Let Us Breathe (by King Joel)

Empathy is key, but we need more than that to change racism.

Posted Jun 06, 2020

Black lives matter. As a woman who has lived with white privilege, I will never be able to say that I fully understand the pain and devastation racism has caused in the lives of people of color in our country. Even with the highly trained empathic skills of a psychologist, I can only bear witness and understand from my own perspective, offer the compassion in my heart, and stand with my actions against the grave moral injustice of racism. I can also use my knowledge and platform as a psychologist to help open the minds of as many people as possible. 

While decades of psychological research inform us that the nature of racism itself is complex, it is maintained through intergenerational transmission, systemic institutional norms and practices, cultural values and patterns, and most specifically individual behavior. The individual behavioral is where I want to focus. 

I have spent most of my adult life changing the world one person at a time. The one thing that I know as a cognitive psychologist is that people can learn to take a different perspective and change their thinking, which is ultimately what changes their behavior. It's not that hard to do, but it does take awareness of a problem and a strong enough desire for change that it leads to action. 

Racist thinking or attitudes happen on a continuum: ranging from unconscious racial bias that most people have but are unaware of and privileged viewpoints that people who have privilege often don't see, to those who show blatant contempt for other races and take pride in their racism, such as white nationalist groups.

While those who embrace racist thinking as part of their identity may not perceive a problem, for everyone else, after two weeks of news coverage about the murder of George Floyd and the global protests that have followed, if you didn’t already, you now have to know that racism and particularly police brutality against blacks and other non-white races is an extreme problem in the US. 

Those who are directly affected by racism in this country have long desired change but while people of color remain the minority, it is incumbent upon the majority to also desire change in order for a significant shift to occur.

For better or for worse, people are generally self-focused. If something doesn’t affect you personally, you may not be motivated to invest the energy it takes to make a change.

Empathy, the ability to take the perspective of another’s experience, is key to taking action to help others. The more you feel connected to the emotional experience of another the more personal it becomes. Strong emotion is often what spurs people into action.

When the media covers police brutality, we often see the violent images and the anger in the communities that follows, but one aspect I often feel gets lost is the deep sorrow and personal grief that is felt when a loved one is hurt or killed. Additionally, the cumulative trauma of what it is like to live in constant fear is something that can’t be captured by a news clip on TV. 

A few days ago, I came across the music video “Let Us Breathe” by King Joel, that speaks to the struggle against police brutality that black people have been dealing with for decades. While the song was released in 2017, it could not possibly be more relevant to what is happening right now in this country if it had been made to address the events of the past two weeks. 

When I watched the video, I was filled with sadness and anger as I thought about the inhumanity with which black people have been treated in our country. I was struck by the heartbreak and the grief that was so poignantly captured and I was dismayed to see how few people had seen it on Vevo. In a world where songs like “Despacito” and “Baby Shark Dance” get 6-7 billion views, knowing that a video as profound as “Let Us Breathe” has been seen by fewer than a million people is troubling. 

So, I thought as an exercise in empathy, I would bring it to your attention, ask you to watch it and to think about what it really like to be black in America.

I hope you take their perspective.

I hope you feel their pain, feel their fear, feel their anger. 

But most importantly, I hope you feel enough to really desire change.

It’s long past the time to acknowledge the problem and take action. 

Until we collectively fix the problem, we are collectively broken. 

Do something today that shows the world…Black Lives Matter.