Ok my people. If you identify as white, as European American or as caucasian I want you to go on a journey with me. The more you actually feel into this experience, the more impactful it will be.
I want you to imagine that you have a son. Your son is 14 years old and goes to high school several miles away. You love him like nothing else and see him growing up so fast and becoming more and more independence. It’s his first year in high school and it has definitely been a lot of change from middle school for him. He’s been getting up and to the bus on his own and doing pretty good with this new responsibility. Then one day, he oversleeps and misses his bus. He knows he can’t get a ride from you because you’re on your way to work, or maybe you’re already at work. He decides to start walking. He’s not the best at directions, but he figures he can get there if he goes the same route as the bus and he’s pretty sure he can remember that. After a while, he realizes he doesn’t know where he is. He’s definitely lost but doesn’t have a phone on him because you had taken it away from him. He can’t look on google maps or call anyone so he decides to ask for help.
He walks up to one of the nearby houses and knocks. Behind the door he hears an older woman yelling at him and asking why is he trying to break into her house. Remember this is your son, your 14 year old son. He’s young and confused and tries to explain that he is just trying to get directions to his High School because he’s lost. But the woman doesn’t hear him and keeps yelling. Then her husband comes down and grabs his gun and starts coming to the door. Your son sees the gun and turns around, running down the steps and away from the house. He hears a gun shot, louder than he ever imagined it would be. He has never heard a gun so close to him before. He runs as fast as he can down the street, scared for his life.
His heart is racing, mind focused on safety, on getting as far away from that house as he can. He finds a safe place, crouches down, checks all around him to make sure he’s unseen, and then collapses. His body is shaking, tears streaming down his face, fear pulsating through his veins, while anger hovers just below his skin. The very skin that these people couldn’t see past. His skin pale, but flushed red now from the blood pumping throughout every part of his body. This skin that has been stereotyped to be criminal, seen in every type of media as violent and something to fear. This skin that so many people don’t get to know what is underneath, yet think they know, act like they know. This skin that caused this man to get his gun and shoot at your son, based on these stereotyped fears.
And now, your son, huddled in his hiding spot, still shaking a little while his breath starts to regulate, tears drying on his cheeks, starts to run through his mind what just happened. What had he done wrong? What should he have done differently? The overwhelming and irrational feelings of shame and self blame are difficult to push past. They trickle into almost all traumatic events, no matter if they make sense or not. Even later when you finally hold your son and explain to him he didn’t do anything wrong, he still might question the “what if’s.” What if that shot had hit him? What would his mom have done? What if he hadn’t overslept and made his bus, none of this would have happened. What if he had gone to a different house, maybe another house wouldn’t have hated white people. But, what if they would have?
These questions will be mixed in with his anger towards a world he lives in where he can get killed because of his skin color. He is 14 years old. He just needed directions because he was lost. He will likely be more anxious, have nightmares, feel unsure in his environments, jumpy and hyper sensitive to sounds. He has been traumatized.
What would you do? How would you feel? What emotions would be running through you? What actions would you want to take?
Can you imagine this happening to your son, or does it feel too unrealistic? It’s not an experience we often hear about. It is not a part of our collective consciousness, meaning the fear of our sons being killed based on the color of their skin has not happened enough for it to become a fear instilled in our racial group at large. If one of our people is killed or attempted to be killed based on their skin color, we can observe these situations as singular incidents and not regular. We don’t have a feeling inside of us that it could happen to our own child, or our own brother or nephew.
Unfortunately, this situation did happen. It happened April 12, 2018 in Rochester Hills, Michigan. But the 14 year old boy was Black, not white. The trauma is real and intense and the young man, Brennan Walker, will never be the same. His mom will never be the same. His mother’s husband is deployed in Syria, putting his life at risk for the United States, while her son, 14 years old, is being shot at because he asked for directions. And later his mom found out the only reason the man missed the shot was because he forgot to take the safety off. Brennan, thankfully, was not a hashtag. He is a survivor, although he did not walk away without a scar but his scars are beneath the surface of his skin. And they take longer to heal.
When other Black families read about this story, many of them feel impacted. Many of them feel the collective trauma of this incident. What I mean by this is that many feel personally impacted almost as if it was a family friend because it reflects on the safety of their own children, their own cousins, their own uncles, their own brothers, etc. It means that they could all be at risk for the same treatment. Now, not just this family, but a large collective of Black people in the U.S., feel scared to knock on people’s homes. Now, Black mothers are going to feel that they can’t confiscate their children’s phones as punishment, because having the phone could keep them alive. This is collective trauma. The anger, the confusion, the fear, etc. is felt collectively. As the country reads about this story, and will soon be hearing the audio recording of the incident captured by the Ring doorbell, the anger and frustration will not just be felt with this family, it will be felt collectively within the African American community.
Unfortunately, this is not new. This is how Black death in the U.S. has often been treated; like a public display to make other Black people feel the impact. That was the purpose of beatings, whippings, lynchings, most of which happened in the view of other Black people. They were public to create a collective trauma, a collective fear in order to collectively control and manipulate. So, it comes as no surprise that today, murder of the Black body continues to be felt across Black communities. It continues to create more collective trauma, which impacts millions of people.
I wonder if any of us (Europeans who have become white) can fully grasp the layers of collective trauma on Black and Brown communities. And in recognizing these layers, can we recognize the emotional, physical and spiritual toll it is taking on people everywhere. This is the unspoken impacts of racism. The impacts that are hard to quantify or chart or publish in a fancy book.