I Want to Talk to Y’all About EMPATHY for a Minute

Jeffery A. Salter/The Players' Tribune

Most people don’t know that I have a brother who is incarcerated in South Jersey. 

His full name is Eric Kirit Dawkins, but everyone just calls him Kirit. I haven’t talked much about him publicly, because to be honest it’s just not something I’ve felt like hearing people’s opinions on. I’m not trying to have a “debate” with anyone about this. It’s not just some fancy argument to me. That’s a real person, locked up in there. That’s someone I love, you know what I’m saying? That’s my brother.

But I’m changing my approach right now. I want to talk to y’all about Kirit and his situation for a minute — and I want to do it for a very important reason.

So, just to give you some background….. I’m the youngest child in my family, one of five. Kirit is my oldest brother, but he actually has the same birthday as me. So while he’s nine years older, in a way I’ve always thought of us like twins because of that. 

The way I describe Kirit to people, it’s like — everyone knows that one older kid growing up who’s like Kirit. That one older kid who’s just That Dude. That kid who just has it, right?? Where things just come easy for him. 

Like if there’s a pickup game going on, you’d know Kirit’s getting buckets and his team’s winning big. If guys are taking turns freestyling over a beat (and sounding goofy as hell), you’d know Kirit’s coming in at the end with some actual bars. Some real smooth sh*t. If there’s cute girls around, you’d know they’re all about to flock to Kirit, without him even trying. 

That’s my big brother.

Dion Dawkins
Courtesy of Dion Dawkins

Oh yeah and he was a good big brother.

Kirit wasn’t one of those older kids who would pick on us younger guys. 

He looked out for us.

Actually — I’ll hit you with a little football analogy here: Kirit was like one of those vets who’s done it all, and now his job is to bring the rookies along. He showed us who the cool athletes were (Allen Iverson, Brian Dawkins). He showed us what real music was (Nas, Jay). Man, and what was great about Kirit when we were growing up, is that he wasn’t one of these teenagers who was all about hating sh*t. Nah. Kirit loved life. And he taught me what’s still probably the best lesson I ever learned.

He showed me why it's dope to be good at stuff.

Sometimes I think the main reason that I managed to be successful as an athlete, and to live this blessed life, while Kirit is behind bars….. it’s luck. 

And by that I don’t mean it’s been all luck. I’ve worked HARD to get where I am. But at the same time — I think if Kirit and I flipped positions, and I was the older one, and he was the younger one who could learn all these lessons from me, and model his whole sh*t after me, and do better after seeing my mistakes?? Then it could have easily been me in his spot, and him in mine.

And knowing that….. it stays with you. You can’t ignore something like that. And that’s why I feel like I can’t sit around and let people get away with spewing their prejudices, and putting everyone into some pre-set box. I can’t sit around and listen to people talk about how “bad people go to prison,” when I know it’s way more complicated than that.

I can’t sit around and let people get away with thinking what I KNOW a lot of folks think to themselves privately: That Kirit is a typical “thug,” while I’m “one of the good ones.”

Dion Dawkins
Courtesy of Dion Dawkins

Want to know why my brother is in prison??? Alright, let’s go there.

Kirit didn’t shoot anybody. He didn’t kill anybody or hurt anybody. 

He got arrested on a gun charge.

And in New Jersey, a gun charge means a minimum five-year sentence. Let me repeat that: a minimum five-year sentence. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first charge, second, third or fourth. Meanwhile in other states, like Florida or Texas, you can have that same gun charge and be out quick. But in Jersey?

Five years, case closed.

And I want to be really clear about something: I do NOT condone what my brother did.

But at the same time, I look at the math, and I see there are 2.3 million people behind bars in this country….. and I see how many of those 2.3 million people are from Black, Brown, and low-income backgrounds. And it really makes me think hard about some stuff.

It really makes me think about something that I feel like a lot of people of color, and also people who care about people of color, have been talking about more and more lately — this idea that we can’t just be blindly trusting in all these institutions. I know it’s hard for some people to wrap their heads around, especially people who have grown up not having to think about these kinds of things. But it’s the truth. A lot of the things in this country that people just assume are fair, are actually very biased. 

Voting laws. Drug laws. Financial laws. I could keep going.

And yeah — a law that says it’s five years, minimum, for a gun charge? When that charge is mostly given to Black and Brown people from low-income and high-crime areas?? To me, if you look at it straight-up, you’re going to see that’s a biased law.

I’m not saying those things are evil. Or even that it’s intentional. But it’s just how a lot of the laws and systems and things in this country were made, a long-ass time ago. It’s how they’ve always been. 

And it’s how they’re going to keep on being, until we start making some changes.

Jeffery A. Salter/The Players' Tribune

And I guess the more I learn about all of this stuff, and the more I watch my brother go through this system we have, the more I’ve begun to understand how a first step toward positive change is empathy

No, for real: I think we all need a lot more empathy in our lives.

Maybe that sounds too simple, or touchy-feely — but it’s actually a very powerful thing. 

