Last week I woke up early in the morning to work on this project and as I did a quick scroll through my Face Book feeds, I discovered posts about
Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. Video documentation showing the killings of these two black men caused a response in me at once familiar and horrifyingly eye-opening. I am a white woman who has studied African American Studies in college. I learned about racism in school and have attempted to root any racist attitudes from my own soul. But I was not prepared for what I saw. It brought up old emotions for me. If I might indulge, please allow me to explain . . .
On September 11, 2001, I was minding my own business at home, making my bed when I got a phone call. The person on the other side told me to turn the television on. I turned it on and in disbelief, watched the live feed of the second tower falling. Soon, coverage began of other flights crashing.
This one is the most significant for me.
The attacks on America on 9/11 were personal to me because I lost my favorite aunt that day. I had lived with her and her husband, Floyd, in Germany for 5 months while they worked and I looked after their four children. My aunt Rhonda was directly hit by the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. She was completely evaporated. Fragments of her office mates were found. She vanished. (I just discovered this post and I’m grateful to have stories that I find from time to time that keep Rhonda’s memory alive.)
When I saw those images blazed across the television screen of the wreckage at the Pentagon, I intuitively knew she was gone. My grief began just minutes later when a family member confirmed that no one had seen her. They were still looking.
For days, weeks and years after the attack my grief and trauma lingered. I was angry. I felt fear. For a while I believed that since the terrorists found my aunt, they could be flying any random plane from the sky and directly hit me. I felt anxiety about doing business with anyone who appeared to be from the Middle East. I thought everyone wanted to hurt me because they had killed her.
Over time, I was able to identify patterns of thinking that helped me to heal. I realized that the attack on my aunt became personal to me, even though it was not. Over time, I concluded that it wasn’t personal. The terrorists might have wanted to instill fear in me, but they don’t know me personally. They weren’t attacking me. It was an accident that my aunt was at work that day. It was dumb luck that the attackers just happened to annihilate her with the nose of a jet plane. With time, I was able to settle into the reality that it is unlikely that I will be personally attacked or have the loss of someone I love based on another terrorist attack.
But there were more “complications” of my healing process. Within less than a year, people here on the West Coast (none of whom had suffered a loss on 9/11) thought it wasn’t “too soon” to begin telling 9/11 jokes. These jokes fueled my anger and prolonged my grief. Never is too soon to make jokes about public tragedies.
The terrorist attacks shook me out of my naive “bliss”: believing the world is basically a safe, happy place.
Recent events continue to change my views of the world.
The killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling brought all of the feelings related to my aunt’s death back for me. And more.
Unlike my experience with the loss of my aunt, black people are not able to soothe themselves with knowledge that they can separate from the trauma. I will not likely interact with another terrorist again. They cannot hope for the same in our current circumstance.
I wonder what it would feel like to know there were terrorists living next door to me? I try to imagine what it would be like to know that terrorists were given legal authority to stop me, question me, attack me. I wonder what it would have been like to hear, after investigation, that the annihilation of my aunt with the nose of a plane was “justifiable force”?
I can’t imagine what it would feel like to know that my loved ones face the world daily with the reality that this could happen to them. It fills my soul with grief and pain for my sisters who have husbands and children with dark skin. That their skin color is enough to make them a target. It’s terrifying.
Philando and Alton were killed by police. Their families will have to deal with police throughout the rest of their lives. Police live and work in their communities. How can families and communities heal with the living reality that their lives could change with the twitch of a finger? How can they heal when the only difference between a respectful, appropriate police officer who serves and protects and a terrorist is the unseen attitudes in a stranger’s heart?
What about those inevitable jokes that will come because the always do? People who tell racist jokes don’t think they are hurting anyone. Believe me, those cause deep injury and widen the divide that should be narrowed with love and understanding. If you are not a person of color, please understand that hurtful, ignorant words have the power to hurt beyond what you can comprehend based on the color of your skin.
I must confess that I’m fairly naive about life, in general. I’m even more aware of my naivete about racism in America today.
I am safe from terrorism, but black families live with the daily reality that they could walk into a terrifying experience based on their skin color. Every. single. day.
I cannot fathom the pain. Living daily with the dangers related to this kind of potential loss requires a strength and courage that I’m not sure I could gather. I hate that black families have to.
I stay curled in fear for the people I care for. I have been relatively silent. For me, the gravity of the situation and the weight of awareness that there is such real hatred being acted out in violence against people because of the color of their skin still has me shocked. I feel the weight of history and am overwhelmed that there has been far, far too little change. It sits with me like a weight on my chest. I am overwhelmed and, yes, fearful. I can’t imagine the fear I would feel about going outside or allowing my men and children to do so.
The shootings are causing a reality shift. Some will ignore and move on as if nothing happened. Some will immediately activate. Some, like me, need time to absorb the shock and process a new reality. To my black friends, sisters and brothers: I know the reality has existed your whole life. I’ve known that on an intellectual level for a long time.
This is different.
It is settling into my body in new sensations of grief, disbelief and pain. New sensations that require me to sit with them. Yes, in silence. But not inactive. It’s an internal shift required before activation can take place. In my silence, my question in my head has been: “What can I do?” This unveiling of your reality via the killings of Philando and Alton is unsettling and disturbing. And shocking.
My prayer is for change. I hope to join hands in love to do what I can to be part of the solution although, I don’t know how to do that yet.
Yesterday I spoke with someone I care for at work about her participation in a meeting of Black Lives Matter over the weekend. I shared my concern. I expressed my interest in hearing the strategic planning and potential solutions. She shared her disappointment with me that it was “only a march.” No strategic plan. Simply a gathering. She was hoping for more than that. So, in fact, was I.
I know that we have to start somewhere. I think moving to Black Owned Banks is a fantastic beginning. I think we need so much more. Conversations make change. I am just one white woman. But I am willing to keep talking. Racist systems of belief infused within a social structure that keeps harming people over and over again is not okay. We must make change.
© Tamara Bess, LMFT 2016 – http://www.2btru2you.com