Empathetic Activism in a Racist Era

CW: Racism, Police Brutality, Murder, PTSD

I woke up this week both enraged and extremely sad.


If for some reason you don't know what's going on in the U.S. right now (aside from coronavirus continuing to wreak havoc in several states)....


On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, an African-American man in his late 40s, was murdered in broad daylight by white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who stood on Floyd's neck until he was unconscious and then pronounced dead at the hospital later on. The three other arresting officers involved were Thomas K. Lane, Tou Thao, and J. Alexander Keung.


Since then, Chauvin has been charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.


This horrifying incident is just one of the many cold-blooded murders of Black folx in the last few months, many of which have gone unaccounted for:

Breonna Taylor, 26, who was killed in her own home when Louisville police barged in without a warning, firing off more than 20 bullets. The LMPD were at the wrong house, yet they have continued to cover up their actions by making it look like it was a "routine drug raid." Ahmaud Arbery, 25, who was chased down and shot while jogging near his neighborhood in Brunswick, GA. The two white men who shot him told police they believed Ahmaud fit the profile of a suspect.


And remember: this is all within just the last few months. Let's not forget the names of the many other victims of police brutality and racism: Freddie Gray, Sam Dubose, Philando Castile, Terence Crutcher, Jamar Clark, Akai Gurley, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Michael Brown... the list, unfortunately, goes on.


As a privileged Asian woman, I've been feeling conflicted about how I can help my Black sisters and brothers without taking up space, how I can share their insights and stories without speaking for them, and how to navigate my own mental health and emotional turmoil without becoming either detached from or complacent about these tragedies.


Like me, you've probably been bombarded with posts and IG stories of people expressing outrage, sharing GoFundMe links and petitions, live streaming protests in various cities. Such is the blessing (and curse) of social media that we have an endless wealth of information and resources at hand when something like this happens.


I've been struggling a lot with how to write this post without coming off as self-centered or self-righteous (and if that does occur, I welcome all criticism as an opportunity to learn and do better). Even just starting a sentence with "I" makes me hesitate, especially when this story is not about me. However, I always like to say that we humans do not exist in a vacuum, and what happens to those around us always tangentially affects us as well.


Not only that, but not speaking up in fear that you may be held accountable or perceived differently is a very dangerous form of silence. If we are going to be allies and advocates, we need to go through the messy journey of learning our limits, learning when to speak and when to listen, learning the unique emotional sensitivities of those we care about. Which is why I want to reiterate that if anyone has any thoughts or feedback on this post, I am more than happy to engage in such conversations.


Asians and #BLM

Please note: In this post I will try my best to address things that I personally have experience with as to not speak too much on matters that I cannot aptly represent. This is not to say that these particular issues hold more value or weight in the general conversation. I will link other voices and resources at the end, so please check those out.


In George Floyd's case, the involvement of Asian officer Tou Thao has struck a heavy chord within the Asian American community. It is an uncomfortable echo of Chinese-American officer Peter Liang's responsibility for the death of Akai Gurley, an unarmed Black man in New York.


Of course, that isn't the only factor: as a minority ourselves, we are no strangers to oppression, racism, and violence. Black and Asian histories are inextricably linked in the U.S.: for example, the "model minority" myth has traditionally been used as a racial wedge between the two groups, downplaying racial discrimination by asserting that "if Asian Americans have succeeded economically and socially, then so can African Americans (and Hispanic Americans, for that matter)." This completely overlooks the fact that racial biases and systemic racism in the U.S. are set up to affect different minorities in different ways.


I have seen many of my fellow Asians grapple with this deeply embedded racial wedge, not knowing where to stand on several issues: affirmative action, the Black Lives Matter movement, cultural appropriation and Awkwafina's"blaccent," and now, the case of Thao's involvement in George Floyd's death.


Many of my fellow Asians are happy to partake in Black culture—rap music, hip-hop fashion, braids—yet so many are noticeably silent when it comes to issues plaguing the Black community: mass incarceration, police brutality, poverty, lack of opportunities, and more. Many of us fall into the trap of only caring about the parts of the Black experience that white society has deemed "cool" or "hip," or are co-optable and easily digested.


But to my Asian readers, I implore you to question your actions, to reflect on the ways that you may have been complicit in the oppression of our Black and Brown sisters and brothers.


This is not a call for confessions of guilt or for repentance: we don't have time for that.


