Like any other weekday, I went through my morning ritual of prayer and meditation, and then sat down with a cup of tea to check the morning headlines before starting another workday in corporate America. The last few weeks had been quite heavy and intense with the numerous protests against racism and police brutality after the most recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. As a black male, I saw myself in George and Ahmaud, and Breonna could have easily been a member of my family. With these events stacked on top of the COVID-19 virus wreaking economic havoc and social discord, along with provocative presidential tweets and the political rollercoaster of having national emergencies during an election year, I thought I was mentally prepared to see pretty much anything come through the news feed.
I scrolled down the page and found a headline revealing that two black males in separate areas of California were found hanging from trees. The article had no pictures, but my mind didn’t need any. My brain instantly produced an image of what must have been found on the scenes, and I was immediately sick to my stomach. My shoulders got heavy, and I sat there motionless, staring off into space for what I’m sure was at least thirty minutes.
The weight of that moment is hard to describe. According to the article, police were still investigating to determine if the hangings were homicides or suicides. Based on America’s history of lynching and my experiences as a black man, it was going to take a whole lot to make me believe that, of all ways to take one’s life, not one… but TWO black men located within an hour or so of each other both hung themselves from trees. However, regardless of whatever the evidence would ultimately indicate, one thing was for certain: black people in this country, especially black men, were under physical, mental, and emotional assault. My son had just reached the age of sixteen and would soon begin driving a car, and men and young boys just like us could be targeted and murdered at any given moment. If the physical violence didn’t get to us, the psychological pressure just might. My son could be approached and physically harmed by either a police officer or a civilian while out of my sight, making every moment he is away from me a living nightmare. Wives, including my own, were fearful their husbands and sons might not come home from routine trips to the store. If we as black men couldn’t protect ourselves, there was absolutely nothing we could do to protect our families, and the very thought of that was both terrifying and emasculating.
The heaviness of that moment was not going to leave me anytime soon. It was time to log on to my computer and begin my workday, and I needed to shift gears and move forward. As usual, I did my best to focus and push the reality of being black in America out of my mind so I could be productive and avoid fitting into any stereotypes in my workplace.
Later that week, I had a video conference call with my boss, who is white. A couple of minutes into our meeting, she sensed something was wrong and, in a sincere and heartfelt way, asked if I was okay. This must have been one of the few times my attempt to put on my game face fell flat. I paused, searching for the “right response”… the response that would maintain her confidence in me without being completely dishonest or totally abandoning my truth. “Not really, but I’ll be fine.” “Is there anything I can do to help?” she asked. “No, not really,” I responded. Unsatisfied with my current state, she offered me an out. “Would you like to hold off on our meeting and reschedule? I’m totally fine with that!” After being tempted to accept her offer for a split second, my game face found a second gear. “Nope, not at all. Let’s do it.” I pushed forward and our meeting was productive.
This experience is but one small peek into the reality of what it’s like to be a black man or woman in America. Regardless of our ability to compartmentalize and remain functional, our mental and emotional health is constantly under immense stress and pressure as our very existence and identities are challenged and threatened. Add to that the fact that many of us have to abandon at least some part of our blackness to excel or be accepted in the workplace, and it’s evident how truly amazing it is that we have the strength and poise to keep going, remain productive, and look like everything is okay.
Now, bit by bit, more and more white Americans are getting a better idea of what it’s truly like to be black in this country. Armed with this new insight, many white colleagues, friends, and acquaintances have been emotionally moved to the point where they want to do something to help. However, a good number of them have no idea of how to go about it. This can create an awkward dynamic where our white brothers and sisters want to approach us about racism, but they hesitate or avoid it because they are not sure what they should say, if it’s okay to bring it up, or how we will respond. Conversely, we as black people often have mixed feelings about being approached by white people regarding racism because, though we do appreciate the concern, past experiences can make us skeptical about their sincerity and ability to understand or accept our reality. Add to this the emotion and tension below the surface on such a sensitive subject, and the idea of raising the topic can seem risky if not outright dangerous. However, leaving the issue of racism and its current state in our country unaddressed could be just as explosive.
If you are feeling this way, have no fear. Though the road to greater understanding and unity can be quite bumpy, there are several practices you can keep in mind to create a smoother journey to your destination. Below I have listed eight key things for blacks and whites to remember when trying to discuss racism, bridge the racial divide, and partner to bring about change.
- No one has all the answers. : So, you don’t know exactly how to go about discussing racism with us, huh, white people? Lean in and I’ll let you in on a little secret… neither do we. When you muster up the courage to ask a black person about our reality and how you can get involved in creating change, there’s a good chance we won’t know how to respond. These conversations are new territory for all of us, so we might not have an answer for exactly how you can help when you first ask. We might even get emotional and say things that are difficult to hear. However, that doesn’t mean you should stop trying (unless we tell you to). Continue making an effort to build a stronger connection and focus on relationship rather than being anxious to get a quick resolution. Making true and lasting progress against racism begins with compassion, respect, and concern for one another… and that starts with relationship.
