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Making Sense of Race-Related Shootings

The following essay was written on July 10, 2016. I have shared the essay in several venues, including a Harvard Law School class where I was recently urged to post it online. Though the events discussed here are not new, I hope that some will find the content relevant to current discussions.


Percy Ray Ballard, MD

When hearing of deadly, race related shootings in Louisiana, Minnesota and Dallas, I experienced, along with fellow therapists, loved ones and clients, the urge to connect with people and reflect, in hopes of making meaning of what we’ve witnessed, so that we will know why and how to move forward differently.

I say move forward differently, because the way that we as a society have addressed issues such as racial injustice (along with injustice based upon gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, relationship structure, weight, ability, etc.) has led to some progress, yet has also left much change to be desired, and sometimes occurred alongside unintended consequences.

Looking at these events leads me back to what I know best. The very motivator of these actions is something we all share – natural human emotion.

Fear. Police officers kill black men and treat them more harshly, because they are more afraid of black men (sometimes to the point of being angry and contemptuous). They are afraid of black men because they have been conditioned to be afraid of black men. Conditioned by the society we all live in and are a part of. Likewise, black men have been conditioned for centuries to be afraid of police officers, largely due to force unjustly used against them. Fear has one natural purpose, to keep one safe. If we understand our fear and are willing to work with it to discern the safest way to proceed, it can actually help to keep us safe. But when fear acts without our acknowledgement of it and therefore without our discernment, it will often jeopardize safety and lead to tragedy, much like what we have seen. If we are not careful, fear can interfere with our perception of common humanity in people, motivating us to cast the one we fear as “the other,” less human than ourselves and those who we do not fear. In a position of authority, the more fear we harbor for our subordinates, especially unconsciously, the more likely we are to harm them, and incite retaliation against us – the very opposite of safety. Therefore, the problem is not the people in authority. The problem is in their conditioning to be more afraid of black men, and the unawareness of that conditioning that leaves them vulnerable to acting upon it.

Anger. This was acknowledged as the primary emotion that motivated the assassination of five Dallas police officers. Anger has a natural purpose as well – to denote that a meaningful boundary has been crossed and to reset that boundary so that it does not get crossed again. Police officers have been killing unarmed black people. Anger is a natural response to this fact, along with sadness. However, without awareness and discernment, anger can bring about more of what we are seeking to end. When boundaries are crossed out of anger, we usually precipitate more fear and anger directed at ourselves. In other words, anger directed at police officers (rather than at their conditioning) makes them more fearful, more angry, and more likely to assault and/or murder more black men.

Putting these together, without the acknowledgement, discerned response, and resolution of these two emotions, fear leads to anger, which leads to more fear, which leads to more anger and so on. And in this chain reaction, there is definitely something missing.

Sadness. Sadness is the body’s natural biological response to loss. Its natural purpose is to help us, through the process of grieving, to acknowledge, accept and learn from loss, so that we will know how to move forward differently. It does this firstly by lowering our energy, so that we do not continue to act as we did before (perhaps reflexively out of fear and anger). Secondly, it activates a region of our brain that is responsible for rumination, so that we may contemplate what we have lost, understand why it happened and figure out what changes we should make. Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, it brings people around us (i.e. crying is the body’s natural way of asking for help) so that we may have different perspectives reflected back to us, as often these situations are too complex to gain meaning and understanding from our own singular perspective. It is worth saying here that when any of the above three functions of sadness are prevented, it prevents sadness from accomplishing its biological purpose, and leaves us vulnerable to falling into depression, chronically unresolved sadness. It is the emotion of sadness that helps temper anger and fear with greater contemplation and discernment, so that we may gain wisdom from loss before we continue acting as we have before. Sadness can only resolve once we have made meaning out of a situation such that we know how to move forward differently, and do so.

I must say that we have lost a lot here, and we continue to lose until we reach an important shift that sadness is intended to bring about. With that, I give my condolences to all people who have lost loved ones due to societal injustices and to undiscerned anger driven retaliation for that injustice. I give my condolences to all of us, who continue to lose a crucial sense of safety, common humanity and agency when these events occur. I am moved by sadness to make meaning from these events in the best way that I personally can understand: these events are human tragedies that have occurred due to unresolved fear from our societal conditioning, and unresolved anger from the boundaries crossed. At this point I see that the most productive way that we can respond is in the natural processing of sadness, by coming together with people, gaining perspective, and making meaning of these events, so that we may each learn to move forward differently in our own way.

So knowing this, how do I believe we can move forward differently to bring about positive change? Sure, we can organize and form groups of justifiably fearful and angry human beings. This has both worked and failed in the past. Thankfully, in most cases of activism, that fear and anger has been guided with discernment. However, greater awareness and more discernment could further our cause even more. To this point, we have been focusing on, and debating about and reacting to external events and have all but ignored the driving emotions behind such events. Such events will continue to happen until the emotions are acknowledged and addressed. Two words: acknowledge emotions. Acknowledge emotions in all that we do, including in our work with this issue. This means to speak for the emotions in ourselves, and be curious about the emotions in others. This makes us and others less likely to act blindly out of emotion, and more likely to help these emotions resolve by completing their intended effect (to create safety in the case of fear, to set an effective boundary in the case of anger, and to learn and change in the case of sadness).

My hope is that each of us will find a way to connect with others around these troublesome issues, acknowledge whatever emotions surface in ourselves, inquire about the emotions surfacing in others, and use these various and hopefully diverse perspectives to learn, find a meaning that feels healthy to us, and find a productive means to respond and engage differently in the world.

Thank you for reading, and my best wishes to all of us.

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