Maybe you grew up in an immigrant family with elders who believe in the "zero-sum game," the idea that Black success will come at the cost of ours.


Maybe you grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood and faced an entire lifetime of racist taunts and remarks, and so now you believe that humans are inherently selfish and cruel and must look out for themselves.


Maybe like me, you grew up in a home country outside of the U.S. that harbored fear and resentment of those with a different skin color.


I see you, and I'm sorry that that was the environment you grew up with.


However, we are now being faced with a very real opportunity to show our support and solidarity with the Black community, and it is no longer okay to sit on the sidelines and watch like Tou Thao did as Black lives are literally being taken away. With so many resources and information out there on allyship and racial reform, our silence and lack of action cannot be seen as "politically neutral." If you see racism or bigotry and do nothing to speak out or stop it, then you are complicit in a violent system that ultimately hurts you and so many others.


What is Allyship?

In the context of this post, non-Black individuals can be allies to the BLM movement in many ways.


But first and foremost, there are four easy-to-understand principles of allyship that are worth noting:

  1. Take on the struggle as your own. This is the fundamental recognition that the Black community's struggles are not isolated incidents, nor things that "don't affect you." You must tap into your sense of empathy and morality to acknowledge the ways with which you are involved in injustices, whether directly or tangentially. This is not easy work, but it is crucial.

  2. Stand up, even when you feel scared. Speak out and stop racist acts, even if you're scared of offending or causing a spectacle. A common example of this is calling someone out when they make a racist joke, even if they're your boss, family member, partner, coworker, close friend, or even that random guy on the metro.

  3. Transfer the benefits of your privilege to those who lack it. This means speaking up for Black individuals when they are ignored or unheard (while still giving credit where credit is due). This means being on the frontlines of a protest if you are white and have the privilege to not be arrested or mistreated as readily as Black and Brown folx are. This means transferring economic privilege as well, by donating to fundraisers and platforms (more of that below).

  4. Acknowledge that while you, too, feel pain, the conversation is not about you. I will be touching upon this point a bit later in the post, but this is the principle of not co-opting someone else's trauma as your own, of centering conversations and narratives on Black individuals. Do not speak over marginalized voices. Do not assume you fully understand the emotions and experiences of the oppressed. (source: https://guidetoallyship.com/)


There are two common points of contention that I wanted to address, especially in social media and with the recent outpouring of support and outrage.



  • Please do not rely on your Black/POC friends to provide education. In other words, if you are new to this topic and movement, please do not go haranguing your POC friends, asking them to share their opinions/experiences. This is an extremely tense time for many, and it is not the responsibility of Black people to go through their history with you, potentially re-traumatizing themselves and expending unnecessary emotional labor. There are SO many good resources out there today. I've seen many of my friends post some helpful links and educational guides that have allowed me to gain better insight on what's going on right now (and historically too). Utilize those resources. Seek them out. Inform yourself so you can be a better ally (see end of post for list of resources).


Compassion Fatigue & Self-Care


Alright, if you're still reading, thanks so much for sticking around. Now we enter the portion of this blog post that I struggled the most with. I am a strong mental health advocate, and this is what this blog is mostly about. I did some online research and was disappointed to find that there aren't a lot of articles about compassion fatigue and practicing self-care during a nationwide uproar like this—and the articles I did find were mostly inaccessible (read: lots of scientific jargon).

I've been grappling a lot with certain questions, some that many of you might have as well:

  • How do we stay connected and involved while still preserving our mental health?

  • How do we "disconnect" at the end of the day without slipping into apathy?

  • How do those of us with PTSD navigate being a supportive and well-informed ally?

I wish I had the answers to these questions. If you don't know what compassion fatigue is or have never experienced it, it is often termed "secondary traumatic stress" and is the exhaustion (and thus diminishing compassion) of those who absorb the trauma and emotional stresses of others.


This can easily afflict social workers, people on the frontline, counselors, and others with similarly human-oriented occupations.


But what about the everyday person who's not in those particular fields of work (aka most likely you and me)?


As an empath, it is in my nature to really take in the emotional stresses of others, even though it's not my occupation. The emotional and intellectual work I do in my free time aside from my full-time job can be soul-weary and draining, leading me to often "burnout" and "feel nothing" as a result.