Feeling empathy, that means understanding each other’s experiences a little better. And I think the more we can try to do that, the more we can keep reminding ourselves of the human element in all this sh*t, the more we can get to a place where everyone gets a fair shot at living their life.

And I feel like the prison system is one of the places where we need empathy the most.

I just think so many people out there, even the ones who are “woke” or whatever, they probably have a lot of biases against people who are in prison. But they probably don’t know ANYTHING about them!!! And let’s just say it, man: They probably think they’re better than them.

Here’s how I view my brother Kirit: Yes, he made a mistake. He made a stupid mistake.

But he’s still a person, y’all.

He’s still that same person I told you about — that same big brother I had growing up.

Yes, he made a mistake. He made a stupid mistake. But he’s still a person, y’all. He’s still that same person I told you about.

Dion Dawkins

He’s still a DAD, now with four kids of his own. He’s still a loving parent, with a beating damn heart, who has to wake up every morning knowing he f*cked up in a way that left four young Black boys without their father for five years. Man, do you know what it’s like to have to live with that??

Can you find the empathy to try to understand that level of pain???

I try to do my part, as an uncle. (Uncle Dion!! What’s goodie??) And I’ll also tell you this — they’re four incredible young men. Every time I see them, it’ll be like, Eric is getting these elite grades in his classes, or A.J. just taught himself to DJ from YouTube, or Marquise is balling out in his youth leagues as an athlete, or Nasir (Kirit named him after Nas) is doing his pretty boy thing, licking his lips in every photo, and impressing the ladies. Or I’ll see they have a new TikTok video that’s popping off (they’re all about TikTok), just of them having fun, doing some type of silly-ass thing.

I love those boys. I love those boys like crazy.

But y’all make no mistake about it: They MISS their DAD.

And on the flip side of it?? I know the one thought that’s never far from Kirit’s mind as a father. And it’s the statistics about Black boys who grow up without their dads, and what kind of trouble that can potentially lead to. Or what kind of success that can potentially stifle.

I know what you’re thinking: But you just said they were good boys!

Yeah, I did, and that’s exactly the point. It’s not ABOUT whether you’re “good” or “bad” — if you lived the life that my brothers and I lived growing up, then you’d know that. 

You’d know we grew up with some tough circumstances….. and more often than not, it’s all about circumstances.

Circumstances like what neighborhood you live in. Circumstances like what color your skin is. Circumstances like how much money you’ve got. Circumstances like how often your father is around.

Circumstances where that real sh*t is just out of your control.

Courtesy of Dion Dawkins

I remember when COVID started last year….. of course we were all so anxious about it. 

But after talking with KIRIT?? 

Yo. That right there was some f*cking perspective.

First of all, imagine that as a parent. You’re hearing there’s this deadly pandemic going on all across the world — but you’re stuck in a cell, and you’re limited in the information you can get about it, and you can’t even do anything to protect your sons.

Oh, yeah, and you’re seeing body bags getting carried out of the prison you’re in.

And the little information you do get, it says that as the virus gets worse, prison inmates are going to be “sitting ducks.” (And most people seem O.K. with that!!)

Like I said — Kirit is probably the coolest guy I know. But when I’ve talked to him about the pandemic, and tried to figure out how to help him and his kids through that? So much of the Kirit I know, so much of the big brother I know, so much of the amazing life force that I know he has in him….. it’s just gone. It’s like it got zapped the f*ck out. And instead it all got replaced with this one thing — like there’s only one version of Kirit left now.

He’s a dad who is scared for his boys. 

Scared that he can’t protect them. 

Scared that something might happen to him, and he won’t be able to be there for them.

Scared, just like any parent would be, because he loves them like any parent would.

So much of the amazing life force that I know he has in him….. it’s just gone. It’s like it got zapped the f*ck out.

Dion Dawkins

And I guess that’s really what I mean here when I’m talking about empathy — especially today, on the Day of Empathy, the biggest day of action on criminal justice reform in the country. 

Kirit’s story is the one I know best….. but obviously this is a lot bigger than just him.

For me, the Day of Empathy is about us taking one of the least empathetic parts of our society — the way our criminal justice system seems to lock people up and throw away the key — and figuring out a way to use it as a turning point for something better.

As a turning point for REAL change.

I don’t know what it will take to get there, but I know this is a start. 

I know that huge movements can come out of basic ideas — and this one is pretty much as basic as it gets.

It’s the idea that people behind bars….. they’re just that: people.

They’re human beings.

We all are.

The Day of Empathy, which has been organized by Dream Corps, is a call to action with the concept of empathy at the very center of it. Victims of crime will be sitting down with victims of the system. Advocates and officers, family members and elected officials, people representing all facets of the criminal justice system will be coming together and finding a way to talk to each other civilly, productively, because they’re focused on solutions, not just pointing fingers.

It’s all online. It’s free. You can join from anywhere. And it’s important — to me, to my brother, and to millions of others and their families. You can get all the info and sign up here. I hope to see you there.