Jordan Edwards was a teenage Black boy and he was shot and killed in Texas. His grades don’t matter. He was shot and killed by police and by all accounts, his death is a tragedy and injustice that many are mourning.
Deborah Danner was shot and killed by police in her Bronx, New York apartment on October 19, 2016.
Keith Lamont Scott was shot and killed by police in Charlotte, North Carolina on September 20.
Terence Crutcher was shot and killed by police in Tulsa, Oklahoma on September 16.
Korrine Gaines was shot and killed by police in her Baltimore, Maryland home on August 1.
Alton Sterling was shot and killed by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on July 5.
Philando Castile was shot and killed by police in St. Paul, Minnesota on July 6.
The list is much longer than this.
Black people experience trauma all day, every day. There is no black person, man or woman, who is immune from racism, discrimination, racial profiling, or state-sanctioned violence. No amount of protestation that all lives matter, blue lives matter, or that #BlackLivesMatter is reverse racism will erase the centuries long history of “Black bodies swinging in the breeze.”
Despite our fear, Black people get up and live. Despite our trauma, we go. We fight. We make a living. We must. We cannot “call in black,” to work, as though it were an officially recognized sick day.
We experience trauma when bombarded with images of Black men, women, and children killed and brutalized by state violence – whether that violence takes the form of a police shooting, an officer sexually assaulting vulnerable Black women, officers flinging Black girls around like rag dolls, or the mass surveillance of Black communities. We get angry, sad, frustrated, and activated into action. We feel this amalgamation of emotions that we rarely get to fully process. We never cycle through the six stages of grief before confronted with another instance of violence. Every day, we experience systems of injustice, and for many black people, the criminal legal system is a major source of the trauma and injustice that we or someone we know has endured.
Yet, we have to steel our emotions, steady our shoulders, and hope our bodies don’t falter as we continue to show up to work and school. As we continue to engage in systems designed to maintain our oppression while it reinforces white privilege.
We arrive to work and school, check emails and calendars, prepare for and attend meetings and phone conferences. We enter work environments knowing that our collective trauma will either be ignored or ridiculed. We enter spaces and encounter coworkers and superiors who dispute the very basis of our trauma. We work with people who rebut #BlackLivesMatter with #AllLivesMatter and refuse to see that, in doing so, they are deciding to erase Black people’s experiences in America and silence Black people’s voices of protestation. They are the very reason why the phrase #BlackLivesMatter exists.
We share work space with people who express outrage when a lion or a gorilla are killed, when Caitlin comes out as transgender, when #Brexit happens, when transgender people are prosecuted for using public bathrooms, and when Brock Turner is slapped on the wrist with a meager six month sentence for sexual assault. Yet, these same people are silent when #SandraBland ends up dead hours after being pulled over for failing to signal.
We cover our ears to quiet the deafening screams of your silence.
We justifiably fear being perceived as angry, militant, or overly-sensitve when we finally decide to debate the coworker who boldly and brashly declares that if 12-year-old Tamir Rice did not have the toy gun in the park, and Sandra Bland would have put out her cigarette and accepted her traffic ticket without any disagreement, they would still be alive. We are frustrated when our coworkers, some of whom are our friends, say [insert Black person’s name] would not have been killed had they not been (1) walking away with his hands up, (2) retrieving his license and registration, (3) struggling to breathe as an officer squeezed the life out of him using an illegal choke-hold; or (4) simply bearing the complexion of a people socially branded as something to fear.
It would be naive to hope that everyone would acknowledge and agree that America is plagued by systemic forms of racism and oppression. It should not be unreasonable, however, to hope that, despite political leanings, people can acknowledge the unforgiving onslaught of Black pain and suffering.
In these circumstances, inclusion at work means, at the very least, empathy.
Employers can express empathy for their employees without taking a public stand on either side of the police shootings controversy. A display of empathy can be as simple as an office-wide email reminding the workforce that the employer does not condone violence or discrimination of any kind. Employers can also remind employees of the availability of Employee Assistance Programs and services. They can offer or recommend that affected employees obtain grief counseling. If the workload permits and if the days are available, employers can allow employees to take a mental health day.
Non-Black people can refrain from the following:
- Don’t argue down and attempt to invalidate Black people’s experiences and feelings;
- Don’t tone-police Black people and allies who are reasonably and justifiably angry;
- Don’t forget that Black people feel pain, hurt, depression, and anxiety and that these public killings can trigger these feelings.
- Don’t allow your guilt or fear of offending to prevent you from publicly empathizing with the death of a Black person at the hands of law enforcement or from standing in solidarity with the movement for Black lives.
Aside from Black people, no other group of people in this country today must witness its death as public spectacle. No other group is expected to lean into the ongoing barrage of its collective trauma and despair. Black people are incredibly resilient, yes, but that resilience does not erase generations of collective trauma. Members of the legal profession should begin to consider ways of acknowledging and empathizing, and then, as an act of inclusion, do its part to reduce this trauma.