From time to time I come in contact with a police officer, and I can’t help but get a little tense. I am a black man in America. If you were not born yesterday then you know there is a major issue in this country with the militarization of the police force and the criminalization of people of color. I am not a police officer but I have served in the United States Army. I remember the feeling of fear that comes with interacting with people that are deemed the “enemy”. It causes you to be a bit more agitated and this agitation can lead to a bias. Now as a civilian, in the United States I recognize that the police may carry this bias towards me, so I in turn carry a bias. So we are now in a situation where it is likely that the police officer sees me as a criminal, and I see the police officer as overly violent and this is all due to our appearance.
Any interaction we have will be colored by this hyper sensitivity. If I move to quickly the police office may think I am reaching for a weapon. If the officer asks me to get out of the car I am driving, I may think he is going shoot me. Neither fear is any more reasonable when viewed objectively, but nonetheless they are real fears.
This paradigm has led me to investigate the anxiety I have around fear from my psychological approach. Is it possible that no matter what the officer says to me, that I have so much social trauma around interactions between black men and cops that I am triggered by even the slightest hint of dominance? If you were to take the same police officer and have them read a script to a black man and a white man, would they view the instance differently because of their social conditioning and relationship to power?
According to PBS Monnica Williams at the Center for Mental Health Disparities the answer is yes. Her work suggests that the viral nature of police shootings of unarmed black men can create a social racial trauma with PTSD like symptoms.
“There’s a heightened sense of fear and anxiety when you feel like you can’t trust the people who’ve been put in charge to keep you safe. Instead, you see them killing people who look like you,” she says. “Combined with the everyday instances of racism, like microaggressions and discrimination, that contributes to a sense of alienation and isolation. It’s race-based trauma.”
This means two important things, a it is important for police to note that their behavior is linked to triggering psychological effects in specific communities and if they are committed to their cause of “Protect and serve” then they must be sensitive to that. Secondly, it means that there is a bias I must also work through as a person of color when dealing with police. As a marginalized member of society, there are many situations that I am sensitive to simply because of a legacy of mistreatment. This legacy creates not only mistrust, as Dr. Williams suggests, but also a shift in perspective towards seeing even the most benign interactions as threatening.
Other minority social groups have got to feel this also. A looming cloud over interactions between straight cis-gender men and women, or interactions between white women and women of color. This cloud is one that we all need to investigate. Bias is as human as breathing, it is a survival tactic that has evolved to help us find patterns and navigate new spaces, but it is not a perfect tool. Those of us who are closer to the center of social power must acknowledge that we may all carry bias but those members of minority groups have more too loose in these social interactions than others. While I may carry bias towards police, the law is in their favor if I assault or shoot them, I also do not carry a gun on a daily basis as part of my profession so the likely hood that I would fire a weapon is incredibly low.
When a police officer speaks to me, I recognize that there are many words that can trigger fear or anxiety in me, far more words than he may even be away of. Much of our conversation has the potential to be shrouded by racial tension and how either of us respond to that can be a matter of life and death. What happens when the world we see is viewed through the lens of trauma? It becomes difficult to know if people are seeing you for yourself or as the body you inhabit, it also becomes difficult know how important that distinction is.
I have to keep questioning my own reality, asking “How would I be treated if I weren’t black?” , the treatment you receive from someone who is racist, isn’t all that different from someone who is just rude. If my identity is wrapped up in my blackness as it pertains to police then I stand less a chance of taking ownership of my civil rights, frankly because of the fear that I might be punished in some way for doing so. The situation becomes so tense that nearly every word that comes out of the mouth of a police officer can be taken as a microaggression. If this is the case for me, then it must also be true for those suffering from other socially based trauma pertaining to gender, sexual orientation, physical ability.
How are we to live in a world where we constantly feel under some form of attack? We must either desensitize ourselves to these supposed microaggressions or constantly react to them. Ignoring them puts us on the path to normalization, which is not okay, and constantly reacting to them shuts down any hope we have for living a productive life. What must instead do, is endure them, and seek to be as even keeled as we feel is safe, which indeed may not be very safe at all.