Empathizing with both sides: Unpopular but necessary.

PTSD: A state of hypervigilance in which danger is expected, which results from exposure to life-threatening stimuli, and often leads to extreme and impulsive reactions to even benign scenarios; It is often accompanied by hopelessness and helplessness, paranoia and anger. PTSD is not contagious, but is passed down in families and through societies by the traumatizing behavioral reactions that often stem from being traumatized.

Would you not have a post-traumatic mindset if you had witnessed and endured the most depraved aspects of humanity targeted at you and those you love: Societally-justified oppression, hatred, captivity, murder, and merciless beatings? Would you remain hopeful, patient, and the picture of emotional health when raising the next generations of your culture? What if all of this was happening in a world where YOUR schools and healthcare options sucked, AND the effects of YOUR trauma were criminalized instead of considered mental health issues? Would your children’s children be taught the psychological skills, let alone be provided the resources to break through the generational effects of trauma? And, when reminded of that oppression-whether by handcuffs, fists, or words- how much super-human self-control would it take to remain passive?

African Americans have been managing their obvious exposures to trauma in various ways for centuries, and most black people have been, against all human odds, rising above trauma with dignity and grace.

Moving on. Would you not have a post-traumatic mindset if you had used your own body to work as a sworn protector, had actually run toward the violence, toward the shooting, toward the erratically unpredictable people, had actually seen first-hand the devestation that humans are capable-of?  What if you did all this in the weeks and days after the public vilified you in seething anger, for the actions of someone you didn’t even know. Would you not especially fear, or even have the paranoid expectation of violent retaliation?

The majority of police officers have also been handling their own traumas with control and grace.

[Empathy: the ability to imagine and understand the feelings of another.]

As a society, we can’t speak of the role trauma plays in race relations. We are so damn afraid of understanding and empathy, because they sometimes get mislabeled as “excuses.” As a psychologist, I know better. Empathy and understanding are not the bitter ends of the conversation; They are the only hopeful beginnings of change.

Yet. If you’re on the left, you aren’t allowed to acknowledge that there are segments of the black community that are disproportionately engaging in violent crimes, and that some police officers are, unfortunately, mainly exposed to the negative segments of black society.  And if you identify with the right, you aren’t allowed to say that certain communities account for so many violent crimes due to psychological and behavioral consequences of trauma, and that the majority of violent offenders aren’t reacting to their psychological and environmental realities any differently than the average White-Joe-Schmo would react.

And if you’re on the left, you’re not allowed to say that the officers’ increased fear in the presence of a black man may have been more of a primed amygdala response  than actual racist beliefs. If you’re on the right, of course, you aren’t allowed to say that it may have been racist beliefs that fueled these senseless killings.

We are a society who has forgone messy gray areas for the sake of finding easy and categorical answers. The same angry and powerless mindset that says “all blacks are violent and all violent people are pieces of garbage” is the same angry and powerless mindset that says “all cops hate blacks, and all cops who shoot innocent people are pieces of garbage.”  Both mindsets miss the larger reality that both groups, blacks and police officers, are human, trying to actually survive scenarios in which they actually fear for their actual lives. Both mindsets miss the subtleties of histories and individual and collective experiences and their effects on behavior.  Both mindsets lack the empathy and insight needed right now.

I have heard it said that resolving this mess requires us to know each other, to understand, to get out of our comfort zones and our personal bubbles. Moving forward demands meaningful mingling of races, walks of life, realities – cops and non-cops walking around just talking to folks and engaging with them, turning to our neighbors on the train, asking questions with open minds and actual empathy. But honestly, I wonder, “Do we possess the courage and clarity required to do that anymore?”

*photo of a painting I did called “somebody’s son.” -Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, and my three kids-


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