An Opportunity for Empathy
Galations 6:2 says, "Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ." I think this verse is all about empathy. To me, I carry someone else's burden when I try to really understand what they are experiencing and bear witness to their pain. In doing so, perhaps I can share their load. I was recently watching a webinar titled What the COVID-19 Crisis Tells Us about Structural Racism.
About halfway through the webinar, one of the panelists made a point that really struck me. I think he describes a tangible way for white people to get a small window into the experiences of people of color. Dr. Nicolás E. Barceló begins by talking about the weathering hypothesis. This is the idea that chronic cumulative stress associated with racism has an impact on health. Theorists talk about racism as being common and ubiquitous. Racism is everywhere – in every transaction and every meeting, every place you go and every decision you make. Dr. Nicolás E. Barceló He reflects, "People for whom racism is off their radar now in COVID are having their lives so dramatically changed and they're saying, "There isn't a thing that I can do without worrying about whether or not I'm going to be infected. Or does it increase my likelihood of becoming infected? Does it make me unsafe?" And that emotional toil, that weight, I think is really affecting a lot of people.
"And I think that for people who have not considered the experience of a person of color, that is a glimpse of what it's like to be thinking about racism all the time when it's everywhere in your life. If I go to this grocery store, if I go to this gym, if I go to that school, if I do, will I be victimized by the racism that is taking its toll on my everyday?
"And what's interesting about it is that if you get COVID, you start second guessing all the decisions you made. Oh, am I responsible for ... maybe I shouldn't have gone there. Or this person who exposed me, they told me they didn't mean it on purpose. They didn't know. But you're not worried about the fact they didn't know because you're sick. And I think that that gets at, when we talk about racism, really focusing on the importance of looking at racism and studying racism through the impact that it has on people of color, independent of what people's intentions might've been."
As I listened to Dr. Barceló's comment, it really resonated with me. I am hyper-aware in every interaction that I have because of COVID. I feel a sense of anxiety when I enter a grocery store, not so much because I'm afraid of getting sick, but rather because I'm trying to be vigilant about following all the guidelines. How do I get to the lettuce while staying six feet away from other shoppers? Oh, I just noticed the sign that says I should stay behind the plexiglass instead of moving forward, oops. I do feel the weight of being constantly vigilant about danger to me and about other people perceiving me as a danger. By making that connection, Dr. Barceló has helped me understand the idea of the weathering hypothesis not just on an intellectual level, but on a heart level. My hope is that this understanding will help me to be more able to carry the burdens of my brothers and sisters in Christ.