I do not want to know who Mike Brown is. I do not want him to become real to me. I do not want to empathize with his family…. not sympathize, but empathize. That is: to feel a visceral connection to another, to feel a pain that is not theirs but which is yours yet shared. Mike Brown, shot dead by police; brought under international scrutiny by activists online and off. Mike Brown, teen. Dead. Unarmed. Familiar to us. Too familiar.
I don’t want to crawl into the skin that empathy wraps around me, because it demands so much. I suspect I’m not the only one who feels this way. When I was younger I used to be angrier when injustice was made manifest, each incident fueling my desire to connect the dots in a journalistic way. It was productive, but I also masked pain (considered weak) in favor of argument (considered strong). I also slipped into rage — which writer Ruth King describes as “an accumulation of anger” that includes an element of shame.
Growing up in Baltimore, I had my share of seeing how race threatened to confine me and my family, as well as the way we developed a spirit of collaboration and loyalty to achieve all we could in the world. No matter that my extended family is both wise and loving, I still internalized shame when race and class somehow intruded on my life, which was pretty much every day. It was simple things like understanding, in elementary school, when I was bused to a magnet school (GATE — Gifted and Talented Education) inside a larger school (Harford Heights) why all of the non-black kids were on our floor, and everyone else in the school was black.
I remember one time my mother crying about how she never thought we girls (my sister and I) would have to go through racial injustice the way we had. My Mom was not much of a crier, at all. But when you have worked so hard to make a better life for your children, to support equal rights and justice, and you see how far we have to go, it can get exhausting. And life goes in cycles — there can be long stretches of tensions and regress before we move forward. A black U.S. Senator left office in 1881. There was not another one elected until 1967. There were many setbacks, and victories, and of course much progress in between. We can map our “now,” and surmise about our future, but we cannot know how fast change will come.
It’s worth reading this evocative piece on the emerging early details of the killing by Amy Davidson. The later actions of Anonymous in support of the protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, have raised the media profile astronomically, as well as raising ethical questions about “doxing,” or pulling up private information without permission and posting it publicly. It’s worth a read through the @OpFerguson Twitter feed. Will this intervention be just another part of the media moment or a game changer? And in what way? We don’t know yet.
Yet we must have faith. If we are going to transform this society, we have to have a belief that it is transformable. That does not mean we know the time-clock or how much our actions will help in the short term. But it does mean we are committed.
The first and hardest form of committing to equality is to allow empathy to take us hard places as well as joyous ones. To get to know who Mike Brown is. To feel some genuine connection to his family and friends’ loss and our collective loss.
Where do we go from here? Inward, as well as out. Into our hearts as well as into the streets or onto the streams of social media, as well as conversations at the family dinner table. Without my old friend anger, there is only sadness. But under that sadness there is hope. There is faith. I don’t know why. Despite it all, I still believe we humans can get it together. That equality can be more than a concept. I don’t think it’s going to happen any time soon. The not knowing is hard — how and when and why we will change. But in the end the quest for equality has no bystanders.