Grieve With Us

July 10, 2016 1 Photos

Man upset

After this week’s bloodshed in my country, how do we collectively grieve, when we individually turn against each other?

I went through a “rebellious” phase during early adulthood. Having avoided “R” rated movies up to that point, I thought, ‘By dang, I mean, damn, I’m going to watch some now!’ For some reason, I chose to watch Gladiator first, settling into my couch and my silly, defiant act. Despite Russell Crowe’s glistening biceps, I quickly became sickened by the human against human violence. And afraid. I turned it off, because I could.  

The violence inflicted by police officers and against them sickens me. Unlike with the movie, I can’t turn off that fear for my black son.

After every violent death of one of America’s black sons, I struggle with not only what it means for my son, but what I can do about it. I must do something, say something. Please trust me when I tell you that my concerns for my one black son weigh more than my concerns for my three white kids. I am not alone, and I am not overreacting. A study by The Guardian cites that, “Young black men were nine times more likely than other Americans to be killed by police officers in 2015.”

I engage in conversations with my ten-year-old, black son that never even cross my mind with my other children. For instance, with his older siblings we have never talked about complying with police requests. There are six people in my family, but only he is frequently approached by strangers to “Give me some knuckles.” Only he is greeted by people unknown to him with a “What’s up?” instead of “Hello.” Only he is called “dude,” and “brother,” and “n-word,” by people who barely know him. Only he endures almost daily hair-petting. These behaviors seem innocent, even friendly to some. They are not.

I watch him tread microaggression every day. I’m with him at the park or in the hallway at church, when adults pass by us, fist bumping him, and ignoring his sister, or me. He used to ask, “Why do people always want to touch my hair?” Now he ducks or runs away when they do. If he’s treated differently during casual exchanges, how can I trust that he will suddenly be treated equally in high-stress situations, like exchanges with police?

Racism starts with the unaware assumptions people make about my black child every day. I want to believe it can be prevented by challenging those assumptions, especially at the daily, casual level. Before we adopted our son, I onced asked a young girl if I could touch her braids. She lowered her eyes and agreed. I immediately sensed my error, and now I understand a little better. I’m not making a judgment against anyone who has touched my son’s hair. I’ve been there. I was clueless. I want to help others not to be.

After Alton Sterling was killed, and before the murders of the officers in Dallas and Philando Castille, I decided to ask my friends and family to grieve with me. I asked them to please consider not posting about or saying “All Lives Matter.” Until we admit that we haven’t valued black lives as much as white, we evade unity and peace. I wanted to reassure them that singling out a group to help (blacks) does not have to diminish our support of other groups (law enforcement). Did not our Savior single out the adulteress, the woman with the issue of blood, the lost sheep, and each one of us when he atoned for our individual hurts and transgressions?

Of course all lives matter to the Lord. One of the tenets of my faith and a true source of comfort sings through books of scripture and conference talks, “God is no respecter of persons.” We all belong to our Heavenly Parents. Until we believe in the significance of that interconnectedness, we cannot fully grieve as a people. And if we cannot fully grieve, we will not heal.

How can we “mourn with those that mourn,” and “comfort those that stand in need of comfort,” if we dismiss their mourning altogether? When we drop our defensiveness and political platforms, we see each other as the sisters and brothers we have covenanted to be. Instead of reaching for exceptions or justifications, can we just sit together in our worry?

As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, I’m confident that we can positively impact microaggression in our own families and wards. What if we all applied President Hinckley’s admonition to “Try a little harder to be a little better,” in this area? When we as black and transracial families in the Church speak up in lessons, educating our ward families, we foster awareness and dialogue. As we share successes and gratitude in our comments, we invite the Spirit. We can all stop the microaggression in the halls when we admit (even if only to ourselves) that we’ve been part of it. That enlightenment will help us avoid reoffending. We can read the Church’s official essay about the issue, “Race and the Priesthood,” and pray for our personal buy-in, clearing our minds of the racism of the past.

With renewed enlightenment, we work on what and whom we love. I have four children. Sometimes I focus my all my resources on one, because they need it the most. I still love the other three just as much. My black son and our black community needs my advocacy the most, and so I will stand up. While I can’t turn off the violent reality, I can stand watch. I can speak up about microaggression. I can educate, forgive, and extend charity.

So, what can you do? If when stopped by a police officer your worst fear is that you’re going to be late or about how it will affect your insurance rates, understand that you do NOT understand the fear every black person and their family members experience. Believe them. Believe their family members when we say that we feel compelled to say, “Black Lives Matter.” We want it to make a difference. We want to shout it. We want you to hear us.

Grieve with us, so we can all heal.  

What ideas do you have (or have you seen work) to stop microaggression in your wards and communities?


  1. Kellie

    July 11, 2016

    My boys and I have been discussing the news from America daily for months now. Partly because so much of it doesn’t make any sense, so much because it makes terrible sense, and mostly because I want my white, tall, blue-eyed boys to recognise that life for other people is different in so many ways and they need to be aware that saying nothing isn’t an option. That “keeping you in my prayers” needs to be replaced by action, by seeking to understand, to mourn, to comfort, to listen.

    That’s what I’m trying to do, to live, to teach – and I am certainly now aware of microaggression because of your post. Thank you for sharing your life, your worries, your heart and experiences.

    • Sherilyn Olsen

      July 11, 2016

      It inspires me that you’re teaching your sons about privilege. Increasing awareness is my overall goal with this post, and I thank you for being open to it.

  2. Paula

    July 11, 2016

    I have some neighbors who are a mixed race family. They are so amazing and I love them. I was talking to the mom about how crazy the world has become. She said yes it has and then she described much of what was detailed above. She has two beautiful daughters and when they are in public they get stares and comments from complete strangers. I was completely unaware and blindsided by her comments. It has really caused me to think about how I treat others, no matter the race. I have a several neighbors who are police officers. I would love to talk with them about her perspective.

    What works is to take the time to love people for who they are. Look beyond the color of their skin or the choices they have made. There are some mixed race children in my ward. I have never seen any problems with them and we just love them. I’m always telling their mom what great kids they are because they really are great kids.

  3. Sherilyn Olsen

    July 11, 2016

    Thank you, Paula. For so many of us (like it was with me before I had my son), it is only an awareness issue. As we become more sensitive to the lives of others’, we let in charity. The love you feel for those in your neighborhood and ward exemplifies that.

  4. ElleK

    July 11, 2016

    Thank you for beautifully sharing such hard truths. Several years ago, I used to think racism “isn’t really a thing anymore.” While things in many ways have improved for people of color, we still have a long way to go. Thanks for sharing suggestions for small things all of us can incorporate.

    • Sherilyn Olsen

      July 11, 2016

      Thank you for reading and being open to the suggestions, Elle.

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