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  • Writer's pictureRobin Wright-Pierce

Moving Through the Grief of Racism

It has taken me a few days to write this. I needed a few days because as a Black woman, I like many others in my community, am swirling through a whirlwind of emotions and thoughts as the weight of the racial massacre in Buffalo settles within me. I needed time to wrap my head around the magnitude of what transpired at the Tops Friendly Market on the east side of Buffalo. I needed time to privately grapple with the level of hatred one has to conjure up to be willing to drive 200 miles to carry out a planned massacre of unassuming Black Americans.

It goes without saying, that what happened is a tragedy. Unfortunately, it is a tragedy that is familiar and historic. It is a tragedy that has it's roots in a centuries old precedent of anti-Black violence and murder. It is a tragedy that has Black activists and Black diversity practitioners questioning the efficacy of their work. It is a tragedy that has Black folks everywhere in a state of vigilance, questioning their safety and security as they move throughout their day-to-day lives. It is a tragedy that has white activists and non-Black people of color asking themselves what, if anything, they can do to help prevent future massacres.

These moments force us to confront the ugliness of systemic and institutional racism. They force us to bear witness to the deep roots of white supremacy and anti-Black racism in our country and to ask ourselves where do we go from here. For Black folks, these moments serve as reminders that despite centuries of struggle and political movement, we remain America's most despised child. And so we find ourselves in an immense state of grief; grieving both the loss of life and the loss of perceived progress toward the society we long to live in and be apart of.

Although Black folks are acutely aware that we have not yet achieved the society we long for, we often find ourselves clinging to both performative and actual progress with the desperation familiar only to those for whom hope provides the oxygen needed to survive.

The reality is, we all long for the America we were forced to salute before the flag in elementary school proclaiming liberty and justice for all. We long for the vision Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently articulated in his 1963 speech during the historic March on Washington. We long for a world where our racial and ethnic identities do not make us more likely to be on the receiving end of any number of interpersonal, institutional, or structural calamities. We all long for a free and just society. And although Black folks are acutely aware that we have not yet achieved the society we long for, we often find ourselves clinging to both performative and actual progress with the desperation familiar only to those for whom hope provides the oxygen needed to survive. The events of Saturday, like the murder of Black people by police, jolt us violently back to the reality of just how much further we still have to go in order to realize the world we desire.

The shock of the jolt is brutal and painful. It surfaces fear, depression, anger, numbness and a host of other sentiments for which there are few adequate descriptive words. These emotional and psychological states of being are a manifestation of grief. Black America is grieving; and this grief is a complex and nonlinear experience whose only cure is time, love, and community.

So as we attempt to keep on keeping on, it Is vital that we honor that we are grieving. We must hold space for ourselves to be “off balance.” We must grant ourselves compassion and grace as we struggle to go forward with business as usual. We must allow ourselves to feel and to process the whirlwind of emotions that arise throughout our day or risk the waves growing into a tsunami that wreaks havoc on our bodies, our minds, and our spirit. The most dangerous thing we can do is allow our grief to fester and grow into hatred. Hatred is such a destructive state of being that kills first and foremost its host. So we must protect our hearts and find ways to reclaim our sense of mattering, our power, and our truth.

To move through grief, we must allow ourselves to stand on the edge of the abyss, stare into our pain and trust that it will not swallow us. I have had my share of grief over the years. Through those experiences I have learned to engage four strategies that help me to move toward healing.

  1. Acknowledge and feel the Pain: We must acknowledge the pain we are experiencing. We must be willing to say that we are hurting and that we need time, space and support to care for our wounds. We must resist the urge to numb and disassociate.

  2. Find your People: We are not meant to move through life alone. The same is true for our movement through grief. We must do the work of cultivating communities of care and love that can witness our pain and hold us through the journey. When it comes to the grief of racism, it is important for Black people to have several types of communities of care. First, we will need all Black spaces to be held and supported. We will also need BIPOC spaces with other people of color who have experienced racialized violence and thus possess the empathy needed to show meaningful support. And although it may not be our first instinct in these moments, I have found that it is also helpful to be in healthy community with white folks. Particularly white people who have capacity and skill to show up with love and provide examples of true antiracist allyship that doesn't center on assuaging ones guilt, but rather on showing up for us in our times of need.

  3. Seek Professional Support: As healing as a loving community may be, it is also critical to seek professional support. Grief is such a complex emotional state and most people are ill-equipped to help us move through it. We must learn strategies to ground ourselves in a deeper truth and find professionals who can help us understand and navigate the array of emotions we may experience. Therapists, mindfulness practitioners, and other mental health professionals are critical in these moments.

  4. Seek and Allow Joy: Joy and grief are two sides of the same coin. This means that on the other side of grief is the possibility of joy. In our hardest moments, we must find ways to access that joy. Sometimes we are able to access joy simply by taking a moment to notice the gifts life has to offer, even in the midst of tragedy. But sometimes, we must actively manufacture that joy. Let me share an example. Yesterday was a hard day for me. Knowing that I needed to find some joy, I reached out to my sister and asked to FaceTime with my 10 month old niece. Her smiling and vibrant face as she exploded with happiness at the sound of my voice provided the level of joy I needed to keep moving through my day. Those few minutes of laughter and unfiltered silliness lifted my spirits immensely and reminded me of the beauty and wonder still present in the world. They offered a reprieve from the heaviness of grief. This is why we must seek and allow joy. Joy provides spaciousness and relief from the heaviness and constricting nature of grief. It fuels our ability to keep moving toward healing and wholeness.

The truth is, the persist and violent nature of racism means that Black and brown folks are always grappling with some level of grief and fear. We are always one incident, news story, and interaction away from severe emotional and psychological distress. As such, it is critical to our collective health and wellbeing for us to build our capacity to find grounding and safety within, not around us. Safety can be such an illusive state for Black people. Our mind, dignity, humanity, and bodies are constantly under attack. The world quite literally isn’t safe for us. But practices like mindfulness can allow us to be held in God’s love and spirit and remind us that we are loved, we matter, and we belong. In moments of stillness we can find rest even in the face of such violence and brutality. We need and deserve rest and safety. We deserve to be washed over in the love and vibrancy of our own inner power and spirit.

Perhaps the biggest gift of all, is that rest, vibrancy, power and love are always accessible to us. We need only to learn to turn inward and allow ourselves to receive it.

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