(Photo by Alex Galiani)
“Any return to normal is a return to the normality of racism.” —Dr. Ibram X. Kendi
We’ve reached a critical juncture in our struggle for social justice. One thing has become clear: it’s now time to dig in and fight like hell. An honest examination is required of the institutionalized racism that has been built to oppress us all. You are not alone in your thoughts, your doubts, fears, hopes and dreams.
There’s no turning back, Baltimore.
Since the murder of George Floyd and publication of my essay, “Navigating the two worlds of Baltimore,” I have had the privilege to engage in some of the most powerful conversations of my life. The protests galvanized me to share my story about growing up in Charm City, battling racism and my journey towards self identity. In response, I have heard from nonracists, antiracists, racists and everyone in between.
Colleagues reached out, unsure if it was appropriate to speak out. Neighbors that know me said they “had no idea.”
Friends — some of whom see the world very differently from me — also chimed in, saying they were not sure if they wanted to “get involved.” I have heard from others, with the sound of fear in their voice and open hostility to any notion of change. I have heard from family members grappling with their own past actions.
I have spoken with strangers that now realize their stories aren’t so strange — someone else can relate. Bonds have formed with people I’ve never met, as we’ve found commonality in a struggle to survive, caught between two worlds.
To all those that I’ve spoken with over the past month: Thank you.
As we set a course for justice and equality, I’ve noticed some common threads running through many of my conversations with a myriad of people across Baltimore from all stations and backgrounds. In that spirit, I want to share with you some of the key sentiments I’ve heard, and takeaways that perhaps can help us all grow and realize that, in fact, we’re not alone in this beautiful struggle.
“I am not sure if I want to put myself out there. Why should I?”
To be in a place where you get to decide if you’re going to sit this one out or not is a place of privilege. For Black and Brown people, we don’t have the privilege of choice, or the luxury of deciding. To be clear: We are in the fight of our lives. For our children. And if you really think about it and follow the progression, we are fighting for your children, too. We are fighting for the future — for the kind of country we want to leave for them. The work starts at home, in our own backyard, in Baltimore. Recognize the privilege and use that place of privilege to make your voice heard. I have had some incredible conversations, and it has been so moving to witness firsthand the amazing growth and bravery of people taking a stand, speaking up and speaking out. If you are an ally, stand up and be counted. Step into the void.
“We are talking to our kids about what’s going on.”
I sat at the dinner table with my family three days after the calculated, methodical and gruesome murder of George Floyd. I had to explain to my nine-year-old daughter that what had happened to George Floyd was done at the hands of no less than those that took an oath to serve and protect ALL citizens. With tears streaming down my face, I had to explain that racism is alive and well in America. I watched the last bit of childhood innocence leave my daughter’s eyes on May 28. My daughter came to us two days after our talk and said, “I don’t understand. We talked about slavery in school and the teacher said it was a long time ago and now everything is fine.” The true history of our country is not, nor has it ever been, taught. This is exactly what structural racism looks like.
We are not alone. The vast number of people that I’ve spoken to are just now learning about the sinister methods and strategies implemented to brutalize Black people is of real significance. I know this can feel overwhelming. We are all grappling, daily, with learning something new about the wicked measures implemented across generations to lay the foundation and maintain a system of oppression. This is the system we seek to dismantle.
“What do I have to add to the conversation? What if I say the wrong thing?”
We all make mistakes. We won’t always say the right thing, and we all have blind spots…that’s what makes us human. Saying the wrong thing is better than not saying anything at all — your voice is too important to sit on the sideline. This is the same as learning how to ride a bike. When we were kids, we didn’t say, “Well, I am not gonna be perfect the first time out so I won’t even try.” We got on the bike and off we went — scared as hell, but excited — knowing that it probably wasn’t going to end well. Yet we were brave. We did it anyway because we knew the beauty of the freedom that laid before us, on the other side. We knew there was a world out there just waiting for us to explore. Remember how that felt? It’s time to help others taste that freedom, breathe deeply and soak in the excitement of all that should be possible, to relish a world anew. Get on the bike!
“I had no idea the world was like this. I was oblivious.”
