by Mia McKenzie
Hey, White Liberals*:
I needed to break protocol to reach out to you and let you know that you’re killing me. No, worse. Much worse. You’re robbing me of part of my humanity.
In lots of ways, really, and frequently, but right now let’s just talk about this one way:
Your constant prioritization of the lives of white people over the lives of people of color is taking a serious toll on my psyche and those of many in my community. And by that I don’t mean what you might expect. Most of us already know that racism and its BFF white privilege have detrimental effects on people of color. Racial oppression leads to any number of unhealthy conditions, including high blood pressure, depression, heart disease, diabetes and even asthma. But what I’m talking about is something different. Something I’m going to call DSWP: desensitization to the suffering of white people.
A few days ago, I was having lunch with a good friend who is Korean-American, and she told me that when she heard about the bombings at the Boston Marathon—the marathon itself being something she knew nothing about and immediately associated with white people—she found that she had a hard time…well, caring. I’m sure that sounds shocking to many people. But it didn’t shock me. Because I was having the same feelings myself.
I really noticed it a few months back, during coverage of the Sandy Hook elementary school shootings. As news outlet after news outlet flashed photograph after photograph of mostly white children across TV screens and computer screens alike, I felt something I hadn’t remembered ever feeling before upon hearing of the brutal murder of children: I felt numb. Not numb in the way that people in shock feel numb. Not numb because of the great weight of what had happened. This was a different kind of numbness.
I couldn’t help but think about Trayvon Martin. He wasn’t an elementary school kid when he was shot and killed by a racist with a gun, but he was just a 17-year-old boy, unarmed, walking down the street with a bag of Skittles. I thought of countless other Black youth who have been murdered by crazed gunmen with badges and police uniforms in the last few years. I also thought about the hundreds of brown children in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan who have been killed by US forces on the ground and by drone strikes. I thought about how many times I didn’t see any of their faces, smiling and innocent, splashed across the TV or the internet for days and weeks on end. I thought about how white people I know weren’t posting links to stories about those children and what had happened to them. That they weren’t writing Facebook statuses about how unbearable those kids’ deaths were. And, seeing pictures of those little blonde children—because the blonde ones are always featured most prominently—I felt numb.
And it wasn’t just me. The same was true for many of my majority-POC friends and many people in my community. Many of us seemed unable to feel what a person should be able to feel when another person, especially a child, has their life taken away. After all, we had always been able to feel it before. I thought about the numbness of my friends and about my own lack of connection, and I wondered what was happening to us. I didn’t wonder for long, though, because the answer is really simple: you are happening to us, white liberals.
It shouldn’t have to be this way. While many white people may not be capable of connecting emotionally to the humanity of people of color, we POC have always been capable of connecting to yours. Because all our lives we are told white people’s stories–through news, television, movies, etc.–our ability to see white people as people has been pretty solid. (This is also probably due to the fact that we have never needed an excuse to kidnap, enslave, or mass murder you, which is always easier to do to a race of people when you can deny their humanity). But even in the face of all the evil that white people have perpetrated against us, most of us, in the face of some individual white person or small group of white people in pain or suffering, have still been able to feel compassion. Sympathy. Empathy. But lately…it’s getting more and more difficult to feel those things (for examples, see here and here).
Some of it has to do with the fact that the wars and subsequent occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan have gone on for more than a dozen years. For many of the younger folks I know, that’s the better part of their entire lives. It’s a whole third of mine. For a dozen years we have watched as the mainstream media has ignored the deaths of so many brown children, day after year after decade. I mean, they were ignoring the deaths of Black children all over the world, including here, way before that, but we didn’t have to see them ignoring it so blatantly every morning and afternoon and evening and night on TV (that 24-hour news cycle is a bitch; they have time for everything except our stories). Also, before the internet, and specifically before bloggers, the killing of black children by police officers had much less chance of even being known about outside of the community in which it happened. So, you know, you could at least feign ignorance. But now we know how often these things are happening. And we know how often white people don’t have a damn thing to say about it.
This is also true when it comes to the disappearances of black and brown women and children, which are all but ignored in the mainstream media. When our children go missing, there’s barely a teardrop in the news cycle. When white children go missing, it’s a national event.
Why don’t our children get to be children? Why don’t they ever get to be innocent?
What all this has resulted in is the displacement of compassion and empathy with anger and resentment. Because when the names of slain white children are spoken, I can barely hear them anymore. My ears are plugged with the unuttered names of the Black and brown children whose lives didn’t mean enough to be spoken aloud on CNN. When I see photos of their smiling white faces, I can only imagine the smiles of fallen Black and brown children whose faces never grace the news.
I feel as if something important, something essential to my humanity, is being drained away every time you ignore the suffering and death of people who look like me and my family and my friends and my community, while devoting endless hours of attention to the suffering of people who look like you. Each time, I feel little less…well, I feel a little less.
And I’m not happy about it. I don’t feel good about it. I don’t want to be someone who can’t empathize with people who don’t look like me.
The only way to stop this is for you to stop ignoring our lives and our deaths and our stories. For you to put the names and faces of those Black and brown children in your news and on your Facebook pages. It is not enough for you to say, when confronted, that you care. You need to act like it. Because a part of our humanity—our empathy—is eroding. And that’s not a good thing for any of us.
*I’m speaking to white liberals because I don’t expect anything from conservatives.
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