Racism, action and empathy 

Responding to the death of George Floyd

It is a gross understatement to say that the footage of the gratuitous death of George Floyd and the resultant wave of protests and looting it sparked in America has led to a range of reactions across the globe: confusion to anger, indifference to anguish. It has had a distressing impact on a lot of black people, but for a variety of reasons and it is a challenge to succinctly address the key issues here, as they are complex and widespread.

One question for consideration is why this particular death and this incident have led to this reaction, as opposed to any one of the instances of racism that are widely shared across social media platforms on a weekly basis?

That George Floyd’s death, along with that of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, have occurred during the COVID-19 crisis is significant.  At a time when we are all supposed to be “in it together”, the fact that black lives can seem to be so expendable is itself shocking. 

The crisis has created the perfect conditions for a violent response from black members of society (the very use of the term ‘black community’ can be an unhelpful concept, even if well-intentioned), who already feel under attack from one invisible enemy, coronavirus, disproportionately so, and are thus collectively in a highly vulnerable state of mind.

Recent events are merely the tipping point to the underlying and recurrent theme that black people feel that their lives are undervalued.  Any perceived indifference of or a lack of solidarity shown by white friends, colleagues or those in positions of authority risks compounding their feelings of hurt and distrust. 

The anger and lack of self-worth many black people feel have few places to travel other than outwards, hence the projection of their inner turmoil that has been so evident. Whilst violence is never condoned, understanding its origins has real value and may point towards potential solutions. 

An unseen enemy (Ephesians 6:12) warrants a response that goes beyond attempts to modify policing policy and political statements. Whilst one must caution against trying to find a response that ‘satisfies one and all’, the sentiment of, rather than the actual words used in, a verbal response by white members of society to this tragedy holds significant weight. 

These must, however, be backed up by actions, which will vary from person to person and depend on one’s sphere of influence or position of leadership.

At a population level, the renowned civil rights lawyer Brian Stevenson has spoken articulately about the need to address the mindset of white supremacy that has its roots in slavery and colonialism, which it is difficult to form the foundations for shifting the prejudices that give rise to institutional racism. Germany’s population-wide approach to confronting the horrors of its Nazi past provides a clue as to why it has moved well past its aberrant past within a generation, whilst arguably America’s reluctance to do so is holding it back to this day. 

At an individual level, empathy, love and kindness are the behaviours that can shift the narrative. What seems to be different this time, even if not articulated cohesively, is that black people have had enough and feel powerless to make changes on their own. Keeping silent or doing nothing under these circumstances feels like a poor and insensitive choice. 

Sweeping statements about being “colour blind” or saying that you understand how a person of colour feels are unlikely to be helpful. A simple show of support, such as reaching out to and listening to a black friend or colleague, does not require any special words or skills, merely a kind and caring heart.

Dr Chi-Chi Obuaya is a newly-appointed Co-Director of the Mind and Soul Foundation and a long-term contributor.

Dr Chi-Chi Obuaya, 03/06/2020
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