In today’s racial climate, terms such as “micro-aggressions” and “gaslighting” have become mainstream terminology when addressing racism at the micro-level. Many are content as they find their lived experiences being summed up by these newly-coined terms. Others are stunned, learning for the first time phrases they once thought were nonchalant actually attributed to a toxic culture of ignorance and apathy.
These terms are now being redefined and in doing so, are creating awareness worldwide. Facts and statistics are more readily available than ever with infographics about systemic racism flooding social media platforms. However, I wonder what change will truly come about if American society does not expand their emotional bandwidth to feel and share the feelings required to push forward for change.
Within social circles, it has become increasingly familiar to avoid the uncomfortable. It’s not that people don’t know what’s happening. Individuals instead instinctively evade discussion around issues, often citing a lack of education on the topic as an obstacle for productive dialogue. Subsequently, a culture of “chill” passivity has swept over discussions of race and associated injustices. This past school year, I occasionally spoke about systemic issues of inequality like voter suppression, the prison-industrial complex and discrimination in healthcare with some of my peers, only to be met with little to no enthusiasm. Instead, the ensuing conversation was very surface level and treated as an afterthought to the rest of the discussion. I believe we have grown accustomed to glossing over the negative details and instead become hyper-mellow to the point of insensitivity in regard to human life. Being “chill” means to ignore what’s happening around your bubble, to not care and to not feel.
Even beyond our immediate social circles, what is considered as “chill” is more formally disguised as being “politically correct” at our universities and workplaces. Being overly-impassioned is seen as a nuisance in the classroom and a liability in the corporate world. I recently came across an article where a Fortune 100 Director admitted she had not openly talked about her brother’s unjust death at the hands of police for 10 years to make her colleagues feel more comfortable and to draw less attention to herself. Thus, in efforts to tone down their “Blackness,” many put on a smile and learn to swallow the pain which often sits at the tip of their tongue. School and work is where we spend a significant amount of days. Not being able to show up with the difficult and complex experiences and emotions that have made individuals who they are creates a vacuum for people in pain and does not allow many, including myself, to be their authentic selves.
Many Americans are waking up from their deep ignorance. But let us not stop at realization. We must continue to perpetuate and normalize the structures which silence and pathologize the sentiments of those in pain. Whether we know it or not, we have been conditioned to perpetual numbness. Instead, we should open our hearts – not just our minds – to allow room to endure the pain.
Aakash Ray can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org