Let's assume that you're white and reading this blog post. Perhaps you've read about the St. Louis County grand jury's decision to not indict police officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown. Maybe you don't know what to think, or you've already picked a side: "The kid was a thug, and the cop was defending himself," or, "The cop had no reason or right to kill that kid." Wherever you stand on this issue or any of the many issues facing African Americans, let's try an exercise in empathetic imagination.
Imagine you are a black woman and you have a daughter named Jade who is in elementary school. One day she comes home and asks you, "Mommy, what does 'nigger' mean?" Your heart stops as the weight of this moment hits you. Do you stick with a short answer -- "It's a mean word for black people" -- and pray to God that she doesn't ask you the inevitable toddler question "Why?" Or perhaps you take a deep breath and decide that you'd rather be the one to tell her the truth about being black in America.
You start with the Middle Passage, talking in soft tones about the stealing, selling, buying, raping, and killing of black bodies. Do you stop there when you see the fear in her eyes?
Maybe you keep going because you figure she has to learn it, and better from someone who loves her. You tell her about the terrorizing tactics -- hanging, burning, beating -- of the Ku Klux Klan. Then you move on to a lighter topic, the current actions on the part of U.S. congresspeople to suppress the black vote.
Your mind searches for the words to describe a privatized prison system that profits from imprisoning a disproportionate number of black people. Her small face tightens in confusion as you explain that black people make up 13.1 percent of the overall population but 40 percent of the prison population.
Do you dare mention that black men are being killed by the very people appointed to protect and defend all American citizens? You wonder how to contextualize the painful statistic that young black males in recent years were at 21 times greater risk of being shot dead by police. She asks about her friend Jamal, who likes gummy bears. You deflect by talking about an upcoming play date with Jamal.
Now that the light in her once-hopeful eyes has dimmed and tears streak down her beautiful cheeks, do you brightly tell her to "go play outside" or admonish her "not to worry"? What is your next move, now that her wide-eyed innocence is crushed?
And if you had given birth to a boy, would you throw a prayer to God to keep him from being shot by a white guy every time he walked out the door with his hoodie and bag of Skittles, knowing that the justice system systematically denies justice to African Americans?
Perhaps you've kept a safe distance through this exercise by searching for what blacks "do to bring it on themselves," or by changing the topic to black-on-black crime statistics. All this despite the avalanche of evidence that institutionalized racism exists and is perpetuated by what we accept, deny, and defend both within ourselves and as a nation.
Hopefully instead of defending anything, you simply felt what it would take to stand in this mother's shoes. Empathy is not a giant and noble act. It's allowing yourself to connect to the suffering of another person. It's easier to analyze someone else's life from a logical and emotionally detached place. But the price is a wide chasm where families continue to grieve the unnecessary and unconscionable loss of their sons.