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Helping Students Process the Tragedies of Last Week

I had a difficult time believing what I saw last week in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis and Dallas. While I didn’t know any of the victims personally, I’m still grieving the loss. It was a déjà vu experience for me. It felt like 1968 again. We witnessed shootings and victims on both sides—minorities and law enforcement. I continue to wonder, as I suppose you do: will we ever get over this conflict? What can we learn from this most recent tragedy? Can we facilitate helpful conversations with our students or kids so they can process them well?

In this post, I interviewed Ricky, a new team member at Growing Leaders. Ricky is a talented graphic designer who’s already made a difference on our mission. He is also African-American. We had a long conversation about the shootings last week. I asked him questions about what’s happened, regarding topics of race, prejudice and reconciliation. Our conversation was candid and enlightening.

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Below is our interview. I thought it might spark conversation for you.

Tim: After last week’s tragedies, what’s going on inside of your mind, and perhaps the minds of many in the black community?

Ricky: I feel terrified yet I feel irritated. While this may be hard for a middle class white person to understand, I know there are people who profile me solely on my appearance. I know there are police that profile me only because of my race. I think it’s critical to always examine the context of a person’s life to understand why they react the way they do. Many of us in the black community saw the Dallas ambush coming.

Personally, I have watched white police officers using excessive force on adolescent black men outside of a skating rink in Virginia. I’ve been wrongly profiled as a car thief by a middle-aged white woman as I was simply sitting in a car next to her car late at night in Georgia, and had the police called out to put me in jail. I was pulled over by Douglasville (GA) police on the day I bought a new car, only to be asked to prove that it was indeed my new car and explain how I got it. When a person’s been treated this way, it naturally fosters resentment and anger.

Tim: I am hearing you say: “Context explains conduct.” It’s a life lesson everyone must learn. When someone does something that appears illogical, there’s usually a contextual reason for it. Once I understand the context of a person’s life, it helps explain their behavior. In this case, it seems that the broken justice system (‘context’) in our country, no matter how people might feel about it, explains much of the racial violence (‘conduct’) that is taking place in our country.

How do you feel black people are supported or not by our justice system? Do recent events make it feel like this system stacked against minority groups?

Ricky: I’ll be honest. The system does feel unjust. It gives the utmost protection and authority to the affluent and the white population, and provides smaller protection and fewer rights for everyone else. I think it’s unfair when a white police officer feels threatened by a young black man that is simply confident in himself, his blackness, and is highly knowledgeable about his rights as an American citizen. I think that white officers feel entitled and justified to shoot and kill young black men because of their common misconceptions about black culture. Even if the killing of a young black man by a police officer is not intentional, I think it is inevitable fear that comes about from mere ignorance. Today, I see fear in too many places.

Tim: I totally agree. Fear drives much of our behavior. I need to ask myself: Can I see how fear might play a role? If I’m honest, I can see it on both sides. In light of the shootings in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Texas last week, both sides were acting out of fear of the other. Shootings are often inexcusable but rarely unexplainable. People simply live in fear today for their lives or property. I hate it but it’s true. Sometimes the fear is unfounded, but it is real. And the emotion of fear all too frequently fosters emotional actions.

As an African-American male, what are your feelings about police and the role they have in our society?

Ricky: Throughout my life’s experiences with police, I have been conditioned to feel nervous when they are around me, and feel resentment toward them when they are not. What’s happened this past week has only deepened my feelings. I feel the way our current system works is simply unfair. Considering my life experiences along with the tragedies revealed in the media and on social media this past week, it only confirms this. I’ve never felt safe as a black man in America.

Tim: When I consider both sides of the police shootings, I share your anger and anguish. But when I stop to listen to each side explain what is going on inside, I hear humans who want life to work out for them and their family. I see humans who want justice and who want to win at what they set their minds to do.

When I get honest, however, almost everyone I know, of all ethnic backgrounds, tend to profile people from other races. Arabs are often presumed to be Muslim extremists. Christians are often assumed to be religious bigots. Black males are often presumed to be criminals. This is unfair to the majority of each demographic who are honest, law-abiding citizens who are trying to make a living.

One last question. I know you are a person who wants the best for our country. How will you respond to these incidents going forward? What would you advise others? 

Ricky: My upbringing has influenced me to love and respect all people unconditionally. In times of conflict, my primary aim is to find a common place of respect between all sides and build toward a solution. I know that there is more than one side to every story. I have experienced what it’s like to have positive interactions with white people and police officers, and it is beyond amazing and rewarding. Though I think that racism and ignorance will not go away, I believe we can overpower it with love and respect. No matter how one may feel, I believe there are ways we can all make strides to act with better awareness of who and what it may influence.

Tim: Well said Ricky. Thanks for taking time to talk with me.

For you the leader: What kind of conversations will you have this week with the students and young adults in your influence?

Helping Students Process the Tragedies of Last Week