Let's Do the Work
Surprise, folks. Racism in this country isn’t new news. What happened to George Floyd isn’t the first time an African-American has been killed in the streets by police officers wearing the badge intended to protect and serve the very person they killed, or by vigilante citizens that completely discredit the meaning and purpose of community policing. Enslaving and murdering black people is perhaps one the ugliest truths of the history of our nation and could even be argued to have once been one of our most favorite all-American pastimes. Ask yourself how far we’ve actually come since the days families would round up their children and gather to watch lynchings in the street, while black bodies were left hanging for the entire community to see?
It is true that technology has advanced the awareness about the plight of African-Americans in this country, awareness generated because people are now, more than ever, feeling empowered to document these injustices as evidence it occurred. Awareness is also heightened because of the measures we take to become self-educated and to educate others as well the platforms readily available to us to gather and share that information. Yet still, well-meaning parents and family members of bi-racial children, and even black parents I’ve spoken to recently, say they try to protect their young ones (while they are still cute enough not to be considered a threat) from the racism, discrimination, and injustice they are destined to experience because of the color of their skin. We know the truth of history is harsh and unfavorable and is often withheld from textbooks and banned from classrooms, but being uneducated or undereducated about racial issues does us no favors in our effort to create change.
Even though people are standing up, calling out violence and murder as it happens before their eyes, some still don’t understand the fight. There are folks that believe the protests are the problem, who see angry black people calling out in utter desperation for change as a threat to our privileged white existence. Protesting isn’t the problem. Murdering innocent black lives is. Intention to do harm or cause violence is a problem. Please remember that not all who are protesting are violent, causing damage, or looting stores. Take a look from another perspective, and you might see there are also folks who appear to be instigating violence and attempting to discredit the entire Black Lives Matter movement. Protesting is a result of deeply held fear that officers like Derrick Chauvin, or fathers and sons like Gregory and Travis McMichael, or everyday citizens like Amy Cooper, will one day come for you. This fear is deep, it causes trauma and emotional scars too often hidden by the veil of pretending to be OK or by the cloak of invisibility that seemingly well-intentioned, but inherently-privileged white folks are more comfortable if they wear.
In many places in history we see progress where there have been people brave enough to speak out, to speak up, and to say something in protest of the status quo. We have the rights and privileges we do today because someone before us stood up and was willing to fight. For white women in our country, we will celebrate 100 years of being given the right to vote this year after people came together to organize, protest, and speak out, even when those in power didn’t believe women deserve a voice or a place at the table where decisions were being made. But not all women were granted the same rights, it would take more than forty years before black women would be allowed to step foot into a voting booth. While they may not be the best or only source, articles like the ones below discuss the history of voting rights for African-Americans in this country:
Make no mistake, we all stand here because someone before us spoke up. We stand on the shoulders of all those that fought for our rights and for the injustices deeply ingrained in the systems and structures we find ourselves in. Why is it that we can’t associate protesting with progress and change? How can we celebrate the right to vote and simultaneously not recognize and honor the protests that allowed us to have those privileges? There are some who have no issues with the status quo, because systemic issues of injustice don’t impact them, or they simply choose not to get involved. I think the emerging voices of today are right about one thing, no protest (peaceful or otherwise) is the “right” way to protest. Part of the challenge is we have an unconscious and deeply held bias and belief that protests are generally associated with violence, and they are frequently associated with people of color and marginalized communities. Some will still say they don’t see the point of protests, some will think the protests themselves are the crime. But logic tells us that not all protests are driven by the same trauma nor do they hold the same emotional weight like senseless murders and modern-day lynching of blacks in this country.
For all those wondering what they can do to help, I would first suggest they understand that African-American and other people of color are tired. They are tired of standing alone, they are tired of being the token spokesperson on behalf of all people of color. They are tired of the senseless killings of their brothers and sisters. The are tired of the disparities, of the discrimination, of the justice system that continually fails them. They are tired of being asked to be the ones to educate others. They are simply tired. I know all too well from conversations with my daughter, with my family members, and with dear friends that they are not OK, despite what they may say or the smiles they wear to hide their pain and suffering.
Take the time to educate yourself, to read about the history of racism in this country, to become informed about how to be a better ally. Showing up is an important way to be supportive, but we must also do the work. We must become educated. We must ask the difficult questions. We must be willing to have the difficult conversations that make us uncomfortable, without trying to prove a point because we think we know something. We must seek understanding and knowledge for ourselves and not rely only on people of color to educate us. We must choose to be upstanders instead of bystanders in every instance we witness racism. We must stop saying we don’t see color, because what we are actually saying is we don’t see you.
