies and laws that intentionally work to maintain systemic racism in this country. Only YOU can disrupt the outcome of racism you see on your jobs, in your communities, in your schools, etc. How do you do this? Again, do not remain silent when equity is absent from the decision-making process under the guise of equality or “being fair.” Only YOU, can challenge the system of racism without the backlash of retaliation and retribution. And, only YOU can demolish us/them paradigm that always positions Black people as the outsider looking in. To my White friends, colleagues, clients, please hear me when I say, We. Need. You.
Right now, there seems to be a momentum demanding change. I only pray that this press will continue until a true change occurs. I am hopeful about seeing White people standing in the trenches with the Black people demanding systemic changes. I pray that once the hysteria is over that you don’t nestle back into your places of privilege and go on as life as normal. Because for Black people in America, we don’t ever experience a place of true normalcy. To my White friends, colleagues, and friends, don’t retreat.
Inhale. – holding for change –