On Being an Ally

Part 1: Supporting your friends can be complicated.

Posted Oct 21, 2020

I was sitting at my desk when a friend called. By friend, I don’t mean a member of that small group of people I speak to every day. I also don’t mean an acquaintance I rarely saw or kept contact with. He was comfortably in that middle group—someone I spoke to about once a month. We met within the last year. There was plenty left to learn about each other. 

His voice was quieter than usual. Subdued. He said, “Are you okay? I’m just calling to check in on you.”

I had no idea what he was talking about. My last few weeks had been uneventful. It was summertime, so work was quiet. And I hadn’t shared anything with anyone that could’ve been misinterpreted as me having a hard time, so this question should not have been the first thing I heard when I picked up the phone. Perhaps he called the wrong person. I said, “Yeah. Why do you ask?”

“I just heard about what happened.” It was 2016. He was talking about Philando Castile, who had just been killed by a police officer in his car in front of his girlfriend and daughter shortly after informing the officer he was armed. It took me a moment to realize he was referring to this incident; I was still trying to work out why my white friend called to check in on me. A few sentences later, the mystery was solved when he said, “I can’t imagine how you must feel right now.”

But that’s exactly what he was doing.

I felt like someone had blindfolded me and asked me to build a car from scratch. In the past, these denials were always pretense, designed to eschew an irate, "You don’t know what you’re talking about,” from someone belonging to another race, class, or gender. Now, it was pain in a man’s voice, grafting his reaction to another’s torment onto me. A reaction I didn’t share. 

White people, check in with your black friends. We’re not okay. I wonder who started this meme. How many people have seen it. Whether this plea was expected to be taken seriously. Did its creator anticipate that when race-related incidents made the news, people would contact distant acquaintances, offering a shoulder to people they barely knew? Or that people receiving these calls would cringe at these attempts to connect, wondering why they were suddenly trapped in bizarre conversations?

I defaulted to, “You know I’m from a rough neighborhood, right?” I hoped a reminder of the constant presence of homicide in my life would flip a switch and he would see why I wouldn’t be affected by the death of a stranger who lived a thousand miles away. 

“What about the police?” he said. The idea, implied by my friend, that the police might harm me was, unbeknownst to him, part of the background noise of my life. For him, it was inconceivable. For me, it was normal.

Our conversation finally ended after I reassured him several times that I was, in fact, alright. But during the course of the call, I had grown concerned for his well-being. I had picked up on something else. Something I’ve seen in a thousand awkward interactions: the desire to be seen as good (or at least to be seen as not racist). He didn’t say it outright; it was something in his tone. He sounded as if he was apologizing to me. I said, “Are you alright?” 

“Yes.” 

“Are you sure?” 

“Yeah.” 

“Okay.”

                 * * * * * *       

Psychologist Paul Bloom talks a lot about empathy. He’s against it. So am I. Bloom drew his conclusions from lots of academic research. I drew mine from lots of bullets. 

According to Bloom, emotional empathy (distinguished from cognitive empathy) “refers to the process of experiencing the world as others do, or at least as you think they do. To empathize with someone is to put yourself in her shoes, to feel her pain.” My friend had been expressing emotional empathy during the call. Perhaps he pictured Castile’s situation, and apprised by the disquiet expressed by black men on television, felt what it feels like to measure the remaining moments of your life in the minutes it takes an officer to review your driving history. Admixed with no solutions to the question “What can I do to stop this from happening?” he endured the only possible emotion given this combination of circumstance and forecast: powerlessness.   

Meanwhile, even as a child I secerned others’ emotions from my own. I didn’t need to mirror another kid’s anguish when, for example, his plate tipped, dropping his hot dog to the floor, to understand he was upset. And I could offer my hot dog, or a napkin, or tell a grownup he needed help without feeling sad myself. Maintaining this self-other distinction kept me from feeling empathic distress, which, among other things, is characterized by the desire to withdraw from a situation in order to protect one’s self from excessive negative feelings. 

Growing up, life piled on reasons to continue to prefer the more detached compassion to empathy. When I was seven, I lost an uncle to alcohol. Then my grandfather and godmother to old age. When I was a teenager, I started losing people to gunshots. Settling disputes used to involve fists, but (in what I think is the most likely sequence of events) sales of crack brought in so much money that drug dealers bought guns to protect themselves. Soon, most of them were armed. We started hearing gunshots every day, usually around midnight. The shootouts led people not selling drugs to carry weapons to protect themselves. That’s when people started shooting people for stepping on their sneakers.

My childhood friends were in the line of fire. The number of deaths by homicide soon matched the number of deaths by other causes. These tragedies were compounded by others: Murder. Suicide. Cancer. AIDS. Jail. Three lost eyes. Children removed by the state. Body parts removed due to diabetes. People removed from their homes by eviction. If I were to emulate the emotions of every friend or family member tortured by trauma, I’d be broken. 

Part 2: Encounters with the police can be complicated.

Part 3: Can we really see through someone else's eyes?