There are many ways we can help carry the weight of injustice against black and brown communities. As a teenager, my daughter began building her own library of books and reference materials about black history and encouraged me to read things like, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander, Invisible Man by Ralph Elllison, and Hang a Thousand Trees with Ribbons: The Story of Phillis Wheatley by Ann Rinaldi. She also insisted I watch the movie, 13th and become more informed about the prison industrial complex. There are resources available for allies who do actually see our fellow citizens, hear their cries for justice, and want to help, like these:
Tonight at 8pm CST, a PBS special will air called “Race Matters: America in Crisis” which will explore America’s deep systemic racial disparities in education, the criminal justice system, the economy, and health care, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. I encourage you to watch.
While there are tangible actions we can all take to be an ally and supporter, we must first start by taking personal responsibility and accountability for our part in the problem and in the solution. I was asked recently to reply to questions posed by a community member about systemic racism as a candidate running for public office, and I wanted to share that reply here as well. While educating ourselves and standing up to racism in all its forms may not be the only solution, at least it is a place to start.
We (the black community) tend to only see most elected officials when they need our vote (election time). Then it feels they disappear when it's time to really do the work for our communities or simply listen.
So, for those running for office this year in Wichita, Sedgwick County or at the state level, I would like to know the answer to the following questions:
What are your plans to address systemic, institutional, covert, and overt racism in our city and county? How will you hold your colleagues accountable to do the same if you're elected?
What work have you done prior to putting your name on the ballot to support black communities?
I can understand why the black community feels they only see elected officials when they’re running for office. I am not too ashamed to admit I have felt disconnected from politics for much of my life. Like a majority of Americans, I have harbored feelings of distrust in government, a sentiment fueled by police brutality, unethical behavior, back door deals, and abuse of power.
In March 2007, I went to work for SACNAS Advancing Hispanics/Chicanos & Native Americans in Science, where I supported their mission as an inclusive organization dedicated to fostering the success of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans, from college students to professionals, in attaining advanced degrees, careers, and positions of leadership in STEM. It was here I learned the importance of advocating for policy and worked closely with diverse researchers and scientists from universities, organizations, associations, national labs, and federal agencies across the country. I also helped organize and lead the National Diversity in STEM Conference for four years and raised millions in unrestricted funds to connect underrepresented students with opportunities to learn, grow, and lead.
I am also proud to have served as a leader and mentor to the student government association, Associated Students San Jose State University for six years, which represents a diverse body of 33,000 students. A majority of the students elected during my tenure were people of color, and they fought for issues like mandatory diversity training for all incoming students after a black freshman was locked in a closet with a bike lock around his neck and called three fifths by his roommates. Together, we fought these and other injustices, led awareness campaigns, hosted town halls, organized marches, operated community service programs, delivered trainings, launched a food pantry, rallied for undocumented student rights, and fought for what are now the current African-American/ Black and Chicanx/ Latinx Student Success Centers on campus.
I am the mother of a black child, but I recognize that my experience with racism is largely indirect. Aside from dirty looks and difficult conversations, my privilege has protected me from the direct pain and suffering that oppressive racist behavior causes. However, my pain as a mother is real, and my heart is broken for every member of the black community. I watched the life leave George Floyd’s body once and cannot bear to watch the footage again. As a small child, my daughter was pushed to the ground and told to stay in the dirt where she belonged, she was called out publicly in class by a fellow student who stated they wouldn’t work in a group with blacks (his word choice was not that kind), and as an adult, she now keeps her wallet on the dash and her hands on top of the steering wheel if she’s ever pulled over by the police. She genuinely fears for her life and has learned to take precautions to keep herself safe. This is not healthy behavior, rather a learned response to the very real and repeated trauma of perpetual racism.
I believe it is my responsibility and the responsibility of all Americans to do the work, to educate ourselves, talk to people of color one-on-one to understand their perspectives, the disparities they face, their greatest needs, and even their deepest fears. We must continually practice having difficult conversations, uncomfortable conversations, conversations most people don’t really want to have - or don’t want to continue having over and over again without seeing real change. Simply put, we must address racism in every moment it appears, with every individual, every colleague and friend, and in every system and structure we find ourselves in.
We must be honest about racism and learn to discuss it openly and publicly, but also listen with more compassion. Let’s unpack and reframe the misguided notion that racism is a viewpoint, and tolerating racism is an acceptable response. It’s not always comfortable calling out racist comments, micro-aggressions, or injustices. It’s equally not easy for people to see or admit that their thinking, actions, or behaviors may be racist because of the implicit biases they may hold. Most of us tend to immediately defend ourselves when someone calls us out. It is a basic human instinct to not want to be wrong.
Racism couldn’t be more wrong than it is today. Learning to stand up may be challenging, but silence is the most complacent of responses we can have. Silence is also a missed learning opportunity, one we will always regret not taking. I have and will continue to do the work, ask the questions, embrace opportunities for learning and growth, and listen instead of believing that I already know and understand.