Like so many other people in the last two weeks, I have been obsessively watching the news.
One thing is clear- people are angry. Angry about institutional racism, angry about racial profiling, angry about police brutality, and angry about so many other displays of inequity that are happening in our country. People of color have always been marginalized in our society and people of all colors are finally saying enough is enough.
I am sickened that three white men (a father, son, and neighbor) stalked, shot, and killed Ahmaud Arbery while he was out for a jog. I am disgusted that Amy Cooper used race as a weapon when she called the police on an African American bird watcher in Central Park. I am horrified that Breonna Taylor was shot in her own home. I am haunted by the eight minute and 46 second video of the murder of Goerge Floyd as he tells the officer who is kneeling on his neck (and others officers watching) that he can’t breathe and calls out for his deceased mother. And I am saddened that there have been so many other crimes against people of color in even just the last year that I can’t remember all of their names.
While reading the news and social media over the last two weeks, as a white woman I have been thinking, “What can I do?”. As an LGBT person, I have been thinking, “What can I do?”. As a mother I’ve been thinking, “What can I do?”. As a human being I’ve been thinking, “What can I do?”
My wife, Lori, sent me the following quote this week from Ijeoma Oluo’s book So You Want to Talk About Race,” You have to get over the fear of facing the worst in yourself. You should instead fear unexamined racism. Fear the thought that right now, you could be contributing to the oppression of others and you don’t know it”. My wife works in the trauma and resilience space and spends a lot of time thinking about what causes trauma and how to help people and organizations become more resilient around it (see more at https://originstraining.org). As we were talking this week and I was all fired up about how other people are racist, she pointed out that all white people (yes, even the well-intentioned liberal crowd we run with and ourselves) need to make sure we are looking deep within ourselves at what racism has been ingrained and we need to be willing to do the hard work to make some changes.
It’s easy to point the finger at Amy Cooper and call her a racist but would I be more scared if I was passed on the street at night by a black man or a white man wearing a hoodie? I have to be honest and say the black man. I need to start thinking about how I might be contributing to racial inequity and what I can do to help end it. The burden has been placed on black people to fix but the burden should be on white people who created it. I am going to try to examine my own implicit racial biases to start making changes in myself as well as speaking out against racial inequity publicly. White silence leads to violence.
Last week I got a company-wide email from our ex-CEO (our division was just sold but we are still getting his emails). He wrote that he was talking to his daughter over breakfast and wondering what to do as a white British man living comfortably in a London suburb and his daughter told him that he had no excuse to stay silent or not to express his feelings of anger, concern, and empathy.
He also wrote that he had read a blog on our company website from a female black employee who talked about going to work and no one even addressed what was happening. People asked her the regular, “How’s it going?” but that was it. Business went on as usual with silence from colleagues and silence from leaders. After reading the blog and talking to his daughter, he realized that he had a voice and he needed to use it. He started by sending an email to all employees letting everyone know that he stands with his African American colleagues, condemns racism, and plans to continue to use his voice to create change.
That’s when I realized that I too need to use my voice. As a white woman, I need to stop being afraid of offending white friends, family members or strangers, or upsetting my black friends or colleagues by using the wrong language. I’m sure I will get the words or the language wrong sometimes. I’ll try to educate myself more, listen and try to make changes when I make mistakes but I will promise to speak from my heart in my own voice. I will use my voice to say that this is not ok and we all need to stand side by side to change institutional racism in our country. White people need to start examining our own biases and realizing that we are all part of the problem as we stand alongside our black friends/neighbors/family members/business associates/strangers to say enough is enough.
Earlier this week, I remembered that my parents were active in the civil rights movement, but I didn’t remember any of the details. I immediately called my dad and asked him about it. I woke him up from a nap but he quickly focused and got excited to tell me about it. He said when us kids were little and we lived in Lexington, Kentucky, my parents were grassroots community organizers (he proudly reminded me that is how Obama started). He said they worked arm and arm people of different colors in different communities to inspire change. He made sure to tell me that it was the local people who were in charge and making decisions in their own communities.
