From then on, the threat of being murdered because of my race was something we discussed in my house often. The Talk was delivered to me and my big brothers as intently as warnings to wash our hands and eat our vegetables. A beating from a police officer felt like something we could prevent, with good behaviour (putting our hands on a dashboard) and the right clothes (not too baggy, never hoodies), like staving off a cold with hot tea.
We now know that behaviour doesn’t matter. Clothes don’t matter. And depending on who you ask, Black lives don’t matter. In the middle of a global pandemic, when almost everything about our way of life has changed, one thing has prevailed: Black trauma. Turns out you can’t put on a mask to prevent the spread of white supremacy!
For Black people in the U.S., Canada and the UK, our trauma is its own pandemic. Just look at last week. On Monday, a white woman named Amy Cooper went viral for threatening the life of a Black man, Christian Cooper (no relation), who was just trying to bird watch in Central Park in peace. By Tuesday, a video out of Minnesota depicting George Floyd gasping for air, pleading “I can’t breathe” while a white cop suffocated him with unrelenting cruelty was flooding the news cycle, showing us in real time what Amy Cooper wanted to happen to Christian. On Wednesday night, #JusticeForRegis was trending, referring to Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a Black woman who fell 24 floors to her death after police were called to her home in Toronto. Her family says she was pushed by the police, and revealed in a statement to ByBlacks that her last words were, “Mom, help.” By the weekend, the exhaustion of witnessing these brutal acts towards Black people — people who look like me, who could be me — felt like too much to bear.
In the past 48 hours, while it was nearly impossible to be as extremely online as I am without seeing images of Floyd’s head on the ground while his neck was crushed under the knee of his murderer, I’ve been thinking a lot about normalcy, because we’re being told over and over that These Times are anything but normal.
In passing conversations with white people, the words “I can’t wait to get back to normal” come up a lot. “The New Normal” is the goal and the headline-dominating catchphrase of the moment. #WhenThisIsAllOver was trending on Twitter earlier this month, with people sharing things they couldn’t wait to do when the coronavirus crisis ends, like get married, travel to dream destinations, and go for dinner at fancy restaurants. I understand that it’s easier to pretend things will go back to the way they were than accept that your reality is changed forever. Believing that this collective grief we’re all facing will pass is a way for people to cope with their pain. I get that.
But for Black people, painful realities beyond our control are what we deal with on the daily. Sure, we get married, travel, eat out at nice spots too, and experience joy in the face of oppression every day, but coping with discomfort and grief is as familiar to us as the ache in your gut longing for a hug from an old friend.
Black trauma is normal. Inadvertently scrolling past the public lynching of a Black man is typical. A Black woman’s death turning into a hashtag is standard. In a 2016 essay called “How Many Black People Can You Mourn In One Week,” Hannah Giorgis wrote, “To be Black in America is to exist in haunting, mundane proximity to death at all moments. There is no reprieve, no block, no unfollow that can loosen us from its shadow.” There is no “post-pandemic” for the racist foundation our systems are built on. We cannot postpone our trauma until 2021.
In Canada (Toronto specifically), Black people are 20 times more likely to be shot by the police. In the U.S., Black men and boys are more likely to be killed by police than their white counterparts. One third of the people who have died in police custody in the UK have been Black or ethnic minorities, despite making up 14% of the population. In all countries, Black women are more at risk of having complications in childbirth. Black people are disproportionately affected by poverty and an unstable economy. We’re also more likely to be casualties of COVID-19. Dead bodies. Broken families. Unimaginable loss. Freedoms stripped. Jobs lost. An endless scroll of human tragedy. But you can only protest these injustices without getting tear-gassed if you’re white.
The juxtaposition between two recent headline-making protests is such an eerily perfect snapshot of racism at work, I would laugh if it didn’t make me cry. Thousands of people — mostly Black — took to Minneapolis streets to object to the brutal killing of George Floyd. They were met with unfair portrayals in the media, teargas, rubber bullets, and tweets from the president calling for their execution. Just weeks prior in Michigan, armed white men and women screamed and spit at police while they condemned government-mandated lockdowns for their safety. They were met with calm officers in face masks, standing in stark contrast to the hostile response in Minneapolis. The president called the protesters “very good people.” With these examples, the police are telling the world that they view whiteness as non-threatening even when it’s spitting in their faces, while Blackness is a constant threat, even when it’s just trying to survive.
The past two months have shown us a series of examples that the “normal” white people are so desperate to get back to will still include the murder of Black people like Ahmaud Arbery, a man gunned down by strangers while jogging in Glynn County, Georgia; D’Andre Campbell, a Brampton, ON, man struggling with mental health issues who was shot and killed by cops when he called them for help; and Breonna Taylor, a Louisville woman senselessly murdered in her own home by police. But racism doesn’t always come at the hands of violent white men with badges. The engrained bigotry of Karens is just as dangerous.
What Amy Cooper (aka Central Park Karen) did is also normal — yes, even in Canada. When I found out Cooper was Canadian, I just nodded in recognition. I know Amy “I’m not a racist” Coopers deeply. Amy Coopers weaponise their white privilege. As The Cut put it, “[Cooper] could be your boss or your neighbour or your teacher, if disturbed on the wrong day.” These are the racists who boast about having Black friends. They are the ones who touch your hair and rap the N-Word with no remorse until they get caught. They are the ones who say, “We don’t see colour in Canada.” Those may seem like little things — like excusable things — but they all lead to the same place: Refusing to acknowledge complicity in systems and social policies that benefit you and oppress others is wilfully allowing Black people to die. White people: Do not click away from Black suffering. If we do not have that luxury, neither should you.
During a global crisis that is supposed to be the “great equaliser,” the inequalities between Black people and everyone else have become even more vast. A deadly disease is killing our elders and shattering our communities. That’s true for everyone around the world. But for Black people in the U.S. and Canada, the emotional toll of this virus is compounded by the pandemic of racism. Numerous studies show that repeatedly witnessing Black death has devastating effects on our mental health. The trauma from decades of oppression lives in our bodies. The tax on our mental wellbeing cannot be quantified. Black trauma festers and spreads. It infects and kills. It is exhausting beyond comprehension. And yet, we get out of bed and go to work. We take our bonnets off and hop on Zoom. Even when we are not okay, we have to be. We take to social media to plead for our lives with white people. We appeal to allies to be better, to do more. We mourn together. We express our anger. We cry. We fight. We hold each other up, with joy and laughter and our unbeatable culture. We know we’re not alone. But we also know this will never end. And that hopelessness we feel? It’s normal.
Like all parents, Black parents are teaching their kids to sneeze into their elbows and stay six feet away from people. They’re also still having The Talk. Black kids are learning George Floyd’s name. And Ahmaud Arbery’s. And Breonna Taylor’s. Those names will stay with them forever.
White people, if you want to be a true ally, treat anti-black racism like the pandemic it is.