“What have we learned: nothing? Yes, we should be outraged . . . . Let’s use this moment as a moment of change.” -New York”s Governor, Andrew Cuomo
Today is Monday, June 1st. We are almost three months into New York City’s shutdown during the global pandemic. Usually, my journal entries serve to record the previous night’s dreams. This morning, I can only recall one waking dream: that is, the desire for a more just and peaceful world.
In my late 30’s I returned to the field of social work after a long absence. Perhaps I never would have returned to the field if the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election had not shocked me sheer out of complacency. Prior to the election, I envisioned that America was making positive changes toward equality on many fronts, but it turned out that I was misguided. Feeling overwhelmed by powerlessness at the bleak political outlook, I decided to take the reins of the only life wherein I had any control: my own. I dedicated my life to a professional field that values social justice, integrity, and service to society. Now, three-and-a-half years later, I have obtained a Master of Social Work degree. But can I trust that the work I do going forward will make any lasting change? What if my best intentions are still not enough?
Over Memorial Day weekend of this year, two events transpired which brought to light the racism which grows like a cancer on American soil, threatening our survival as a democracy. The first event took place in New York City’s Central Park, wherein a white woman, Amy Cooper, attempted to use her race privilege to threaten an innocent black man, Eric Cooper (no relation), who was bird-watching in the park. Mr. Cooper had asked Ms. Cooper to leash her dog and, refusing, she called the police in tears to report that “an African-American man was threatening her in the park” (Washington Post, 2020). This type of call, coming from a white woman directed at a black man, carried the historical weight of criminal apprehension or even death in this country. Fortunately, the situation did not escalate beyond mere threats. Mr. Cooper had captured the event via cell phone video, which his sister later posted on Twitter (Cooper, 2020). The incident went viral. Many viewers were outraged. Amy Cooper issued a public apology, but faced personal repercussions, from losing her job to surrendering her dog (Washington Post, 2020).
The second racist event of Memorial Day 2020 took place in Minneapolis and was also captured via cell phone. The incident involved the death of a George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was taken into custody by Minneapolis police. A white police officer, Derek Chauvin, is shown in bystander videos of the event to be “holding his knee for several minutes on Floyd’s neck as he lay cuffed on the street” with three other police officers present at the scene (Montemayor, 2020). Chauvin has since been fired from the police force and charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison is taking over prosecution of the case (Montemayor, 2020). [6/3/2020 update: Charges against former officer Chauvin have been elevated to second-degree murder. The three other officers at the scene will also be charged with aiding and abetting murder.]
In the aftermath of these two events, protestors across the nation and even the world have rallied together to speak out against police brutality and racial injustice. Following the media coverage of the events, my own emotions over the past week have ranged from sadness to dread to anger to hope that lasting positive changes might result from this collectively painful period. I wonder, what can I do as someone who aspires to be an ally to people of color (POC)? I acknowledge that my white skin has granted me unearned privileges throughout my life. I feel that my skin color makes me complicit with societal racism in profound ways. Perhaps author Robin DeAngelo (2018) put it best when she wrote, “I know that because I was socialized as white in a racism-based society, I have a racist worldview, deep racial bias, racist patterns, and investments in the racist system that has elevated me. Still, I don’t feel guilty about this racism. I didn’t choose this socialization . . . But I am responsible for my role in it,” (p. 149).
Allyship towards POC involves recognizing the racial biases that may live within me and committing to counter these insidious patterns of thinking. I can choose to speak up and ask for feedback from trusted peers of color, instead of remaining silent as I might otherwise be inclined to do. Similarly, I can seek to learn about the history of racism and ways in which discrimination has impacted and continues to impact POC today. I can make an effort to live life with compassion, respecting and honoring differences rather than seeing them as barriers.
Again I ask: what if my best intentions are not enough? After all, I only have power over my own thoughts and actions. Reflecting on the current events taking place on American soil, I can utilize a tool sometimes used in Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) called “Following images to completion,” or “Best/worst-case scenario.” The tool invites a person to take a stressful situation–such as the current protests and race riots occurring in America amidst the backdrop of a global pandemic. By creating an image of the best possible, worst possible, and most likely outcomes, I channel my otherwise chaotic thoughts into categories, providing some relief from the tendency I might otherwise have towards catastrophizing and potentially acting in destructive ways based on these fears. The idea here is that thoughts (or cognitions) lead to behaviors. Behaviors affect moods. If I choose apocalyptic thoughts, it might lead to unhealthy behaviors, thereby negatively impact my moods. CBT tools like the following provide a container for thoughts which might negatively impact my subsequent actions and moods. This container provides some measure of relief (Beck, 1995).
What is the best-case scenario?
The best-case scenario would be that recent events will shine a flashlight on police brutality, diminishing it over time until it is eradicated altogether. The pandemic will subside. White Americans, including myself, will begin addressing and changing their own racist patterns in order to accommodate a more just and peaceful world. Best-case scenario would also entail that our current president be replaced by wise and competent leader whose values align with the ideals necessary to produce racial equality in America. Peace prevails. Americans start to value relationships over objects.
What is the worst-case scenario?
The worst-case scenario would be that riots, looting, and violence destroy not only human lives but also the landscapes and structures in the country’s most beloved cities. The pandemic will continue to kill citizens in alarming numbers, disproportionately affecting communities of color. A police state will ensue, and the average citizen’s rights will be severely curtailed. Trump will be re-elected. Human rights, in general, will be drastically reduced for all but the most wealthy and privileged Americans.
What is the most likely scenario?
Protests and riots will continue in the coming days and weeks, eventually subsiding. Lessons learned from the riots will not be forgotten. More whites will commit to acknowledging their own internalized racism and the institutional racism which manifests in both blatant and subtle ways. The Black Lives Matter movement will be adopted by the mainstream. President Trump will continue to trump (i.e., British slang for “fart”) his way through life, wielding power unwisely and showing crass indifference for the American people until he is eventually ousted from office in January 2021, replaced by Joe Biden who is most certainly not perfect, but better than the alternative.
I honestly didn’t mean to make this political but let’s face it, it is. Oh, that brings me to another therapeutic tool: narrative, which I have just used in order to process my own journey over the past few weeks. I send positive intentions out into the world, in hopes that my renewed commitment to the fight for racial justice will create the tiniest ripple of positive change. Thank you for journeying with me today.
Beck, J. (1995). Cognitive therapy: Basics and beyond. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Cooper, M. (2020, May 31). Chris Cooper is my brother. Here’s why I posted his video. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/31/opinion/chris-cooper-central-park.html
DeAngelo, R. (2018). White fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Montemayor, S. (2020, June 1). Minnesota AG Keith Ellison to take over case in Floyd killing. Star Tribune. Retrieved from https://www.startribune.com/ag-keith-ellison-to-take-over-case-in-floyd-killing/570911922/
Montemayor, S., & Xiong, C. (2020, June 3). Attorney General Keith Ellison to elevate charges against officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck; also charging other 3 involved. Star Tribune. Retrieved from https://www.startribune.com/ellison-will-charge-chauvin-with-2nd-degree-others-to-be-charged/570984872/
State of New York, Office of the Governor (Producer). (2020, June 1). Daily press briefing [Interview transcript]. Retrieved from https://www.governor.ny.gov
Washington Post (Producer). (2020, May 29). Post reports: ‘We woke up to a city of ash’ [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from https://www-washingtonpost-com.proxy.library.nyu.edu/podcasts/post-reports/we-woke-up-to-a-city-of-ash/?utm_source=rss