How should we process and respond to national trauma?
Trigger warning: this post contains topics related to police brutality and the murder of black lives.
How does one process the murder of George Floyd (among others) and the current national protests that follow? How does one react? How does one understand this reoccurring tragedy amidst a global pandemic? The only way to answer these questions is to understand our individual selves in relation to others and in relation to the state that makes it possible for some to be killed by police officers while others are protected. If we can start there I think many of us can productively move to supporting a movement that can transform our democracy to be more fair, just, and humane.
I’ll first offer my perspective and experiences, as I think they illustrate the nuances in processing these traumatic events and how to respond to them. As a Latina academic scholar, I am constantly thinking about racism, sexism, and sexual discrimination. I wake up every morning studying, understanding, contesting and writing about violence that occurs towards marginalized groups. Some days that task is unbearable and triggering as I consider all the ways in which our government not only fails to protect the most vulnerable populations (populations to which my family, friends and I are part of) but also how it perpetuates and institutionalizes violence. No matter how difficult this work is personally for me, I endure it, because the ugly truth of oppression is never worse than its real and unjust form, for instance: the recent murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. And if you are someone like me who is always tuned in to the dark and strategic ways in which our state justifies violence — these names are at the top of a never-ending list of black and brown folks (e.g. Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Kayla Moore, Mya Hall, Laquan McDonald) who are used by our government to maintain white supremacist institutions that in the end are bad for all of us. And while they may be unequivocally bad, they don’t affect us all in the same way — and that’s where processing and social positionality come in. While I may be a brown woman living in America who is an advocate for these issues, I am not black or African American. Why is that so important to acknowledge at a time like now?
Because when black and/ or African Americans watch these acts of violence and murder, they are observing a form of violence that occurs at a disproportionate rate among their racial group. That means that on a regular basis they are faced with reminders from the media and the state that their lives don’t matter — that their lives are not worth protecting, saving, or investing in. For those of us who are members of other marginalized racial and ethnic groups, we can empathize and relate to this feeling on some level, but we never fully experience this complete degradation of human rights and dignity solely on the basis of our skin color. Why do I make this distinction among marginalized groups? Because as some of us support a broader movement that is positioned against anti-blackness, institutional oppression, and racism, we need to understand our personal set of disadvantages and privileges. When we take stock of our positionality in this way, we will process events differently and most importantly act differently. For me, that means supporting the Movement for Black Lives Matter, but not playing a role in leading it. That means sometimes listening when I want to speak. That also means not being a bystander when an issue doesn’t affect me personally and engaging in actions that intentionally try to change the status quo.
Now, I’d like to be clear that while showing support for protests that make the national news on social media may be well intentioned, I do not consider that alone to be acting. And to be honest, in many cases it can be very triggering. For example, repeatedly sharing photos on social media of police pointing guns to black people’s heads and images of police kneeling on top of George Floyd are not helpful. Instead, these images are traumatic reminders to your black peers of how the state often dehumanizes them in America. While many of those who are posting these photos want to offer a gesture of solidarity, if they considered their positionality in America compared to others, they would realize this action is more for them than it is for black lives. That is not to say that all social media actions are not helpful for the movement, some are such as the hashtag in #blacklivesmatter. Instead, it’s to say that we need to be more intentional about how we respond to national events of trauma. Sometimes that response is stepping back and creating space for others. Other times it might be putting your more privileged and pale body between black protestors and police officers because you know your life will matter more to the police. When we are more intentional, reflective and understanding of our own positionality we can then do our part in learning more about the systems we want to contest, the people they oppress, and the actions we can engage in that will actually help the causes we care about.
But, why now? Why is now the time to understand (and hopefully support) why folks are protesting in the streets in spite of great health risks to themselves and others? Mass protesting and civil unrest amidst the pandemic is not a coincidental outcome. The pandemic has highlighted for many how our American democracy is failing us, especially black, poor and marginalized folks around the country. Who has lost the greatest number of jobs in the last couple of months (which for many was how they paid for health insurance)? Who is doing the most dangerous labor and getting paid less than minimum wage to do it (think grocery store cashiers)? Who lacks access to affordable and quality healthcare? Who is heavily surveilled and policed? Who is already dying from illnesses, viruses, and police brutality? We then need to ask ourselves if the fear of the COVID-19 is worse than all of these conditions — because for black and brown people who are experiencing these circumstances at the highest and most disproportionate rates — COVID-19 is the least of their problems. The murder of black folks like George Floyd may be the catalyst for current mass protesting — but these issues are lived daily and painfully by so many Americans.
So how do we move forward? The answer to that question is different for all of us. But no matter how we choose to act the most important part of this action is how we sustain it:
Joining protests is an important act, it signals to government officials, the public and media how our institutions are failing people — but this act alone is fleeting. The hardest work comes after the protest — how we will reimagine our political institutions to be fairer and more representative? How will we reform or abolish our police institutions?
Posting information about bail bonds on Instagram and donating yourself to the fund is an important act. It helps take care of the thousands of people putting their lives at risk — but this act alone is fleeting. What about all the other people who need bond funds when there isn’t a national crisis? How will we dismantle the systems and processes that put protestors in these positions in the first place?
Standing up to your friends and coworkers about racism is a noble act and for some it is the hardest act — but this act alone is fleeting. What about all the norms, policies, laws, and practices that make it acceptable for your peers to have these beliefs? What can we do to change these underlying institutions that perpetuate this racism, classism and sexism?
Voting for a presidential candidate who will make better choices for marginalized groups is a necessary act. We cannot have a president who supports violence against black people — but this act alone is fleeting. What will happen when that president is elected and has to manage bi-partisan politics and focus on his approval ratings? What will happen when that same president makes conditions worse for women and black people?
These are all important, noble, and needed actions — but if we don’t find ways to sustain them we will never experience the type of transformative change this country needs.
National events of trauma can wake us up. They make us angry. They can make us cry. They can make us empathize. They can make us want to do something about the way that we feel. And that is all good. But we need to remember that there are many political pathways to advocate for social justice. And we can’t just choose the quick and temporary options if we are actually invested in systemic change. We also have to be comfortable with our roles in these movements — for example taking a backstage when we are used to being in the spotlight. Fighting for someone else’s right even when we can’t see how their benefit will help us personally in the short-term.
Because I can guarantee you that while it may not seem like it to everyone it is true that when black lives matter — our democracy will be better for everyone. Better healthcare, less income inequality, free quality education, equitable opportunities for employment and success, acceptance of different cultures and religions, fewer jails and prisons, affordable housing, fluid definitions of sexuality and gender, no more surveillance by the state or police brutality — this is a better world for everyone. And we can get there together, but only if we keep going. The protests will end. Social media posts will stop. Conversations about the pandemic, riots, and murder will fizzle away. And what will be left to carry the movement? That is up to you.