As a person of color I watched the video where it took Officer Derek Chauvin of the Minneapolis Police Department approximately 8 minutes and 46 seconds to snuff out the candle of George Floyd’s life. In the darkness that followed, as a society we are no longer capable of looking into the mirror because we would not like what we see. In the darkness that descends after these tragic events, we can sleep, we can speak, we can cry, we can try, we can lie, we can hope and we can pray. But the most important thing about the darkness that we find ourselves in, is that we cannot let it stay.
We are living in a time of transition and transformation. To survive in this world, we have created societies that bond us. In these societies, in order for them to function we must make promises to each other. For any healthy society to continue to function these promises must be sincere. Societies create systems which scale the effects of decisions and actions taken within them. These impacts are supposed to work towards a shared collective vision.
In American society and many others that dream is a promise of freedom, equality, liberty and justice for all. As individuals, if we share in that dream then each of us must do our part to make this conceptual idea into a tangible reality. When in America, where we have less than 5 percent of the world’s population and nearly 25 percent of the world’s prisoners, we cannot say we are delivering on our promise of freedom. When in America, when 78 percent of Congress is white, versus 61 percent of the overall population and the overall gap has widened over time, according to Pew Research Center, then we cannot say we are delivering on our promise of equality. When in America, since 1990 white applicants received, on average, 36% more callbacks than black applicants and 24% more callbacks than Latino applicants with identical résumés according to an Harvard Business Review Study then we cannot say we are delivering on our promise of liberty. When in America, Blacks are nearly four times as likely as whites to be arrested for drug offenses and 2.5 times as likely to be arrested for drug possession despite the research that demonstrates that whites and blacks use drugs at roughly the same rate, then we cannot say we are delivering on our promise of justice.
The reality is different from the dream for minorities in many communities. Nowhere is this more apparent than in America. The behaviors and injustices that take place on black bodies, communities and neighborhoods with impunity are evidence of philosophical divide in who the ideals of the dream apply to. It is the result of an Othering so deeply seeded in the subconscious through anger, hate, fear and dehumanization as to go seemingly undetectable until events like Georgy Floyd, the Amy Cooper incident, Eric Garner and others demand our attention.
As a person of color in spaces that are often not filled with too many people who look like me, it is in the aftermath of these moments that I am asked to be a spokesperson on behalf of my race on the dream deferred for people of color in America. I am called to help people understand and explain what they can do, how they should show up and what the best way is to be an ally.
Well, there are no simple answers. No one cause or one effect. Our reality is complex and it needs nuance and multi-dimensionality. As John A. Powell says: “It is like a bird in a cage. Examining one bar cannot explain why a bird cannot fly. But multiple bars, arranged in specific ways, reinforce each other and trap the bird.”. So what are the bars of the cage? They are the constructs of race and identities that we have created.
The world we live in is created. There’s nothing passive about it, and it has gone through many iterations and it’ll continue to go through changes, but it’s important for us even as we struggle in it and struggle against it, that we don’t fall into the trap of normalizing it. We all participate in shaping this change. We should not assume that race, racism, racial hierarchy is accidental or just a byproduct of being human. We have a responsibility to understand the systems we have created and its design in order to move beyond it.
My social media feeds are riddled with posts of solidarity from well-intentioned friends about how #blacklivesmatter, we want to help or a variety of variations of support for communities of color. My fear is that long after these posts fade in your timeline, this issue also will fade in relevance to you. The reality of blackness and othering is lived far from social media, it is lived in streets and ghettos, it is lived in bias sentencing guidelines, mass incarceration, housing discrimination, bias hiring practices, media misrepresentation, segregated neighborhoods and a host of other issues.
Our society has created embedded identities of Whiteness and Blackness. Whose definitions can be elusive. Often the idea of “Whiteness” is confused with meaning just a person’s skin color. The invention of “Whiteness” has a deeper meaning; it refers to power and privilege. It gives you the luxury to not have to think of certain issues, topics or contexts. This idea gives birth to its equal and opposite which is “Blackness” refers to more than a shade of melanin it means to be unseen, unheard and powerless. Being required to conform and abide by rules, systems and structures that do not reflect your voice or experience in the world. To find a common way forward we have to first understand the choices ahead of us and we have to be advocates for change.