Now we know. The Matrix is all around us. Like Neo, we’ve chosen to see the unvarnished truth. The system was designed for us to feel comfortable, and made sure we weren’t aware of the nefarious nature of its design. It was designed so we could excuse ourselves — to give ourselves a pass. It was never intended for us to notice the injustice. By design, the expectation was that we would simply go about our day doing our part and contributing to the economy like a good little worker bee. To be given this gift of sight is truly both a blessing and a curse. It’s hard to come to terms with the lie that has been right under our nose all along. But it is a lie nonetheless. It’s hard to admit we’ve been fooled or that we were wrong. You are not alone. I was fooled, too. But no more. No longer. Enough.
Speaking with a friend, she said, “I was so blind. It was like a gut punch when I realized it. I am taking stock of my life and how I was so unaware. I am doing something about it. I am learning.” This is what growth looks like. A brutally honest self examination is unfettered bravery. We have now been given the gift of sight. We can no longer look away. We are burdened with the truth. Now the real question is, what will we do with it? It’s not enough to say, “I had no idea. I feel so bad. I am sorry.” That does not excuse us from the work. Professing our guilt does not carry the day. In every other aspect of our lives, if something is wrong or if there’s a problem, we take action to correct it. We don’t dwell in the problem. We dwell in the solution. The solution is action.
“I am so scared raising my biracial child. I want him to be safe.”
I’m scared, too. My wife and I are raising biracial children. I’ve heard the fear in the voices of single mothers that find themselves staring out, everyday, at a hostile world. It is a world that seems bright with possibility, but these mothers know this world has been built to oppress. They know there is an ever-present shadow lurking. The shadow could be around any corner, bent on ripping their babies away. It is the dark vestige of a system constructed for the sole purpose of removing black bodies from this world. When I imagine my mother looking out on the same world, I know she must have been plagued by the same paralyzing fear, all those years ago. It was a different time, yet the shadow lurked. How would she protect this little Black boy from this unseen, but always present, malevolent being? I am witnessing my childhood repeating itself. I am hearing these women talk about fears I know my mother must have felt. I am watching my life unfold all over again, but lived by others.
Mothers grieve even before the child is lost. I’ve listened to these mothers fight to remain brave and their futile attempts to hold back tears. They awfulize about the unseen thief that moves in the night and is always ready to strike. These mothers know that, even in daylight, the power this system wields can unleash violence with impunity. By its nature, structural racism is designed to exterminate Black bodies. Mothers ask; what will the future hold for their biracial child? Mothers are wondering if this world will ever love and accept the Black child in all the ways she can only dream.
“Hey, how can I help? Let me know what you need or what I can do.”
I think one of the most productive things we can do is to continue to have conversations. We should be talking with friends, people that look like us and people that don’t look like us. We should be talking with people that think like us and with people that don’t. We should be actively listening to what we’re hearing. We should be challenging our own ideas and assumptions. We should be striving to learn, not bicker for the mere sake of “winning an argument.” Read more about Black/US history, systemic racism, racial equity and social justice. Think about the importance of diversity, the relevance of equity and the power of inclusion and what does it all mean. Seek out the true history of this country. We should go out of our way to find and support Black-owned businesses. Choose your own adventure, follow your heart. All of this is to say that our Black friends and colleagues are not here to serve as our “Black experience tour guide.” Follow your own path and discover your calling in this fight that speaks to you.
For many of us, we have arrived at the dawn of the reckoning of our times. Structural racism, a pervasive serpent, has weaved its way into almost every aspect of our lives, of our society. This has been and will remain a long struggle. This is a friendly reminder that the Montgomery Bus Boycott took 381 days. I am curious to see where we will be if we maintain focus and keep up the pressure for one year. What can we accomplish by the “anniversary” of George Floyd’s murder? Join me and take the pledge to make social justice your top priority for one year. We can start by demanding justice for Breonna Taylor. Every. Single. Day. Rest assured this struggle will remain a constant in your life for the rest of your days. I’ve said it before — this movement is forever. Let’s take it one day at a time.
If you believe in equity and justice for all, then you’re in the right place. If you’ve read this far, I have no doubt that this movement matters to you. We can no longer look away and remain willfully ignorant. This national nightmare continues to plague us from generation to generation. This is the nightmare we cannot awake from. An opportunity for change has been laid before us all. The only prerequisite required is a belief in ourselves that we have a role to play. This is a critical moment in time — this movement requires our time, it is worthy of our time. Step forward. Be the light in the darkness that illuminates the path along the way to the future we all deserve.
“If not us, then who? If not now, then when?” —John Lewis-30-
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