Taking It Personally

A call for empathy after tragedies in Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights, and Dallas.

Woman at Protest A woman participates in a Black Lives Matter Protest in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, drawing comparisons to "Tank Man." Jonathan Bachman for Reuters.

By Taylor Smith

later that night

i held an atlas in my lap

ran my fingers across the whole world

and whispered

where does it hurt?

it answered




What They Did Yesterday AfternoonWarsan Shire


These words seem more appropriate now than any I can find.

When my mother picked me up from the bus station in the wee hours of Friday morning, I knew that no cute catch-up awaited. I knew that I would instead hear her sadness, her anger, her worry for her son and her nephews. And I suspect about 13% of Americans were having similar conversations at the time.

I never watched the Eric Garner video. Not because I didn’t care, and not even because of the queasiness I knew the sight of a human life being stripped would bring me. I chose not to watch, because as a black person, I wanted to think of him too as a person. And that video, like the video of 37-year-old Alton Sterling being pinned down, and shot at close range, and the video of 32-year-old Philando Castile’s lifeless body beside his distraught girlfriend and her child captures not only a life lost, but a transformation from human to statistic, from developed being to talking point.

I’ve been one of the lucky ones: safe neighborhood, good education. I’ve never seen a gun that wasn’t secured in the holsters of my two police officer uncles. But whenever I do watch one of these all too frequent videos, as I forced myself to do for Sterling and Castile, whenever I double check a trending topic to make sure the latest ‘unidentified black man’ wasn’t gunned down where one of my loved ones lives, I am painfully reminded that for some we are colors and not people. And any relief I feel is hollowed out by the grief of those who weren’t so fortunate. The fact is, for some of us, it’s always personal.

I spoke to my brother shortly after the deaths of Sterling and Castile, and as a young black man himself, he was numb:

“Seeing these recent events are a troubling reminder of the realities that still exist in this country for a black male,” he told me. “It’s appalling to realize that we currently live in a society where a routine traffic violation can result in death simply by the perception of the color of your skin as we’ve now seen time & time again.”

In the coming days, we’ll see many a news outlet dust off the statistics that tell us what we already know. And we’ll see the obligatory Facebook posts, the statements, the celebrity open letters calling for nondescript ‘action.’ I doubt I’m alone in not knowing just yet what form that action should take.

Thursday night’s events in Dallas aren’t it. That tragedy, like following the Zimmerman acquittal with a failure to even indict Darren Wilson, is only another step backward.

What I do know is this: Most of the U.S. population doesn’t have to see their son or brother or cousin or father in the latest trending topic, and a solidarity profile picture won’t change that. Only taking a moment to put yourself in another’s shoes will change that. Only pausing and taking it personally will change that. As we move forward and try to figure out what the right actions are, I hope we don’t forget to call on each other for conversation and, most importantly, empathy. That must always be where the right actions—such as acknowledging that we are all affected by these events, and seeking common ground before drawing lines in the sand—begin. Without it, we’ll only see more pain.