Armchair activism is easy. Everybody loves to be “woke” until it means that you have to make changes in your own life and go outside of your comfort zone. Be less woke and do the work. If you are looking around your workplaces, neighborhoods and social circles and do not see people of color in the same proportion as other ethnicities you should ask yourself why that is? Those people who are not in those spaces certainly do not end up getting there as a result of your thoughts and prayer but rather it will change if you take action.
The good news is that we do have a choice. George Floyd’s death and those of many others brings into focus what we are choosing between. It is a choice between fear and acceptance. Or in simpler terms a choice between WE versus THEM.
One vision is a vision of an insular small hierarchical, exclusive, exploitive, WE. Only WE matter, not THEM. Where that WE is composed of a certain group, defined by arbitrary characteristics or beliefs. A WE imposed through the supremacy of their identity with ideology and force. Where to be different can mean death. The WE of the Brady bunch. The WE of the good ol’ boys club. The WE of making America Great Again.
The other vision is a vision of a larger collective WE or many WEs to coming together to make a shared and larger we. It extends to people who sometimes do not all look the same as you do, to people who do not all talk the same as you do, to people who do not all worship the same god as you do or hell don’t even worship at all. It demands of us that we acknowledge that we are not defined by our differences but by our shared humanity. The WE of the most diverse Congress ever where 22 percent of members of the House and Senate, or 116 lawmakers, are racial or ethnic minorities. The WE, where a study found that diverse management teams have 19 percent higher revenues. The WE, where we don’t have to go back but we dare to chart a new course forward.
These are the two pathways to the future we can choose between.
Choice means change, if it’s not going to be scary, we have to create the conditions and the stories that help people step into a new space. You are responsible for being a part of wielding the power of your choice. Harness your power to change your workplaces, your communities and our world. Start where you are, get informed and speak up.
Situations have undoubtedly improved for people of color, women, workers, LGBTQAI and many other groups. We have a lot to be grateful for but we should not be complacent. We have to be bold in dreaming about the world and communities we want to live in. If that world is multicultural, diverse and environments that prioritizes inclusivity and belonging that will require us to abandon systems that do not accelerate these outcomes.
There is nothing wrong with showing solidarity through hashtags or posts on social media. But do not let that be the full extent of your participation in shaping change. Steps that you can take to be a part of the solution is that you must listen to the people most affected by systemic injustice and educate ourselves. You must model a higher ethical code that you want to see in the world and work to bring more voices, backgrounds, experiences and ethnicities into your day to day. Making even just one friend from a place, space, background, orientation or ethnicity that is different from yours goes a long way. You must advocate for reform in your workplaces and communities for more inclusive and diverse practices and policies. Most important we must have the people we elected to represent us reflect these ideals, aspirations and dreams not just with their words but with their actions.
When we look at what is happening in our world in the conflicts and struggles that are taking place. A lot of it comes from the same storyline of supremacy. The past is not the past, but the present. The future does not belong to the past or the present, but to us and all of us. We have to learn from and build on the past in order to get a better future for us all. We must tell our story about the past but we must also develop on history to create a future that belongs to all of us where we all belong. It is through understanding each of our powers to choose, that we can come together to create something new. It will not necessarily be comfortable but imagine how proud we all can be by leaving behind systems and structures that create a more inclusive, equitable and flourishing society for all in the generations to come.
Here are some resources to help in broadening your understanding of the topic (by no means is it exhaustive but it is a start):
> George Floyd, Minneapolis Protests, Ahmaud Arbery & Amy Cooper | The Daily Social Distancing Show
> Putting Racism on the Table: John A. Powell on Structural Racism
>The future of race in America: Michelle Alexander
>13th Full documentary on Netflix