Why White People Contribute to Cruelty Instead of Compassion

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Compassion is both the sensitivity of the suffering of others and the motivation to attend to and prevent it.

What happens if we do not give compassion to others?

George Floyd was killed by a police officer. His death is tragic no matter how you see the situation. His death was unnecessary and preventable. George Floyd is not a rare exception but is part of a harrowing tapestry that reflects larger issues of racism within our society. My heart breaks for his family, his community, and the countless others who live in a space of grief, anger, and fear everyday due to the cruel society we live in.

It is interesting to me to see a glaring lack of compassion from so many of my fellow white Americans. This is evident not only for George Floyd’s death but the countless deaths of black members of our society that are the result of a culture with racism at it’s core. How does this happen? How can time after time stories be presented that display the tragic deaths of black and brown bodies at the hands of white police officers or citizens and white people not respond with an ounce of concern? How can you watch the video, in all of its realness, of George Floyd being killed and not feel the compelling orientation to extend compassion. How can you NOT feel concerned? Outraged? Appalled? Nauseous?

I’ll tell you why. White people, like me, have been socialized to not see, validate, empathize, or otherwise recognize the suffering of people of color. Pain and injury is not only inflicted but such pain is invalidated, ignored, rationalized, or silenced. And I’m not talking about the parade of ignorant and heartless people like Tomi Lahren. I’m talking about average everyday white American citizens.

Even if there is some sense that suffering was the outcome then it had to have been justified. There is a deep denial that we could live in such an unjust and cruel world. Even if white people experience the heart wrenching sting of empathetic pain watching a person of color suffering unjustly, we’ve been socialized to leave it be. No doubt, this has been part of the cultural indoctrination of whiteness — turn away from the suffering of people of color. And this inhibition forms the foundation of white solidarity from which the crimes and cruelties enacted onto people of color are done without recourse or perturbation.

These social psychological processes inhibit white people from actually engaging the problems that plague our society and to find meaningful solutions toward what Dr. King phrased as the beloved community.

Instead, the pain and its solution is thrust upon communities of color. But here’s the catch — no matter how passive (e.g., kneeling at a football game during the national anthem) or aggressive (e.g., rioting in the streets) the calls for justice are presented — all reactions will be painted in an ugly light because the pain is de facto invalidated by the very systemic forces that lead to this suffering to begin with. This is what we call a double bind. It is one that is all too familiar for anyone who has been the target in an abusive relationship. Not only is your safety thwarted and harm inflicted but your needs for safety and respect are deemed unworthy of concern.

You, my fellow white folk, will read this and a possible flare of defensiveness burns in your belly. What is most likely provoked is some rationalization to keep your subtle and tacit assumptions about the world intact.

You might resort to something like a colorblindness retort (“I don’t see color!” or “Isn’t it racist to focus so much on race?”). But see, that right there invalidates the suffering of people of color by saying ‘we’re all the same’ or ‘I don’t see color’. It says, “your pain is not so special or different than my own to warrant my attention.” So colorblindness is merely a mechanism to prevent compassion toward people of color.

You might defensively say, “Justin, we live in a free society. You’re talking about ancient history.” Once again, you are speaking the language of white supremacy cultural indoctrination that denies the fact that there have been continuous efforts to derail the needs of the marginalized and disenfranchised. Furthermore, this rationalization attempts to place both the blame and solution back upon the person of color who is the target of unjust suffering.

You might try to justify what social psychologist Melvin Lerner called the “just world fallacy” which would get you to rationalize George Floyd’s death as being something that happened because “he must have done something” to warrant the outcome. But look at how flimsy that rationale is if you pan your attention to other current affairs by which you may easily identify as government abuse or other people enacting unfair and unjust actions. Your mind crawls to the ‘Just World’ to distract from the simple truth that racism is at the very center of why George Floyd died. Once again white solidarity would like us to move away from the sobering truth that racism is alive and thriving in our society.

Look, I get it. I’ve been there. I speak from a place of personal experience. I too have been raised and conditioned within this larger social context that has presented to me a story that silences, minimizes, or rationalizes the suffering caused to people of color by racism and xenophobia. When I was younger, more naïve, and ignorant to the larger contexts that I’ve touched on here, I didn’t get what the issues were and I certainly didn’t like the idea that white people need to step up and do something! And I’m not speaking ill to my community because these socialization forces extend beyond my community to a much larger and historical place.

White socialization teaches white people to be threatened by communities of color. It gets displayed as white flight (retreating to all white suburban and gated communities), the avoidance to discussing race or racism in most aspects of private and public discourse, the fear of immigration of people of color, and what Robin DiAngelo describes as white fragility.

The good news is that white members of our society can disrupt this white socialization process. It requires a type of reverse social conditioning, where a white person critically analyzes the messages they’ve received around race, paying attention to thoughts and feelings as they bubble up in racial contexts, reading from prominent leaders in racial justice, and extending oneself into diverse cultural settings.

Truth is, I’m still learning. But the rewards are clear. I realized that as a white person in the U.S. I had been taught to fear what is not a direct threat to me. And worst yet, this fear, when activated, prevented me from engaging in a compassionate orientation toward others different than myself and prevented me from taking on the perspective of others. Moving past the defensiveness, I gained a greater liberation as a result of this reverse socialization process. It’s not perfect but its a place from which to build a more inclusive space. I’m not the only one who has done this and I encourage others to meaningfully engage this process!

The truth is the problems of racism will not get addressed until white people step up and take on these issues. It will not get solved until white people can acknowledge that we have been socialized into a cultural worldview that places us on the top (both historically and presently) and to fear anyone who threatens that.

We cannot create a compassionate and beloved society if we don’t recognize the suffering of others and feel the prosocial need to address it. And we cannot center ourselves into a compassionate orientation if we are allowing white socialization processes to provoke a pervasive and persistent sense of threat from people of color.

So it comes back to George Floyd.

From where I’m standing, it seems like white people need to start asking themselves some deep and troubling questions about why they focus on burning buildings in a riot instead of the man who politely pleaded while being choked for the police officer to let up off his neck minutes before he went lifeless. We have to ask why we are so willing to bristle at riots and protests and not properly disturbed on a white police officer squeezing the life out of George Floyd — killing the ‘gentle giant’ out on the street.

White folks need to assess why they are not provoked into a deep seated sense of compassion for the pain and sorrow surrounding George Floyd. We owe George Floyd (and countless others) this work because in a society where its citizens do not orient toward compassion they are much easier to manipulate into cruelty.

Written by

Dr. Justin D. Henderson is a counseling psychologist, counselor educator, meditation teacher, clinic director, and assistant professor.

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