At that time my parents had five children under seven years old (can you imagine?) but they knew the importance of racial justice and they prioritized it in their lives. They would often take us with them into different communities and, my dad said, we made so many new friends that we would not have made if my parents had stayed comfortably in their mainly white suburb. I am proud that my parents understood ~50 years ago that this country was made great by diversity and they were willing to use their voice and their time to do something about it.
I started to think about what I’ve done and realized I have been sitting idly on the sidelines all of these years as systematic racism continues. I am a gay white woman working full time and raising three kids. My focus has been on family and work and, if I did take any time to advocate, I have been more focused on gay rights versus ending racism but I now realize there’s room for both. It should be and not or. I decided this week that I can start making changes by using my voice and hope that others do the same.
On a team work call this week with ~20 people, I decided to test using my voice. I was scared to do it, but I wanted to be brave. At the end of the call, I said, “Before we close, I have something to say”. When it was my turn, I turned on the video (which I hate doing) and said that I was moved by the email that our ex-CEO sent and the reference to the blog from the woman who said that no one at work talked about what was happening in our country but instead operated as business as usual. I said I wanted to change that and acknowledge what was happening was wrong. I went on to say that we work for an educational publishing company who writes and sells, among other things, a curriculum that includes history books so we have the power to make some real changes.
As I was talking my voice was cracking, my eyes were teary and I was just repeating in my head, “be brave”. It’s not easy to be brave on such a personal level in the workplace. Two of my African American colleagues (who are also my friends) were brave and turned on their video cameras too and thanked me for my words and continued the conversation.
Now I hope 20 people are talking with their families and friends about questioning the status quo and as the old Faberge shampoo ad used to say, “and they told two friends”. I hope that by using my voice at my work meeting, I have sparked conversations and more people are talking about ways that they can use their voice to create change and demand justice.
And by posting this, I hope it sparks some more conversations so if now 100 people are talking about this to friends and family and saying it’s not ok and 10 of them take action maybe we can make some real changes.
My oldest, Jackson, is a 13 year old boy. When we lived in DC, several of his best friends were black boys, both American and Jamaican. Back then, we talked to him about the fact that those friends will have a harder path in life that may include violence against them and that he needed to be aware of that, speak up for them, and stand next to them in solidarity. We talked to Jackson this week about the fact that those black friends are now teenagers living in DC. A mom of one of these friends said she won’t let her son go out alone now in a mask because at 13, he no longer looks like a boy but a black man and she’s afraid for him.
One of his best friends was a sweet boy who I’ll call Joe. Joe made an effort to welcome Jackson to his new school on his first day (we moved mid year so Jackson finished school in California one week and started school in DC the next).
When Joe befriended Jackson on that first day it made changing schools and moving across country easier for Jackson. Joe continued to be one of Jackson’s best friends throughout our time in DC. In 3rd grade, Joe was given an award that was something to the effect of being the best behaved kid in the whole grade. At the time Jackson asked, “Do you think Joe is so well behaved because his parents told him that as a black boy that was the safest way to get along in the world?” Sadly, my wife said I said we thought so.
Jackson is an emotionally intelligent kid and he also said that he has noticed where we live now, in a mainly white town in Northern California, the black kids at school sometimes get in trouble even if he’s doing the same things they are and that he tends to get in more trouble if he is hanging out with a black friend. Schools should be a safe place for kids, not a place where kids are scared and think they must be the best behaved kid in the grade to not be singled out.
Let’s all band together to use our voices and say enough is enough. It is going to take white people to start looking inward at our biases and making changes in ourselves as well as standing up within our families, our places of work, and our communities to say that this is not ok and things need to change. Our silence speaks volumes. Find your voice and use it however and wherever you can.