By Mary Jo Cochrum
This past year and a half has really been different. I think many of us have learned a lot about ourselves during this time—I know that I have. We have all walked through things that we never even imagined that we would face. It has been a season in which we have heard the word “unprecedented” more times than we would have cared to. I am weary and worn from the layers of grief I’ve experienced throughout this pandemic.
As a therapist, these grief spaces felt natural for me to move through and to sit in with others. Not always comfortable or easy, but I didn’t feel resistance to the need for comfort…until George Floyd was murdered. I’m sure we all remember that day.
Just so you can have a frame of reference, I am a 57-year-old, white girl. I was born in New Orleans, Louisiana, but I’ve lived most of my life in Texas. I grew up and have lived in a very white world.
The weeks and months following George Floyd’s murder were some of the most inspiring and horrific I’ve ever seen, and I cannot even imagine what it was like for my brothers and sisters of color. During the protesting it was encouraging to see people of all races come together peacefully for racial equality and justice, but the rioting and brutality was disheartening. I know that there have been many people of color senselessly killed by law enforcement officers in this country before George Floyd, and I am ashamed to say that it took this man’s death for me to realize I needed to make some changes. I am also very thankful that God has been graceful and merciful with me in this process.
It was during that time that some ladies at our congregation and a few from outside organized a group to have some open and honest conversations about race and unity. We had white sisters and sisters of color together and we wanted to take some time to share stories and hear each other—really hear each other.
Now, I have to tell you—some of what I discovered about myself I didn’t like. Each of our black sisters took turns talking about their experiences—where they grew up, how life has been for them, challenges, etc. It was truly eye-opening because one of these ladies I have known for more than 30 years! And I had no idea. I had no idea that I had done and said things that were hurtful and offensive. That there were times that these ladies did not feel welcomed or a part of our church body because of the color of their skin. That they were followed around department stores by security personnel because of the color of their skin. That they feared for the lives of their black sons and had to teach them what to do if they were stopped by a police officer. So many things to which I have never given a second thought. So many things I have never had to worry about. So many things I have never even considered.
During our initial discussions, I kept finding myself having these somatic responses. I was so very uncomfortable. I wanted to stop them and tell them that it wasn’t that way—that I wasn’t that way. I was resistant to their pain and grief because it was so hard to hear.
I finally came to a place where I was able to move through my pride and break through my defensive walls and respond with empathy and compassion for the difficulties that my black sisters had endured simply because of the color of their skin. At first it was hard to want to comfort—and that felt so foreign to me. I still felt resistance, so I knew there were areas in which I needed to grow. I had to remember Romans 12:15—“mourn with those who mourn.” The apostle Paul doesn’t tell us to judge whether the mourning is justifiable. He doesn’t tell us to argue or categorize or politicize or investigate so we can determine whether we should or not. He says to join in with those who are hurting. It’s not ours to decide whether the other person’s sorrow is worthy of our comfort or our time.
So here’s what I discovered…
I discovered that I have racial biases that I need to examine and eliminate. I’ve never considered myself racist, but I discovered that I am—that I grew up that way. Not in a white supremacist kind of way, but in a microaggression kind of way. I react differently to a young black man walking toward me on the street than I do to a young white man—making assumptions about someone based upon the color of their skin—like assuming a person of Latino descent only speaks Spanish. I have been implicitly taught that “whiteness” is the only way in which to live an appropriately civilized life. It’s difficult, but I’m working hard to change those kinds of biases.
I discovered that I have had white privilege all my life. This was a really difficult one for me. At first when I heard the term “white privilege” I thought, “not me, my family was never privileged!” I grew up in a family that always lived on a budget. We never went hungry or were without a home, but we didn’t have a lot of extras. So, it didn’t make sense to me that I could have “privilege.” Until my sweet sisters gently helped me to understand that white privilege had nothing to do with money, it had everything to do with the way people see you—it’s about how one is advantaged in life. Because I had white skin, I was never followed by security personnel in a store. Because my son has white skin, I have never worried about him walking down the street or being stopped by a police officer. Because I have white skin, I am automatically given certain privilege that people of color are not given in certain circumstances. Because I have white skin, I am viewed through a different lens.
I discovered that I need to listen more and talk less. That the answer to our racial differences is not talking at each other, it’s listening to each other. It’s listening with openness, compassion, and empathy. It’s hearing where someone else is and sitting in the discomfort and pain with them. It’s hearing the difficulties and not judging them or dismissing them but walking with them through it all.
I discovered that it’s my responsibility to educate myself about racism and the history of peoples of color. I’ve discovered that much of our country’s history was left out of my education. That much of the history that I know is very white and that I need to brighten it up with the color that should have been there all along. I honestly got overwhelmed by the resources that my sisters were throwing out there. Some were involved in Be the Bridge classes, others were listening to podcasts and YouTube videos, others were watching movies and documentaries and reading books. I’ve spent some time listening and watching and learning. The resources are endless, but very necessary.
I discovered I must exercise self-care in this process. Much of what I have learned, I have not liked—about myself, about my country’s history, about my white history. Many of the resources tell stories and have images that have made me sick to my stomach and brought tears streaming down my face—wondering how one human being could do such things to another human being. So, I had to know when to take a step back and give myself some space to breathe and regroup.
I have discovered it’s a process—like so many other things in this life. To heal the brokenness of racism, we must take the time to address the wounds. We must acknowledge that they exist. We must examine them and decide on the best treatment plan. We must confess our sin and ask for forgiveness—over and over again.
More recently, I have discovered that I must be intentional about keeping racial equality and justice a priority. It is so easy to slip back into old habits and lose awareness of the injustices that surround me. I must be purposeful in promoting unity among followers of Christ of every color and ethnicity.
So, through these discoveries—and I’m certain there are more to come—I have learned how to respond with empathy and compassion even when I don’t fully understand someone’s grief. My sisters of color have been grieving for years things that I will never be able to understand. But it’s not my job to understand because grief does not need justifying or rationalizing. It’s simply my job to “mourn with those who mourn” and that’s the most healing discovery of all.
About the Author- Mary Jo Cochrum is a Licensed Professional Counselor and EMDR Certified Therapist. She has a small private practice where she specialize in trauma work and especially enjoy s treating dissociative disorders but she also work with individuals with a variety of struggles. She has been married to her high school sweetheart for 38 years and they have three children and eight precious grandchildren.