Recently I walked by two people on the sidewalk having a conversation. These two humans happened to be black folks and they were talking about white folks. As I passed, I heard one ask the other “why can’t they just do the work? What is so hard about just doing the work?!” The exhaustion and frustration in that human’s voice reminded me of why I got divorced. I was doing all the emotional labor in that relationship and I didn’t want to do it anymore.
My husband struggled with the scars of a traumatic childhood. That trauma colored his every thought and action, and it shaded his entire existence. I was adept at dealing with that particular expression of trauma because it was familiar to me from my growing-up experience. In the beginning of our relationship, when I coached him through dealing with his feelings, he was grateful. He saw me as a supportive ally in his quest for healing.
But I did not have any boundaries. Any time he was triggered, I dropped everything to hold his hand and walk him back down from emotional upset to a more stable state of being. After years of relating this way without ever talking about how we were relating, we had established a very clear (and unhealthy) relationship contract.
Then I had a weird health thing come up. The doctors said it might be cancer and they needed to run some tests. Suddenly I was the one who needed emotional support. I was scared and no one could tell me what was happening with my body. My husband was scared too. His wife might have cancer and the doctors had no idea what was happening to her body. But in our relationship I was the one responsible for all the emotional labor, so my husband needed me to coach him through his fear and anxiety about my condition. I couldn’t do it. I didn’t have the energy to be there for myself and also for him.
So in his fear and in his sadness, my husband pushed me away. Eventually my tests came back negative, and after a few months the doctors figured out what was really going on and I got better. But my husband had spent months blaming me for his fear and anxiety. By the time my health was no longer in question, he had come to associate me with his uncontrollable emotions. I was no longer the helpful ally in a battle against those bad feelings, I was the cause of all the doom and gloom.
I tried for years to get through to my husband that I was not his enemy. I did all the things he wanted me to. He blamed me anyway. We went to counseling. He blamed me anyway. I even tried not doing all the emotional labor in our relationship. He blamed me anyway. He just couldn’t see that he was the maker of his own reality, so he lashed out at me for causing him so much distress. In the end he was so mean to me that I stopped loving him.
So I left and we got a divorce.
But what happens when you can't get a divorce? What happens when you can't leave a toxic relationship because it makes up the majority of the societal structure in your country and much of the world? In my marriage there were two major problems: one was that I was doing all the emotional labor, and the other was that my husband didn't see that his own behavior was perpetuating the unhealthy dynamic in our relationship.
I see both issues playing out in a similar way in greater society. For generations, humans of color (and especially black folks) have been doing the emotional labor for white people. They have been blamed for their own enslavement, blamed for their lack of access to opportunity for economic prosperity, blamed for their underrepresentation in positions of power, and blamed for their overrepresentation in the criminal justice system.
Even during this most recent Great White Awakening, many white folks did not exercise initiative to seek out resources to educate themselves. Instead they asked black folks, despite living in a society built on white norms and designed to meet the needs of white people. White folks everywhere asked "what can I do to end racism?!" The answer from many humans of color was: do the work. There is no magic cure for racism; we all just need to dismantle our internal systems of racism and then we can unwind societal systems that allow racism to flourish.
Some individuals are doing that personal work. Many more are considering whether they are ready to do that work. And an alarming number of the folks who run our societal systems are not even considering doing that work because they don't see anything wrong with the way those systems currently function. This became abundantly clear to me this week when I attended a virtual forum hosted by the local Citizen Review Committee (CRC). According to their Facebook page, the CRC was "created in 2001 to help improve police accountability, promote higher standards of police services, and increase public confidence."
The forum was advertised as a discussion about police reform. The panel they put together included the CRC volunteers, the local police chief, a leader of the local police union, and the person from the City Auditor's Office who runs the department that investigates public complaints about police misconduct. That sure seems like a group of people who have the ability and authority to make adjustments to the way policing happens in this city. Unfortunately, the forum turned out to be more like an opportunity for everyone with any actual authority to explain why they cannot change things from the way they currently are.
The problem of police assaulting peaceful protestors was raised. The head of the office that investigates police misconduct said they need to know which specific officer did the assaulting before they can investigate. An attendee explained police officers have either covered their identifying numbers or those numbers are so small they cannot be discerned while a person is fleeing assault by an officer. The Police Chief replied that new number stickers were being ordered. An attendee requested the number be printed on the front, back, and pant-leg of the officer's uniform. Which the police chief condemned as "not feasible." And on it went.
Having worked in government for over a decade, I understand the utter nightmare that is changing the course of a massive bureaucratic organization. But during those two hours of disappointment and deflection even simple and reasonable solutions were dismissed. Far and away, the most striking thing to me was the complete refusal by the people who run the police department to acknowledge that anything needs to change at all in the police department.
None of the people in charge seemed to want to question police judgement. The base assumption that whatever the police do is right and whatever a human suffers at the hands of the police is something that person deserves was not on the table for discussion. But that is the very thing that needs to change about policing. The policies currently in place have protected police officers from the consequences of their decisions, and the training police receive fills them with faulty assumptions about how to create public safety.
The police department does not want to examine the internal root of their inappropriate behavior because they do not see anything wrong with that behavior. Even as representatives of the department proclaim a desire to hold officers accountable and reduce instances of police brutality, they frame the problem as something separate from police. Somehow, problematic officer behavior that is dictated by department policy does not indicate the policies themselves are problematic.
There have been countless police reform efforts and the problem of police acting inappropriately and illegally continues unabated. It's time to stop looking outside the department that directs and trains police for the cause of detrimental police behavior. It's time to stop putting the responsibility for preventing police brutality on the shoulders of everyone other than police. No one should have to teach their children how to interact with police in a way that asks those children to anticipate and accommodate an officer's propensity for fear, mistrust, and violence.
We need to acknowledge that police behavior is what's causing the public to have a problem with police. We need to train our police officers to interact with the public properly and revise policies to support appropriate behavior. We need to train police to treat the public like the human beings they are, worthy of respect and consideration. We need our institutions to acknowledge that their contribution to the current state of the world is problematic. And we need to insist that those institutions do the work.
Information and Inspiration
Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.