But even if you're not an empath, the sheer timing and unprecedented nature of everything that's been going on in the world can be extremely overwhelming. You may find yourself switching off your social media more often, too scared to check the news, turning to escapes from reality as a form of coping.


I've been there.


For a while, especially this week, I've been... Pretty mean to myself. Anytime I was on the verge of tears thinking about the families of those who have been killed, I quickly cut those emotions off with a stern "This isn't about you. Get your shit together. There is work to do."


I felt immensely wrong shedding tears for someone who I had never met personally, someone whose life and experiences I will never even be close to understanding.


Yet it was like trying to override instinct, trying to be someone that I'm not. So I cried in private corners, stayed silent, and continued to engage in difficult conversations.


All the while, I was slowly coming to the realization that we should care, we should grieve, we should express our emotions about all this, but there are productive (and not-so-productive) ways to do so.


Productive:

  • Expressing emotions in a way that doesn't take away the central characters (e.g. angry IG post that focuses less on YOUR anger, but rather why that anger is there and the injustice that triggered it)

  • Practicing daily self-care to strengthen your overall endurance for heavy conversations and topics

  • Knowing your limits and absolutes (e.g. not engaging with anything that triggers your PTSD)

  • Journaling as to honestly and openly explore your belief systems, potential prejudices, and anxieties in a safe environment

  • Knowing when to disengage from ineffective conversations (e.g. when a discussion about race with your parents becomes a screaming match with personal insults)

Not-so-productive:

  • Taking your anger and frustration out on people without engaging in educational dialogue

  • Overloading yourself with information and graphic content all at once, then "burning out" and becoming reluctant to engage

  • Unloading your emotions onto your POC friends (whether sadness, sympathy, anger)

  • Becoming overly self-defensive, possibly as a result of unresolved issues with self-esteem, family, confidence, identity

  • Consciously or subconsciously refusing to acknowledge your role and responsibility as a defense mechanism


As Black feminist Audre Lorde once said, self-care is self preservation. You cannot pour from an empty cup.


These pointers are important for non-POC and POC allies to keep in mind as we continue to fight for justice and peace.


It is a long journey ahead, and when the news has died down and the IG posts have stopped flooding in, we must still have the capacity to keep fighting.


This is not a trend. This is a matter of human rights, of justice, of compassion, of love.




Resources


1. Very helpful master Google Doc with donation links, organizations, protest guidelines, templates for contacting officials, and more being updated (start here!)


2. How to practice safety during protests and demonstrations: https://www.amnestyusa.org/pdfs/SafeyDuringProtest_F.pdf


3. Intro to Prison Abolition: http://criticalresistance.org/


4. Self-care and community wellness tool: https://alp.org/breaking-isolation-self-care-and-community-care-tools-our-people


5. Letter about BLM for Asia Americans to share with their parents and elders: https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2016/07/27/487375314/a-letter-from-young-asian-americans-to-their-families-about-black-lives-matter


6. A quick guide to allyship: https://guidetoallyship.com/


7. Chapter on Restorative Justice VS Punitive Justice: http://www.ascd.org/publications/books/116005/chapters/Punitive-or-Restorative@-The-Choice-Is-Yours.aspx


8. Coronavirus VS Protest opinion article: https://www.thecut.com/2020/05/minneapolis-youth-fear-coronavirus-but-protest-anyway.html


9. 7 virtual mental health resources for Black individuals: https://www.bonappetit.com/story/virtual-mental-health-resources


10. Intro to intersectional feminism: https://everydayfeminism.com/2015/01/why-our-feminism-must-be-intersectional/



Books to check out:


Prison Abolition:

Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Y. Davis

Carceral Capitalism by Jackie Wang

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Captive Genders by Eric A. Stanley

The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale

Discipline and Punish by Michel Foucault

The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton


Race

The Emperor Has No Clothes: Teaching about Race and Racism to People Who Don't Want to Know by Tema Jon Okun

Women, Race, & Class by Angela Y. Davis

White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo

Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein

How Not to Get Shot by D.L. Hughley


Other notable works:

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism by bell hooks

The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde by Audre Lorde

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morisson

When They Call You a Terrorist by Patrisse Khan-Cullors & Asha Bandale

"Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination" by Toni Morrison

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

"Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches" by Audre Lorde

This Bridge Called My Back by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa



Please email me if you have any additional resources or thoughts on this post at mentalhealthmaya@gmail.com. Stay safe, stay informed, and stay woke.