To say 2020 has tested us as a generation immensely is to put it gently. From wild fires to a pandemic, Losing a cultural hero (Kobe) to economic downturn, Runaway COVID monkeys and a month of almost weekly reports of racism and police brutality against black bodies. I still believe there has been good this year but whew! It’s been a real test of global community when we have to wade through this much collective grief.
One thing I have noticed however is how little we seem to care until it becomes personal. I will preface this by saying that this is not an accusation of any one group but rather a call for reflection for all of us. I think back to the start of the year when China seemed to be the only country dealing with the Coronavirus. I saw my friends who had family in China grow increasingly nervous and check the news repeatedly for updates. I empathized with them and certainly prayed for them but it didn’t feel personal. I didn’t feel particularly led to donate to relief efforts, I didn’t feel compelled to follow up daily on the death toll or check-in on progress with a vaccine or cure. Frankly, I may not even have cared enough to pray about it and check-in periodically if I didn’t have people in my life who were visibly concerned, it would have remained this awful thing that happened in China that I didn’t like but really had no real impact on my life. When the virus began to spread and the first case in Canada was reported, it took on new texture for me. I was suddenly very engaged in learning how the virus spreads and the process of going into lockdown in Canada shone new light on the vulnerabilities of certain groups and individuals in a situation like this. It became personal. When Lagos went into lockdown, I experienced a deeply personal version of the fears that my Chinese friends must have felt. You see, I could empathize with them initially because as someone in the diaspora, I know what it’s like to be worlds away from your family and loved ones when big scary things happen but to be personally impacted by the same issue illuminated their experience that much more for me.
Police brutality, murdering of black bodies and the showcasing of black trauma and death is not new. As an African integrating into a black reality, black trauma has only recently become personal for me. Growing up, I didn’t know about lynching, neither did I know Emmett Till’s name. Police brutality against blackness for me was colored predominantly by Micheal Jackson’s “They don’t care about us”. I could however empathize as I was born in the tail end of Nigeria’s last military regime and politically charged music by icons like Fela and Lagbaja where common place in our reality. I could understand what it meant to feel like the leadership that by law was supposed to protect you was consistently betraying you. However, moving to Canada and recognizing that my Africanness had to become subject to my Blackness, it introduced me to a new reality. I started to see my family and myself reflected in the faces that were being disproportionately victimized by police in North America. It became personal.
So in a week like the one we’ve just had, where we were still reeling from the news of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor; we witnessed Amy Cooper weaponizing whiteness, the death of George Floyd and Regis Korchinski-Paquet and other similar reports; a week like this feels like we should all be in mourning. However, as I reflect on this week and the response time of several non-black people across the communities I have access to, it appears to me that it took time for it to become personal. I imagine that for them, it was a similar experience to my evolution of emotions around the Coronavirus. For those who I know have close relationships with black people, they took some time but they eventually came forward with their voices, in likes and reshares and in reaching out to check-in. There are some people on my timeline right now that I honestly don’t know if they are even aware of the protests happening. I don’t say this to police anyone’s response because for all I know they may be doing their part in some non-visible way but if they are as far removed from this as I am from some other traumatic world events, their response is probably not much more than “dang, that really sucks”.
So what’s my point?
I have spent a lot of time this past year researching community and if I have learned anything, community is only as strong as the physical and emotional proximity of it’s members. If you have black friends who you feel a genuine closeness to, you will not have to be prodded to action when their community is under siege. Again, that action may be simply reaching out to them and checking in on their well-being or joining them on the front lines to march. My point is you can’t care about a cause if you don’t care about the people impacted by said cause. In some ways we are all inherently selfish but rather than trying to deny our selfishness, can we structure our lives in a way where our selfish nature can serve a broader audience? Open yourself up to a more diverse group of people. Give space for genuine relationship with them. It’s not enough to just think that they are “cool” or to leverage them to access parts of their culture that you find interesting or fun. Be present with their discomfort as well. Be sensitive to the things that lift them up and bring them down. Being in community with someone else isn’t about having answers all the time, its about being willing to show up even when you don’t. That’s how we learn and grow.
You can’t be all things to all men so inevitably, there will be causes that you will not treat with as much passion as others. That’s okay. I may be hurt when others don’t show up for my cause in the way that I would like. That’s okay. What I would implore you to do is to show up for those who are closest to you in big and small ways that say “I see you and I love you”. Let that be enough. If we all do at least that much, we would be our brother’s keeper.