Pain and prejudice: When it’s not all better.

A year ago, I went through one of the most painful experiences of my life when my mother passed away. She was an incredible person, and I miss her terribly. Now, a year later, I realize something about painful, traumatic experiences: They don’t really go away. The pain moves from public to private, but it doesn’t disappear; you just talk about it less, you learn to move forward with life, and people assume things are “all better.”

Time does bring healing, and pain becomes less raw. But what most people think is evidence of things being “all better” is really just the evidence that you’ve learned to cope with the pain and not let it rule you.

Yes, I’m fine. I still joke around and successfully navigate life experiences of all sorts. But just because I don’t go through every day talking about missing my mom doesn’t mean the pain isn’t still there. It is. It probably always will be.

That pain isn’t all-consuming, but it’s also not all better.

Everyone has their private pains and challenges, and most of us don’t spend a lot of time worrying about the pain everyone else is facing. To be honest, it can be easy to assume everything’s great for them unless they tell us otherwise. 

In some ways, that’s perfectly understandable. If we went through life feeling everyone else’s pain at every moment, we might find ourselves paralyzed, unable to move forward in our own lives. But we need to be careful, because this natural tendency of ours can easily turn into self-centeredness and a lack of compassion. The people in our lives may not constantly remind us of the pain and challenges they continue to face, but that doesn’t mean everything’s great, or that past hurts are all better.

And sometimes, the things that aren’t all better are things we need to be aware of. Like when an entire group of people is suffering from the daily impact of prejudice, while some of us remain blissfully unaware.

I’ve been reminded of that over the last few weeks, as news stories including the police shooting of Michael Brown have reignited a national conversation about racism. Michael Brown, like Trayvon Martin before him, has become a symbol of a community’s fear: that in a world where racism is a reality, it’s too easy for misunderstandings or conflicts to turn deadly and for the victims to wind up maligned or forgotten.

It’s a fear that exists even when it’s not spoken. It’s a serious, serious problem, and I’ve seen many Americans—of all races—willing to continue this conversation and work together on what can be done to improve things. But I’ve also heard some people react as if this conversation were an inconvenience at best: “Seriously? We’re talking about race again?! Haven’t we moved on from that by now?” In their minds, racism is a problem that has already been “fixed,” something that’s “all better,” and bringing it up is only a way of getting sympathy based on injustices of long ago.

Those people couldn’t be more wrong. Racism is far from fixed. Racism continues to this day, and we have to acknowledge that. Those who suffer from it can’t ignore it; they face it constantly, though they may not bring it up. Only those of us in the majority get the privilege of forgetting about it.

Even if all racism ceased to exist tomorrow, it would still show its effects for many, many years to come. Just think: If a single traumatic event can affect the rest of a person’s life, how much more can someone be affected by a lifetime of poor treatment! Even with no more racism, the emotional wounds of racism would last for people’s entire lives. Those made to feel like second-class citizens would still struggle with feelings of inadequacy; they would still find themselves distrusting certain institutions and authorities, wondering if they were being singled out.

More importantly, the toll of racism extends far beyond emotions. There are social consequences of racism that would persist long after the racism itself ended. There would still be inequalities in who had been promoted to high positions, which families had more money, which neighborhoods had more resources, which kids could afford to go to nicer schools. Those inequalities would breed more inequalities, even in a world without racism.

The impact would remain even if the prejudice disappeared tomorrow. But it hasn’t disappeared. The situation has improved, yes, but it’s not fixed. Racism isn’t gone. It’s just become less overt.

I’m ashamed to admit how often I forget that.

As a white man in America, I don’t think about racism much. When I do, it’s usually as something in the past—Michelle Pfeiffer’s character in Hairspray fighting to keep her 1960s TV show segregated, as Queen Latifah bravely leads a march for social change. (Yay, feel good movie!)