- Be open. Listen and speak without judgment. : Even though no one has all the answers, we DO know more about racism and being black than you do. Keep yourself open and receptive to our experiences, perspectives, and opinions, but also keep in mind that not every black person thinks or behaves the same way. Therefore, it’s never safe to presume. On the flip side, white people know more about what it’s like to be white in a country where, too often, people with their skin tone can have racist beliefs and/or behaviors. However, not every white person thinks and acts the same, so we as black people shouldn’t make presumptions about their beliefs or beat them up for being white either. This is a tremendous opportunity to create unity and partner in the fight for racial equity and justice. If each of us enters our conversation trying to convince the other person we are right about them or beat each other up about our perspectives and experiences, we will never make any progress. This is not the time for either party to take out his or her frustrations on the other and make them ashamed for being who they are. Rather, it’s an opportunity to learn and build bridges by developing compassion and respect for one another.
- Be patient. : The realization of just how prevalent, unfair, and unjust racism is can leave our white allies chomping at the bit to take action and “fix it”. Such energy and enthusiasm are definitely encouraging, but keep in mind that the journey to cure racist systems and ideologies is a marathon and not a sprint. Winning this battle will take a long-term commitment based on true compassion for those affected and a dedication to doing what’s right for humanity. Concurrently, we in the black community must be patient with our allies while they work to become more aware of our reality and challenges. Many people in America still live in “bubbles”, isolated from people who are different from them. This lack of exposure can leave them oblivious to the realities of other races, so it can take some time for them to broaden their understanding of the world. They can still get there and be valuable partners… just give them time.
- Have a willingness to be uncomfortable. : Conversations between blacks and whites on racism will more than likely be uncomfortable at first. That’s normal, and it’s okay. Each party will end up saying and hearing some things that are unpleasant or awkward. Just keep talking respectfully and truthfully, and the more you engage in these exchanges, the easier it will get. Having white people marching, protesting, and getting actively involved in the movement for racial equality and justice will be awkward at first too. It is critical that, no matter how weird it gets for both parties, we continue doing what’s right even when it’s uncomfortable. Black people in America cannot defeat racism without white people. Embrace and support one another through it with love and enthusiasm. No growth happens by staying in one’s comfort zone, so all of us, black, white, and in-between, have to stretch ourselves.
- Do your own research. : Racism is a human rights issue. Anyone who cares about the human race should want to eliminate racist systems and ideologies. In addition, all Americans should be open to learning about racism, past and present, and the history of black people because black history is American history. Therefore, I encourage everyone, including us, to do their own research and constantly seek to learn more about our history and how to influence the systems that perpetuate racism. Look up the areas where there are racial disparities and become familiar with them (income, education, incarceration, and housing to name a few). This will give everyone the knowledge and understanding to bring about real change and enable allies to make more valuable contributions to the fight against racism and injustice.
- Re-evaluate your beliefs, actions, and everyday life. : Sometimes we are blind to how our own experiences have affected our beliefs and created biases. The willingness of each of us to step outside of ourselves and see things from a different point of view is critical to the promotion of racial healing. If you believe you aren’t a racist, ask yourself if you’re an anti-racist. Do you participate in or allow racist rhetoric? Do you call out racist behavior when you see it? Are you willing to stand against racism even when it’s not popular and friends and family judge you? Would you be willing to hold public officials accountable for advancing our society on issues of systemic racism, inequity, and social justice? Would you embrace someone in your family if they dated or married someone black? Do you watch movies or television shows with predominantly black casts that are not comedies or sports related? Do you have stereotypical views of black people, such as preconceived notions about what we are good at, how we behave or dress, and our human potential? (Would you hire a black male named DeQuan to tutor your child if he was qualified?) The answers to these questions are not definitive of your entire character, but they are indicators of how loving and accepting you are of black people and whether or not you have biases or view us as equals.
- Commit to consistent and permanent growth. : Rather than viewing your involvement in the quest for justice and social change regarding race as a campaign, try thinking of it as a permanent shift in your life. Begin doing everyday life with people of different races (including black people). Visit their homes, families, and churches and let them visit yours. Continue learning, evolving, and involving yourself in creating a world that promotes the love, respect, and equality of all races. Share your intentions with someone who appreciates diversity and equality and is likely to hold you accountable. If you look at this experience as adopting a new or evolved value system and way of life rather than having an end date, you will be much more valuable in a movement that is likely to take quite some time to affect lasting change.
- Start where you are. : You don’t need authorization from a black person to begin making a difference in the fight against racism. You also don’t have to do anything grandiose. Doing little things to facilitate change can make a big difference. Start by evaluating what’s around you. Is your team and workplace diverse and inclusive? What about at the management level? What about your church? Do you have relationships with people of different races? Speaking out and taking action in the places where you spend your time is a great start to bringing about real change.
In this very moment, people of all races have a tremendous opportunity to transform our entire world. We don’t need or want a society that is color blind, but one that loves, embraces, and respects people of all colors. Each of us wants to be accepted for who we are, and to have the opportunity to be our best. This fundamental desire is a starting place for each of us to identify with those who appear to be different. No one’s skin color should put their personal safety or chance at success and happiness in jeopardy. Most of us realize and understand this, but we aren’t always true to it. If you are an ally to the black community, your voice has unique and tremendous power on issues of race and equality. Please make the most of that power. Now is the time for all races, especially blacks and whites, to come together for a better world and put racist systems and ideologies away for good.