Trapped: why George Floyd’s death resonates so deeply

Shared archetypes can be immensely powerful in the struggle to uproot racism.

Nilufar Ahmed
28 June 2020, 11.08pm
Protesting the Murder of George Floyd, Washington, DC, May 31, 2020.
Wikimedia Commons/Ted Eytan. CC BY-SA 2.0.

The brutal death of George Floyd and the protests it has sparked have had remarkable effects in communities all over the world. Statues glorifying slavers have been removed in the US and UK, and murals supporting Black Lives Matter have spread across the globe.

Sadly, the death of Black people at the hands of the police isn’t a new phenomenon, so what precipitated this response now? Part of the answer lies in timing, with both police violence and Covid-related mortality heavily shaped by race. “We are not conflating these separate incidences,” as the Black and Asian Counselling Psychology Group puts it, “but highlight them together to demonstrate how racism permeates and impacts Black lives.”

Whilst timing can explain some of this response, another reason is timeless: it is psychological. The image of a helpless individual being suffocated in a chokehold or dying with a policeman’s knee on his neck touches on something we can all empathise with in these times, even if we haven’t been subject to racist violence: the feeling of being powerless against the actions of those we entrust with our safety and protection, and a sense of being trapped.

When a mural painted by Syrian Artists Aziz Asmar and Anis Hamdoun to honour George Floyd went viral in early June, Asmar told Arab News that Floyd’s death reminded him of Syrians “killed by suffocation.” In the UK and other countries people are still feeling trapped in lockdown - stuck, held in place by people in positions of authority, and struggling. Common feelings like these are what Carl Jung described as the deep-rooted ‘collective unconscious,’ which is composed of archetypes that persist across time, place, and culture, and represent a kind of psychic infrastructure - “the archaic heritage of humanity” as he saw it.

Jung believed we all share an innate psychological connection through these archetypes, so that they arouse similar feelings when they are touched on in our collective unconscious regardless of where we are in the world geographically, or which religions or belief systems we adhere to, or our different education levels, ethnicity and class. When George Floyd lay dying and called out for his mother, it called on the mother archetype in us all.

Similar collective reactions are visible in the aftermath of natural disasters like floods and earthquakes, when most of us are safe at home with our families but are moved by images of others who’ve lost everything. The same thing is happening now in the context of lockdown, with the flourishing of mutual aid initiatives and collective demonstrations of solidarity in support of heath workers and care workers.

How can these insights from psychology help us to understand, not just ourselves and our reactions but also how to sustain this kind of collective empathy beyond the pandemic and the protests, so that systemic racism and inequality are called out and eventually abolished? Even though Covid-19 has created a novel space to examine this question, the answers are far from clear.

For one thing, the anxieties produced by police violence and the pandemic are complex and sometimes conflicted, especially for white people. They may invoke a ‘fight or flight’ response – going on a march, for example, or avoiding discomfort and rationalising events: “BAME people work in occupations more likely to be exposed to Covid-19;” “a petition would be a much better course of action than toppling a statue.”

These rationalisations remove the need to think about the role of systemic racism in creating inequalities, but they can also expose what Jung calls the “persona” - a mask for expressing racist views in a socially acceptable way. Other people might focus only on the safety of themselves and their immediate families, or take refuge in videos that encourage people to ‘tap’ themselves and stay calm whilst whispering affirmations of “I am worthy” as a response to the violence of world events, without a hint of irony at the excruciating level of white privilege that’s present in calls to heal oneself from the trauma of Black people’s deaths.

Mounting evidence that deaths in police custody of Black people and higher rates of BAME deaths from Covid-19 are directly linked to racism has exposed the white privilege that sustains systemic racial inequalities - inequalities which force BAME populations back to work faster than white people for example, and where police are more likely to fine BAME people for lockdown contraventions, thus bringing Covid-19, policing, and racism together again. As the reality of systemic racism becomes clearer, it creates an overwhelming realisation of complicity in sustaining it (however unwitting), which in turn can lead to guilt - one of the most psychologically debilitating emotions.

Many people who had considered themselves as ‘not racist’ are experiencing a form of moral injury. Most often linked to war veterans, moral injury is a particular type of psychological trauma that’s characterised by feelings of intense guilt, shame and spiritual crisis, which can develop when an individual finds their personal moral beliefs violated by those in authority - or by themselves and their familiars. Suddenly, people who see themselves in this way have begun to realise that they have been complicit in allowing racism to continue; that it is not enough ‘not to be racist.’ Actively being antiracist is essential.

What’s the best response to this situation? There are no easy answers. Unlike in ‘regular’ disasters there is no simple way to donate to reconstruction, and no obvious route to removing racism from our institutions. Writers like Jack Monroe have explored the dilemma of wanting to express support but being unsure of how to do this sensitively and effectively, being mindful of not offending others through ham-fisted or ill-judged interventions.

Amidst this sudden ‘wokeness’ it is worth considering the psychological impact of injustice that People of Colour have had to endure for generations, tolerating racial abuse, systemic discrimination and institutional racism across health and education services and in the workplace. For too long people have endured crippling racism without having their voices heard, and have been silenced or threatened when they have spoken up. Antidiscrimination legislation has merely led to racism being more covert than overt, and increased the use of terms like ‘unconscious bias’ that remove culpability from those responsible.

It’s in this context that the death of George Floyd has been such a powerful catalyst for change, not just in surfacing racial inequalities in America but also at the individual, psychological level for so many people worldwide. There has been a global surge in the sales of books on understanding race and privilege as people begin to take action to understand, learn, and educate themselves and the communities in which they live and work. As this awareness moves from the unconscious to the conscious level, we may be able to address racial privilege and inequalities with greater force, strategy, and unity.

To do so there are lots of actions we can take. We can acknowledge our own privilege and take time to read, educate ourselves, and learn how to be an authentic ally, not just a ‘performer.’ We can continue to march and join organised protests against racism in all its forms. We can use social media to follow BAME activists and educators, promote messages of inclusivity, share information, and highlight and promote Black-led organisations and businesses. And we can call out systemic racism in the workplace and in education.

Whilst many universities have issued statements that apparently commit to decolonising the curriculum, few have made any moves towards doing this in concrete terms. So students can demand to see evidence of such changes, and staff can demand that they stay on the agenda at formal meetings. We can ask schools to teach about Britain’s colonial history, so that people learn the historical links between Empire, the Commonwealth, and multicultural Britain. That would help to counter racist narratives.

Central to all these things is the willingness to acknowledge our shared humanity, and to interrogate and address racism and domination, without which no large-scale action is viable. That’s why understanding the psychological underpinnings of Jung’s collective archetypes and how they operate - for good and ill - is so important.

With or without our conscious intent, our unconscious will be triggered by events like George Floyd’s death. We can either engage with these archetypes positively and for the benefit of society, or try and repress and deny them, which will inevitably lead to greater conflict both at an individual and societal level. Staying silent is no longer an option. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

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