The Pain of Others
Please be aware that this post contains discussion of bullying, violence and suicide.
It’s easy to recognize our own pain. We live it. We feel it. We own it. We know it.
I think it’s perhaps easiest to recognize someone else’s pain when we see a reflection of our own pain. I’m sure that’s why reports of gay teens committing suicide resonate so powerfully for so many gay and lesbian adults, myself included. When I read about a gay teenager taking his own life, my heart races. I can feel my pulse in my ears. My hands and feet start to tingle. It’s the fight-or-flight response, two decades later, because my body still remembers the threat to my survival. Just reading about another kid in that situation, my body prepares. It is telling me to survive, and it takes every step it can to help me survive a physical threat.
Writing the previous paragraph was more challenging than I would have anticipated. It’s the middle of a heat wave, but my hands are ice cold. They are an unnatural color, like a corpse on a crime drama. My nail beds, usually pink, are purple. I took breaks. I took in deep breaths through my nose and let them out slowly from my mouth. I went up and down the stairs for no reason. I got an iced tea . I finished it. I pestered my husband, interrupting the episode of Deadliest Catch he is watching. I stuck my fingers down the back of his neck, declaring, “Free air conditioning!” I got the look. You know, that one. I replaced the iced tea with a real drink.
But it was my choice. I knew what writing about this was going to do. This, by the way, is one reason trigger warnings exist. These physical responses aren’t fun, so it’s a kindness to warn others when we can. I’m the kind of person who blissfully ignores those warnings and is then surprised to find myself saying, “Oh, I really shouldn’t have read that!” But, again, that’s my choice.
I’ve experienced this feeling, to varying degrees, a few times in the last week or so. Once, when I read about the suicide of Carlos Vigil, a 17-year-old boy in New Mexico. Again while writing this post. In between those two, where I anticipated the feeling, I was surprised to find myself reacting the same way to an episode of The Fosters on ABC Family. The youngest member of the family, described by ABC as “a sensitive boy,” was excited to be making a new friend at school. It was a sweet scene, but for me the stakes were too high. I know too well what happens when sensitive pre-teen boys get excited about making new friends. We make fools of ourselves, and end up even lonelier than we started. I can only hope that it’s gotten better in the twenty-three years since I was a pre-teen boy.
What I really want to talk about, though, is what happens when the connection to someone else’s pain isn’t quite so visceral. What happens when we decide that their pain isn’t quite the same as our pain?
At the most extreme end, we get atrocities like the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial. The jurors were somehow unable to connect Trayvon Martin’s murder to their own experiences, or their own fears about what might happen to their children. Instead, they connected with their fears of black teenage boys. Some of the jurors were parents, and I’m sure that at some point they’ve lost sleep worrying about their own children. And yet, in this case, they found themselves identifying more with a man who stalked a child, provoked a confrontation with that child, and then shot that child dead in the street while the child screamed and begged for his life.
If only Trayvon Martin’s murder and George Zimmerman’s acquittal were unique.
There’s a mountain of evidence that our criminal justice system fails black people. Perhaps the clearest data is the conviction disparity between blacks and whites. It’s difficult to discuss productively, though, for a few main reasons. The first is simple racial animus — maybe black people are just more likely to commit crimes? Next, you have to compete with the basic belief that our courts are fair. This seems quite obviously incorrect — in the last thirty days, our courts have decided to dismantle the Voting Rights Act and give George Zimmerman free reign to walk the streets of Florida murdering black children. But for white people, the courts are pretty fair. It’s hard to get people to see that their own experience does not necessarily extrapolate. (Just look at how many people roll their eyes and say, “Pfft, global warming,” when they’re shoveling a foot of snow from the driveway.) Finally, we have a tendency to venerate juries, making their conclusions somehow sacrosanct, as if jurors are magically able to leave behind their prejudices when they enter the deliberation room.
“But I don’t do that!” is a common reaction from white people when there’s talk about racism. Maybe that’s true. I suspect that if you took the Harvard Implicit Associations Test for race, you would be surprised by the result. You’d be correct, though, that overt expressions of racial animus are less socially acceptable today than they used to be. (Well, sometimes. The Washington Post still lets Richard Cohen write columns.)
Most people, though, do believe in basic fairness, so they are able to identify the most overt displays of discrimination and describe them as unfair. The problem is that employers rarely say, “Jim, I’m firing you because you are black.” Juries don’t come back from deliberation and say, “We find the defendant guilty, Your Honor, because he is black.” We’re all supposed to take great pride in that, declare that we live in a post-racial society, and ignore displays of racism that are any more covert because people might disagree.
When I was adopting, there were hundreds of questions about potential children. What ages would we accept? What gender? What race? How many? There was a multiple page list of disabilities, and we were asked to rank our comfort level with each of them — Can Definitely Accept, Can Definitely Not Accept, Need Specific Information. We zipped through the beginning: infant through age six, any gender, any race, either one child or a sibling pair. We spent a lot more time evaluating the range and severity of disabilities, as strange as that seemed, since you can never really know. Health and disability can change in the blink of an eye. Regardless, we filled out the form as best we could.
And then we had dinner with my parents.
We were casually discussing the paperwork, and talking about how strange it was to fill it out. My mother’s response was coded, barely, but her view was clear: she hoped we would have a white child.
My heart started to race. My fingers went numb. I could hear my pulse in my ears.
I’ve heard racist stories and jokes, infrequently, over the years at family parties. Never from my parents. From my grandfather and my uncles. My dad would sit in silence, and my mother’s face made her disapproval clear. But they never said anything. No one ever said, “Stop telling that disgusting story. We’re leaving.”
Driving home from dinner at my parents’ house, I replayed every discussion of race I’d ever had with my mother. It was easy, because there were so few. I recalled the times she had dismissed her own mother’s racism as “a product of another age,” saying that my grandmother “didn’t really mean it.” I always had a mouth on me, and I remember saying, “Really? Because Nana usually means what she says.”
I started looking at my own childhood, and the shame I felt when I didn’t conform to my mother’s ideas about what a little boy should be. She may have hand-knit a poncho for my Barbie doll, but a few years later I would feel the sting of rejection when I said or did things that embarrassed her.
Would my family love my children less if they were not white? Was I prepared to find out? I sought advice from our social worker. Her recommendation was clear, and we changed the form from “any race” to “white.” What did it say that we felt prepared for a whole range of developmental challenges, but we weren’t sure if we were appropriately prepared to raise a black child? Autism was fine, but a black child wasn’t?
Hearing Melissa Harris-Perry’s voice break while she described her relief at learning she was having a girl made me remember that decision. I had put it in the back of my mind in the panic and rush of actually being matched with children, and the dawn to exhaustion marathon that has followed. I don’t know if the decision changed anything. We were matched with our sons so quickly after we were approved, primarily because we said we would take two children and because the social workers were ecstatic that I was going to be home with the kids.
Is this a story about my racism? I don’t know. But it’s something I haven’t really talked about, which is a pretty good sign that it’s a problem. I talk about everything. When I read Kelly Wickham’s piece calling out those who have remained silent, I decided to write about it.
I don’t know if this story is helpful, but I know that there’s a problem, and that too many people are silent about it.