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  • Writer's pictureDr Shungu Hilda M’gadzah

On compassion, empathy and humanity: black people are human beings and we are not animals.

Many of us have been watching the trial of Derek Chauvin, accused of killing George Floyd. This is tough viewing for many people, black and white (and other ethnic minority groups).

In Belgium the deaths of young black men at the hands of police have also led to some accusing the police of acting with impunity.

This has led to protests against the police with hundreds of people being detained. Police unions say that there may be individuals who are racist amongst their ranks but that the accusations of institutional racism against them are unfair. They deny that they are a racist force.

Does any of this sound familiar? How many organisations out there admit to the existence of institutional racism within their walls. From my experience, it does seem that the standard response these days, (whether it be police departments, the Society of British editors, education institutions, the Royal family or the UK government) is deny any racist intent.

The UK government in the recent report on race and ethnic disparities claims that there is no evidence that the UK is institutionally racist. The government suggests that the UK should be seen as a model for other countries because the claims of institutional racism are not borne out.

The Black Lives Matter movement criticised the long-awaited report on racism in the UK. The BLM UK says the government goes out of its way to deny and obscure the existence of racism.

“We are also disappointed to learn that the report over looks disproportionality in the criminal justice system – particularly as police racism served as the catalyst for last summer’s protests.” (CNN news)

Meanwhile in Belgium, talking about one of the young men (Ibrahima B) who died at the hands of Belgian police (in January 2021), Alexis Deswaef, Human rights Lawyer says,

“All the police officers are white and he was black and they’re saying he’s crying like an animal. If the person had been white they would never have said that. They would’ve understood that he was crying because he was dying and he was suffocating.”

Ibrahima’s sister, speaking about her brother said, they may not have been able to save him but they could have helped him, they wouldn’t have left him lying on the floor for seven minutes without help if he was white.

Does this sound familiar- parallels to the killing of George Floyd? Where is the humanity in these officers, what happens in these moments? How can they be so unmoved by the suffering of another human being?

Ana Navarro, Political commentator, speaking on CNN said this is not just black people’s problem. This is an issue about humanity and it affects us all not just black people.

“If this had been a person standing on the neck of an animal or kneeling on the neck of an animal white people and American people would be outraged. [Yet because this is a black person, it is seen as it is nothing to do with us and we can look the other way].”

Her message was clear: White people cannot afford to look the other way as this is an issue about humanity; it is not just an issue for black people.

She said that, white people need to watch the George Floyd trial and see what’s happening so that they can understand why black people feel the way they do and so that they can understand the history of the hurt and pain and emotional baggage that black people carry. (CNN news).

BraVada Garrett Akinsanya- founder of the African American Child Wellness Institute, speaking on the news today, was asked about black people who are avoiding watching the news because they cannot face the constant images of pain, of yet more black people being killed. She spoke about the need for black people to protect their mental health in the face of constant messages of pain, suffering and killings of black people on the news.

As Black people there is truly a need to take steps to protect our mental health whilst at the same time engaging with the issues. This is not an easy balance to achieve. The same is true of Asian people as we are seeing the rise in Asian hate crime.

As BraVada advises, we need to take small doses of the news and not over expose ourselves to it.”

We also need to remember that avoidance of such images of pain and suffering can itself be indicative of post-traumatic stress disorder. We all need to look out for signs and symptoms of trauma in those around us and be able to sign post people to the appropriate support, such as the Association of Black Psychologists.

Now more than ever it is important to:

- Talk about how we are feeling about the racism we are experiencing and witnessing

- We need to be able to talk about the emotions which these images stir up in us.

- We must not suffer in silence and tell ourselves we are not affected by what is going on around us.

- Whether we are black, white or Asian (or from other ethnic backgrounds) it is time to talk about what is happening in our communities and around the world.

- It is time to stand up and challenge wherever we see bias and discrimination. It is not okay to remain silent.

When Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres was asked what is the lesson that you hope the world has learnt from the pandemic, he responded, “the biggest lesson is to understand how fragile we are as a global Society”, fragile in relation to the pandemic fragile in relation to the global space, the climate change and global security. “When we are humble enough to recognise how fragile we are, I hope we will recognise that we need global solidarity to face the challenges that are so clear in this world.”

I would assert that a key global challenge is the hate, bias and discrimination we continue to witness towards black people and are witnessing towards those who are different.

We need to be brave enough to see and accept that racism exists and we need to be brave enough to call racism out when we see it. It is our duty to humanity whether we are black, white or other.

It is disingenuous of the UK Government and other organisations to deny the existence of racism- institutional or otherwise.

We all have a responsibility in eradicating racism. We need to wake up and face up to the realities of the challenges we are faced with within our communities and globally- this includes the reality of racism.

Hate and racism does not just affect black or Asian people. It affects us all. Without empathy and compassion we are nothing but animals.

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Dr Shungu Hilda M'gadzahDirector & Lead Consultant Psychologist,

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