Conversations about Charleston and Physics

Approximate reading time:4 minutes

I really need to have a sane conversation about the Charleston shooting with safe people with a variety of P’sOV. (The Internet is probably not the place to do that, I know.) That hate and murder are wrong is not up for debate in my book…I just need to hear well-thought perspectives from many areas: criminology, mental health, race relations, history. I greatly fear the emotional knee-jerk that tends to blind most people to every perspective but their own and silences all but the most strident and sensational voices.

The only specific comment that I have right now is that while mental illness ought never be a free pass for violence, I don’t think it needs to be completely thrown out as a factor in the equation of this terrible deed and the blame pinned entirely on “sane” hatred. (Which, in my colloquial opinion, is an oxymoron.) It’s not an either-or situation. There are, sadly, many people who hold racist and hateful beliefs, some of them intensely so, but very few of them decide to use a gun to take innocent lives. I think there is more to the story than racism, which is not to say that racism is not part of, perhaps even the main part of, the tragedy in Charleston. (Why does it seem like so many people- including myself at times- and institutions interpret, “There’s more to this than your perspective/agenda,” to mean, “Your perspective/agenda is invalid” and therefore stop paying attention to other voices? When did listening to other P’sOV become so threatening??)

But in general…I’m afraid. I’m afraid that because race and racism is such a polarizing issue that the Charleston shooting will be separated (by media coverage and individual biases from both sides of the political spectrum) from the other narrative to which it belongs, the one that includes Newtown, Virginia Tech, Columbine, Jonesboro, and placed in a box with Birmingham, Chapel Hill, South Boston. (Didn’t hear about the last one, did you?) And by doing so, even in the name of claiming the story of hate against one’s own group, the Us vs. Them mindset from which hate arises lives on and grows stronger. From what I’ve read of the news coverage and social media responses from my personal sphere, this is already starting to happen. I hear an undercurrent of, “Look how the media treats THOSE shootings by THOSE people and minimizes the racism involved in OUR shooting and OUR ongoing plight.” And while pointing out the double standard is valid, I’m afraid that the angriest voices will shut down the conversation.

Let me just get real here, since I’ve been guilty of this myself: I’m not saying that black, brown, bronze, and beige people should pussyfoot around the issue of racism for fear of offending white people. But I wonder if the narrative is getting tired and loaded with so many bad connotations that it’s ceased to be meaningful. I have to believe there’s a way to frame the conversation that doesn’t put everyone on the defensive. A small but meaningful (to me) example was a suggestion from a teaching workshop last week to refer to “team work,” not “group work” because students think they know what group work is and they don’t like it. What harm does it do me as a teacher to use a term that’s not loaded with negativity for my students, and to teach them the new shades of meaning in “team”? I honestly don’t know what this would look like in the conversation about race, but from the responses I see in my own (relatively diverse) sphere of encounter, the old narrative isn’t working. This isn’t about being politically correct and non-offensive; it’s about finding new (or renewed) ways to communicate across [perceived] canyons of difference. And of course everyone also has the responsibility to lay down their own swords and shields. I guess that’s where I can start myself, and I know it’s easier for me as an Asian-American because I just don’t face the same kind of passive and active resistance in my everyday life as African-Americans, the vast cultural array of Muslim-Americans, and first-generation immigrants encounter. But it matters to me that people do, including those I know and care about dearly.

Conversations about the broken mental heath care and social services systems, gun access, and public security tend to well up after white people shoot other white people. Conversations about systemic inequality and poverty tend to well up when colored people shoot other colored people. Conversations about oppression and racism and hate crimes tend to well up when white people shoot colored people. And then all the conversations eventually drown in a sea of noise. My question is, why aren’t these all part of the same conversation? There’s a phenomenon in wave physics called interference, which occurs when two waves meet when traveling in the same medium. If the waves are displacing in the opposite direction, they cancel each other out. “It’s about mental health and gun control!” “No, it’s about racism!” The result is silence and inaction. But if the waves are displacing in the same direction, they combine to form a wave of greater amplitude than either individual wave. A call…no, a roar for liberty and justice for all swelling across the country and the world.

[cue dramatic music]

I don’t know how to do this yet. [violin screech crash] I’m not an expert in anything except maybe caring and hope. But I want to hear and reflect on the grief and outrage, listen to and analyze the problems, and lend my voice and hands, however small, to the solutions. (Another teacher favorite there: two ears, two hands, only one mouth. Listen and act twice as much as you talk!)

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