I got up too late to read the news online, and ran some errands with my daughter. So I’m just reading the news now, and I’m sick to my stomach. Michael has already posted his own reaction– how am I, as an over-educated white person, supposed to react when a police officer murders yet another black man? How are we supposed to react when it happens again and again?
How can I respond with empathy to a person in many ways different from me, without “whitesplaining”and being overbearing?
Well, I know one way not to do it.
You don’t know how many times bloggers are told “don’t read the comments,” but my eyes always instinctively go after the comments anyway. Tragically, I’ve come to expect racism and ignorance in every combox. Those anger me, but they’re part of the landscape. I already know such people exist.
The comment which enraged me was one I see less often. One of the commentators I found implied that the victim’s girlfriend must have been lying– because apparently at first she said “just a broken tail light” and later “just a broken tail light and some pot.”
That, I think, horrifies me the most. I can’t bring myself to imagine that kind of callousness. How can a person expect that a woman who just witnessed her significant other shot dead in a car, should be able to calmly recite data as if she’d memorized it from a dictionary? And yet, that’s just what some people expect. There’s a certain stripe of human being– not a rare stripe, I’m afraid– who expects someone in the throes of extreme trauma and shock to give a calm, rational recitation of events, or else they’ll assume that person was lying. Survivors of domestic violence, survivors of terrorism, child survivors of abuse are held to the same standard by these people. If their story doesn’t fall out of their mouth in a perfectly calm, error-free account while they are still reeling from their suffering, this kind of person judges them to be suspicious. They decide they must be lying.
Do these people not know what it’s like to be shocked? I know not everyone endures trauma, but most everyone goes through shock at some point, don’t they? Any shock at all? If I inflated a balloon, tiptoed up behind you and popped it, can’t you imagine how that would feel? Can’t you, in your mind’s eye, imagine what it would be like if that shock were magnified a thousand times, and with it the knowledge that someone you loved was dead, that you’d never see him again, and that the people who killed him might well get away with it?
I don’t even care if it turns out there was some good reason for the police to shoot. There wasn’t, but even if it did turn out that way. Never, ever expect someone in the first throes of trauma to respond calmly with a perfectly coherent story. Never, ever doubt her if she can’t yet. Because, she can’t. That’s not how trauma works. That’s not how being a human being works. Strong emotions interfere with your ability to report events precisely, at first, if you are a human being. Some people can defer the shock of an event and respond calmly, and that doesn’t mean they’re lying either, but the former is more common.
Whatever else happens today, don’t be that person. Show a shred of compassion, and don’t react like that.
(image via pixabay)