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Try to listen more

Vox Pop

The last week has been yet another disturbing development in the race relations in the United States. Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Christian Cooper, George Floyd all became the sparks igniting a deep seated anger within the African American community, and led to rioting and further violence across the country. I think it highlights one of the critical elements of our American democracy that we have not paid enough attention to. I am hopeful that we will be willing to reflect on who we are, individually and as a country, but this will take stepping beyond ourselves, beyond where we feel comfortable.

One of the best analyses of this struggle was highlighting to me one of the major differences between democracy and authoritarianism. A democracy requires a communal belief in a social contract, an expectation of decency and humane treatment for each other - that is what prevents social unrest, including looting and rioting like we saw in Minneapolis. It is not our laws that bind our society together; it is our values. Authoritarianism simply requires having enough force to subdue - social binds do not matter as long as you have enough police to enforce your laws.

This last week also connected a lot for me to my work. I have spent the last five years working with youth struggling in mental health, and one of the most important (and challenging) lessons I have had to learn is that my role in healing starts with fully accepting the hurt and anger of someone, of trying to understand their perspective of reality regardless of whether that matches mine. I feel like people often misunderstand acceptance - they feel like it involves allowance of things they think are wrong. Acceptance, though, is more about recognizing the humanness of the other and having the curiosity to learn, temporarily setting aside the judgement of right and wrong. This is a time where we may learn about our own biases and have a change in perspective when we open up and take time to listen to another persons story.

As we all process through the dark side of the human emotion that we saw this past week, I hope that we step into this challenge to understand. It is easy to call the protestors violent thugs and dismiss their human experience. But they are clearly sending a message - many Black Americans do not believe that the social contract of our society includes them. If you as a person truly believed that speeding, that jogging, that sleeping in your own bed, that bird watching in a park, that (intentionally or unintentionally) using a fake $20 bill, that daily actions we take for granted can end with you being deemed a threat and killed, why not loot? Why not take what you can when you can if you can be killed at any moment simply for living? This may seem extreme to you, but this is how many Black Americans feel.

Although I do see many aspects of our institutions and society that I believe perpetuate the long history of slavery and Jim Crow, whether we agree or disagree on this is hardly the point. If we, as White Americans, are not interested in hearing and accepting the message, if we are not capable of having the race conversation that has never been fully had, we should expect nothing to get better. Many black Americans do not feel safe and protected in our society, and us telling them they should and that they are overreacting will not change that.

I am going to try to listen, even though the conversation makes me uncomfortable. I hope you will to.

— Ben Koch, Medford