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But that was before I was born; that’s not now. Today, my circle of friends is racially diverse, and I can’t imagine any of my friends disparaging another person based on their race. I mean, really, who does that anymore? As an employer, I’d never make a hiring decision based on race, and it’s hard for me to imagine a police officer, salesperson, landlord, or government agent treating someone differently because of their race. I mean, I’ve never seen it happen. Surely, I think to myself, that kind of thing doesn’t go on anymore.

But then, as a white man, how would I know if that kind of thing still happens? Of course it doesn’t happen to me; I’m a member of the white majority. I could look at how the world has changed since the 1960s and say, “Thank goodness! Racism has been eradicated!” but that would be a lie. A glance at world events should instantly tell me that racism is a very real problem around the globe (yes, even genocide still exists), and a brief conversation with any person of color should instantly tell me that they experience racism on a daily basis in ways that I can’t even fathom.

Take, for instance, this recent story of a woman who was stopped on the highway and handcuffed in front of her young children for no apparent reason other than her race:

The video is worth watching, but in case you’re not able to play it for technical reasons, here’s what it depicts. Police in Forney, Texas, had received a tip about a reckless driver waving a gun out the window. They were given a description of the vehicle: a beige Toyota carrying four black men. Instead, they pulled over someone entirely different: a law-abiding mother in a red Nissan with four young children. In the video, we see the woman, Kametra Barbour, forced out of her car at gunpoint and handcuffed. She is clearly terrified and confused, as are the children, but the police won’t explain what this is about or why she’s being handcuffed. Eventually, once they realize they have the wrong person, she is let go—after the crying children ask if they’re all going to jail and a six-year-old comes out with his hands up.

If you’re like me, your first reaction to a story like this is to want to believe that race wasn’t a factor: Maybe it can all be explained as a misunderstanding, and it could have happened to anybody. Okay, maybe. But even I have to admit that it’s hard to imagine the same kind of thing happening to a white mother with four young children. Ms. Barbour wasn’t a criminal; she wasn’t resisting; she wasn’t even driving the right kind of car. She was just black. And while we could debate the details of any specific situation, there’s no question that my black friends have way more stories like this than my white friends do. Like it or not, racism is still a factor in American society.

I try to imagine being a child and seeing my own mother pulled out of the car and handcuffed at gunpoint, and I just can’t. When I try anyway, I’m left wondering how it would affect my view of the police as I grew up. I wonder how well Kametra Barbour’s kids will remember this incident years from now, and how it will affect them. The incident itself is over, but how long will its impact last? Will it ever be “all better”?

Because of their direct experience with racism, my African American friends have a very different response to the Michael Brown shooting story than I do. As a white man, I hear the story as just another news event: A guy was shot by a police officer. Maybe it was justified; maybe it wasn’t. The truth will come out eventually. I can be patient. It doesn’t really impact my life much one way or the other.

But to my black friends, this is a very scary story. They’ve experienced racist treatment over and over at the hands of supposedly impartial institutions. Many of them have experienced racism at the hands of police, as hard as that is for white guys like me to understand. Now here’s a story—not an isolated incident, but the latest in a long line of such stories—of someone being killed by the very folks we rely on for protection, for no apparent reason other than judgments made based on his race. If that race is also your race, that’s frightening.

My friends don’t hate the police, or government, or laws. They’re not criminals or thugs. They’re not whiners complaining about past injustices. They’re reasonable, law-abiding citizens who want to know that incidents like this are taken seriously, that there’s transparency in the process, and that the same thing couldn’t happen to them or their loved ones. Because their own life experiences—experiences I have never had—have proven to them that when someone with a gun is making a split-second decision, race matters.

Was race a factor in the treatment of Kametra Barbour, the killing of Michael Brown and Kajieme Powell, or the trial of George Zimmerman? I don’t know. It’s hard to imagine otherwise, but I wasn’t there and I can’t see into the minds of the people who were. What I do know is that these are traumatic events for an entire community, and traumatic events leave scars that may never heal. We have to take them seriously, to continue the conversations about how we can do better as a nation, and to remember that when it comes to life-altering events, the past is only truly past for those who didn’t live through it.

Because it’s not all better. And understanding that is key to moving forward together.