The Pain of Racism


I have been wanting to return to blogging for a while. My schedule has cleared up considerably and I’ve had all manner of observations – from tedious rants about how annoying people are, to joyful observations about how beautiful life can be, to indignant responses to our sorry political state. I had carved out some time today to finally string some coherent sentences together. But this morning, I can’t help but think about the Zimmerman verdict.

I think I’d be hard pressed to find any Black person who has grown up in this country who is really surprised by this verdict. Furious, Fearful, Heartsick – sure. But we’re not surprised. For me, some of the fury is heightened by the belief that this farce of a trial was doomed to this outcome. Some of the Sunday morning justification is that ‘the justice system does what the justice system does’ Yes. We know all about what the justice system does. And all week, the media has prepped the public for this verdict with the warning: ‘well, the prosecution presented a weak case; there just wasn’t evidence.’ Yep, those police that cared enough to do a drug test, but did not place enough value on the life of this murdered child to search for his identity, didn’t collect enough evidence; shocker. My heartsickness is compounded by the view that whatever the outcome it would be inadequate restitution for this life that was taken. And inadequate restitution for the countless lives taken before and since.

We hear all the time that racism is different today. It’s structural. It’s institutional. It’s not a guy in white hood. Yes it’s true, racism is structural and institutional – but that’s not new. And in some places in this country it is still a guy in a white hood. Ask any ten Black kids over 15 in this country, and I’ll bet: most of them will tell you it’s not a guy in a white hood that has got them looking over their shoulders. It’s the cop in a uniform (or a ‘non-uniform’). It’s the guy who follows you on the street because he thinks you’re up to no-good – or fair game. I knew it growing up in the ‘80s in Jersey City and East Orange. And Trayvon Martin knew it in Sanford, Fl. in 2012.

So, here’s the other thing that I have been stewing about this month. I heard some interesting (that’s the word I’m going with) feedback from colleagues that I am not open; I am difficult to connect with and I am not allowing myself to be vulnerable. This may not be important in most jobs, but in ministry it’s a pretty big deal. I circled the gamut of surprise, confusion, hurt, more confusion, concern, and then denial. I talked to friends who seemed equally surprised by this read. But I wasn’t dismissive, because I know it’s an issue.

Because, here’s the other thing: the other bit of news that I’ve been wrestling with this week is the story about the racial empathy gap. The study, broken down for popular consumption by anthropologist Jason Silverstein, finds that people are less able to empathize with the pain of Blacks, and in fact, believe that we feel less pain than others in similar situations. This goes for people, regardless of race, and has serious implications for things like pain management in hospitals. But it also has some serious implications for the rest of our interactions.  Part of what accounts for this perception is the belief that Blacks are hardened to pain, because we have learned to take it. This is a simplified, but accurate summary of the findings. The fact is, for some of us, this is true. When your survival (physical, psychological, emotional) depends on you being able to withstand being hurt over and over again, and continue to get up and move forward, you learn how to live with pain. But the reality of that doesn’t make it OK.

So, yeah. I’m not shocked by the Zimmerman verdict. Because my expectations are not always as high as they should be. They certainly are not as high as I have a right for them to be. And there are parts of my heart that are closed and guarded for my own self-preservation. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t be opened. In the words of Marge Piercy, connections are made slowly. And as much as my activist brain agrees with the sentiment that we need to get right to work fixing the system, my spirit needs a minute. Because for real, for real – the system won’t ever be fixed if we can’t open our whole hearts. And I can’t open my whole heart unless I know that you can really feel my pain – not rush past it; not ignore it; not pretend that it isn’t there; or be relieved that I can take it.


About Kimberly

I am a Unitarian Universalist minister. I currently serve the UU Congregation of the South Fork in Bridgehampton, Long Island (NY). I hold a M. Div. from Meadville Lombard Theological School. I also teach Women's and Gender Studies as an adjunct professor at New Jersey City University. Wherever I am, I preach and teach about systems of oppression and the transformative power of love to change our world. Some people, who've seen me at work, think I have some promise. Go figure.

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