Often when we talk about violence perpetrated outside of the United States, specifically in Africa, we feel paralyzed by the extent of terror we face. As a protective response to witnessing immense violence and secondary trauma we convince ourselves these atrocities are too vast and devastating to address. Or, in today’s age of technology, we share a few posts on Instagram or Facebook, pat ourselves on the back for raising awareness and continue aimlessly scrolling down our feeds. While social media has undoubtedly been a valuable tool for raising the visibility of human rights violations around the world, it has simultaneously had the adverse consequence of numbing our capacity for empathy.
In the case of the Sudan Uprising movement, similar to the initial momentum of the Arab Spring, the overwhelming show of support, advocacy, and solidarity on social media channels illuminated the grave violence and injustices perpetuated by the Janjaweed militia and Transitional Military Council forces. Even when they attempted to squash the voice of the rebellion by cutting nearly all Internet outlets in Sudan, the international community continued to use their online platforms to amplify the voices of Sudanese activists on the ground.
However, while this show of support is encouraging, online activism still fails to expose how this thirty-year long pattern of violence in Sudan, and throughout other African nations, has devastated communities, fractured families, and scarred individuals living through it. The images of poor, dead Black bodies has inundated our social feeds so often that it has become normalized. We have become numb to the dire human suffering of Black bodies. The multilateral web of the media only reaffirms and exacerbates these images, creating the illusion that death and dying is somehow innate to the African mentality, lifestyle, and condition.
The violence in Sudan is part of a larger legacy of colonial imperialism that separates us from them, and justifies the oppression of Black bodies. It teaches us to sympathize rather than empathize and creates a vacuum of emotional intelligence that falls upon us to fill. Choosing to feel the plight and pain of others is no easy task because it asks us to first acknowledge the biases in our perspectives. That work is a necessary foundation to the emotional, spiritual, communal empathy with people outside of our immediate environment.
Here are some ways I have galvanized my empathy and found myself reflected in the Sudanese Revolution:
Understand Context Before Jumping to Action
When faced with situations of intense conflict our initial reaction is to seek ways to immediately resolve this tension. However, before jumping to saving the day, and acting from a reactionary place, it is vital to understand the context we are working within. In the case of Sudan, the recent Sudan Uprising movement is born out of a long and tumultuous history spanning decades of dictatorial oppression and mass violence against innocent civilians. This revolution did not appear overnight and its foundations have been built by countless activists that have given their lives in the pursuit of a free, representative democracy. Understanding the complex and nuanced political, cultural, social, economic, religious pieces that have led to this breaking point is the first step to becoming a supportive ally to the Sudanese community. Action without intention is counterproductive. Begin by doing your homework, like reading useful articles such as this piece via The Root, watching Hasan Minhaj’s episode “Protests in Sudan” on the Patriot Act, and attending community meetings on the issue. After building your knowledge base, you can begin to leverage the networks and skills in your own life to uplift the Sudanese revolution.
Disrupt the Monolithic Representation of Us vs. Them
One of the tried and true strategies of war is to divide and conquer. Colonizers have used it time and time again to polarize, split, and dominate indigenous communities to steal their land and resources. This pattern was repeated in Sudan and also adopted by recently ousted President of Sudan Omar Al-Bashir. One of the reasons the Sudan Uprising movement has been successful thus far has been its ability to shed this fallacy and unite Sudanese people across ethnic, religious, racial, linguistic, and economic backgrounds. Following in their example, it becomes imperative for us to do that same work beyond the African continent. The Sudanese revolution is a mass movement of people who have had enough of the senseless killing of their bodies and are standing against systemic, institutional violence. Sound familiar? In innumerable ways the Sudanese Revolution is reflected in the Black Lives Matter movement, the Occupy movement, the Immigration Reform movement, the Black Transgender Women’s movement, and many more. If you care for any of these or other collective movements for justice and anti-oppression then this is your revolution too.
Seek and Be Present with Activists
Even as a Sudanese person with family currently in Sudan I too have numbed myself to the senseless violence I experience second-hand from my cozy Brooklyn apartment. Therefore, I was excited when a Sudanese friend invited me to a show that showcased a piece by Ahmed Umar, a Norweigan-Sudanese visual artist making sense of the world in his own way. His performative installation, “if you no longer have a family, make your own with clay” closed out the show in an immersive, personal story of healing and play. Ahmed laid pieces of clay in front of each attendee and after a short introduction opened the space to us to make our families with our own hands. I began gently kneading the clay, and before I knew it, I was pounding it into the ground, hot tears streamed down face as I dug into the clay with my nails and spread it apart with force, reshaping it against my skin. My anger, frustration, and loneliness came outpouring and for the first time since the deadly crackdown on Sudanese protestors that killed hundreds, I truly felt the pain of my people.
While it is true that it is not the responsibility of oppressed people to explain their oppression to you, in the appropriate time and place, seek the voices of those willing and ready to share their narrative and perspective. More than pictures on a screen, take a chance and make yourself uncomfortable. Take your shame and guilt and find the avenue that will translate that into building your reservoir of empathy.
Start with Yourself
Last, but not least, start with cultivating empathy in your own family, community, job. As the well-known proverb reminds us, you cannot pour from an empty cup. So, whatever that may look like for you, begin by flexing your empathy muscle in small but intentional ways in your everyday life. The people of Sudan, those on the ground and beyond, are reflections of our collective humanity. See them, and bear witness to their pain, their kindness, and their determination in its fullest extent. See them in yourself and go from there.