It’s St. Patrick’s Day and a college student tries to enter a bar. The bouncer at the door requests the student’s identification. He (and it could just as easily be a “she”) pulls out his legitimate Illinois State ID. When asked to recite his zip code, he accidentally answers with his mother’s current zip code rather than the one that is on his ID (from a former residence). The cautious bouncer denies the student entry, and he leaves calmly.
Now to me, all this sounds like someone who tried to get into Box or Ordinary or Harvest or Toad’s a little late and was denied. It happens all the time, right?
In this case, the story doesn’t end with a trip to the store formerly known as GHeav. One student at the University of Virginia, Martese Johnson, was denied entry into a college bar for the exact reasons mentioned above. But the stories diverge shortly thereafter, when Johnson was stopped by three police officers and subsequently slammed to the ground. His face was bloodied and two officers’ knees were digging into his back as he attempted to question why he was being accosted. He screamed that he was a UVA student, to which they replied, “Stop fighting.”
He has no criminal record, is on the Honor Committee and seems like an all-around upstanding student, citizen and man. None of that helped his case. He was dressed in a nondescript fashion, and he and his upstanding reputation could not save him from being forced to suffer the realities of police brutality. He was arrested for obstruction of justice and public inebriation, both of which he intends to plead not guilty to.
Events such as these, which easily can escalate due to irrational behavior on both sides, are not isolated. We’ve seen people of color shot for holding toy guns in stores, playing their music just a bit too loud, walking in the middle of the street and walking back home with Skittles and iced tea. We have seen them shot unarmed, walking around nude partly as a result of mental illness, put in handcuffs and killed while being arrested due to a police chokehold.
To men and women of color, these events continue to affect us disproportionately, whether we are the victims, bystanders, observers, community members or citizens who have to reckon with these events. They drain us. They are emotionally distressing, maddening, disheartening and seemingly malicious in nature.
An incident such as Johnson’s hits our campus particularly hard. While many on Yale’s campus might just see another headline warranting indifference or some small bout of sympathy at best, it’s yet another reminder to African-American students here that a Yale degree won’t protect you from the injustices of institutional and systematic racism. They cause us to grieve together for lost brothers and sisters, to ask ourselves whom we might lose next and to cry out in protest and in solidarity by foot and by vote for justice and change.
Yet, it’s seemingly to no avail. People of color and those who can and do empathize with us understand that more must be done. For as far as this country has come, we still have an amazingly long way to go.
In order to start enacting real change, with support from the entire campus instead of just the groups who too often bear the brunt of the problem, one of the first steps we must take is to establish empathy — the ability to truly, humanly feel another person’s situation as though their experiences were your own. It’s the ability to try to walk in another person’s proverbial shoes, and see what their side of life is like. It is a sobering and necessary exercise of emotional intelligence. There’s a difference between sympathy and empathy, however. Sympathy means sending your friend flowers when they break a bone. Empathy is psychological identification with the feelings, thoughts or attitudes of others. From empathy, we can start a campuswide dialogue about these issues. And not just within an echo chamber, but with those who we are so desperately trying to get through to, so that we can come to a consensus on how to solve these problems in this country.
We’re not asking you to solve the problems for us; we’re asking you to acknowledge that these problems are very real. A friend commented that it’s a rarity that Johnson was alive at his press conference — the victims of most high-profile incidents of police brutality don’t get to tell their side of the story. I think it should be a rarity for any American to have a negative experience such as this that warranted a press conference in the first place.
If you can’t understand that, I’m going to need you to empathize. Start trying.
David Amanfu is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.