I was afraid I would be fired this week or that this would be the week when I’d start to be alienated at my agency.
For years, I’ve had a not-so-secret agenda of bringing in more black, brown, and queer voices into the professional speaking industry. My agency has long been viewed as the best speakers bureau in the world. So, amplifying voices of people from diverse communities under the agency’s banner could go a long way to lift those experiences, stories, and ideas to a wider audience. But, like almost every other agency in this industry, we haven’t done such a great job at doing so and for years I felt uncomfortable with bringing it up.
A few weeks into the coronavirus pandemic, David Kessler, a grief expert, was interviewed about that feeling in the air. He said about coronavirus, “This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We’re not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.”
In modern history, I imagine we’ve collectively grieved, as a country, after the assassination of JFK and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., after the space shuttle Challenger explosion, on September 11th, and now with coronavirus. Five times in about 60 years. In the past two weeks, we, people of color, have collectively grieved the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, the murder of Breonna Taylor, the attempted weaponization of police against Christian Cooper, and the murder of George Floyd, and we’re still grieving coronavirus, too.
The country, collectively, has grieved five times in 60 years. People of color have collectively grieved five times in 2 weeks. And we carry that into work, school, our relationships, and are expected to be okay— even if and when we’re not.
On Monday, knowing who the President of my company is, I fully expected him to have emailed everyone first thing in the morning about everything that was playing out. 3 o’clock came around and still no email. I drafted an email to him. I stared at it for about 20-minutes — afraid, uncomfortable. I genuinely feared he’d read my email and I’d be fired, and that who I thought my boss was would have been completely wrong all along. Or, that after reading my email he wouldn’t be receptive to what I was saying, that he’d be against the protest and the fight for racial justice, and I’d have to quit.
I love my job. I work with some of the best people you can know and happen to represent arguably the most consequential and influential professional speakers on the planet. While I stared at my email, I knew that hitting send could jeopardize my position at the agency, essentially cutting off the possibility for many underrepresented people to have access to the industry on a platform at this level. I sat there steeped in uncomfortability, in concern, in hurt, and grief.
I hit send.
I hit send knowing that my relationship with the President of my company and the agency would change.
He responded, quickly, authentically, vulnerably, and powerfully. His reasoning, in my opinion, was valid and extremely considerate. He addressed his misstep and the agency has committed to creating lasting change in the agency, industry, and world reaffirming that black lives matter.
I am leaving out a lot of details about the conversations that took place immediately after sending that email and over the week. I am leaving out actions that have already been taken and the agency’s commitments going forward. I’m leaving out details about the difficult conversations we’ve had agency-wide on race, equity, and allyship; and I’m leaving out the actions we’re taking to being an anti-racist agency. I left those out because that’s not why I’m sharing.
I’m sharing for a few reasons:
I’m sharing because I’m hurting, I’m tired, I can’t sleep, I cry often throughout the day, and I’ve been isolating myself even here at home with my husband. Some of that works to heal my pain — sitting in it, being with it, processing it. Some of it works to comfort my soul. But living there serves no one. If you’re not sleeping, if you’re crying, isolating yourselves, and struggling with an avalanche of emotions, that’s okay. It’s completely appropriate. You are not alone in your grieving. I understand if it’s all too much at times. I know I can’t be a physical shoulder to cry on now, but if you need to or want to vent, cry, or scream, please reach out, to me, a friend, a loved one, just reach out. There’s no reason you have to carry that pain yourself and try to uncomfortably manage yourself around people all the time. I’m here if you just want to go off and scream.
I am also sharing because this week, after many conversations at work and with peers, I’ve come face to face with the fact that I live in an uncomfortable space most of the time. I live in a space between being in alignment with my values, my beliefs, and my culture and making sure I don’t make the world so uncomfortable with me that I’m alienated, that I lose my jobs, income, and social circles. I know many people would say they live in a similar uncomfortable space between being who they are and adjusting to social norms. When our unique characteristics and quirks are up against norms, that’s one thing — that’s deeply personal and specific to the individual, and we get to work through that. It’s a completely different thing when a people’s race — the color of their skin — is up against social norms because they were born in a society designed to devalue, humiliate, and overlook their/our humanity.
Because of how my skin color is perceived, I find that I’ve been living in a space of uncomfortability most of my life. What do I mean?
Throughout my career (and life) I’ve wondered if I bring up racist, sexist, or homophobic behavior and microaggressions that I witnessed or experienced would that result in people alienating me at work or cause my friends to be distant. I often wondered if I should just keep quiet, do my job, keep my head down, and let someone else worry about it. I’d tell myself, “I have bigger things to deal with” or “I’m on deadline, I can’t waste my time on this” and I just eat it.
Do I correct my boss, colleague, or friends every time they call me by another name, or do I stay quiet so I’m not considered hypersensitive, told it’s nothing, and it was just an innocent mistake?
Do I bring up opportunities we’re missing at work that can lift diverse voices, generate significant income for underserved communities, and be good for business, or do I stay quiet when I’m told, “that’s not really our market” and acquiesce so I’m not singled out as someone who’s “hyperfocus” on diversity issues?
Do I call my liberal and white friends out on their culturally insensitive comments and behaviors or do I just smile and pretend everything’s cool because I know their heart and rather than challenging their perceived power and assumed dominion of cultural norms I keep quiet to maintain “peace” and “harmony.”
Whatever it was that someone else did that was rooted in racism or homophobia and made me uncomfortable, I’d just sit in the uncomfortable space with it alone.
Well, white friends, white allies, I’m done being uncomfortable alone. If you’re a white ally in racial justice, if you’re committed to being anti-racist, if you see that our peace, our harmony, our healing, and progress are bound together, then its time for you to share in this uncomfortability.
It’s time for you to be ready, willing, and committed to having your perceived power and unquestioned dominion over others’ challenges. In one of the conversations I participated in this week, someone said,
White people get ready to hear the black and brown people in your life say the things they’ve never said to your face before.
I remember one time I had friends over and I was making oatmeal. One of them smelled it and asked me how I was making it. I told them my recipe and she said, “That’s not how you’re supposed to make it.” I remember thinking, “Well, every Spanish person I know makes it this way.” And this was a friend of mine. Microaggressions are real, even among people who love you. Assumed dominion is real, even among people who care about you.
White people, if you’re committed to racial justice, equity, and being anti-racist, it’s going to require that you share in the uncomfortability. So people get ready to be confronted in these uncomfortable moments. Understand that the major difference now, when you’re confronted, is that we’re not the only ones who feel uncomfortable. We’re making you share in the uncomfortability. If you’re committed to racial justice and equity, fantastic! But, know what to expect. Be ready to be uncomfortable. It is part of the process. Be ready for these conversations to hit you right in the face and not go exactly as you anticipate. And, please, continue to show up. We need you.
I’ve always believed the notion that it is the responsibility of the majority to defend and preserve the rights of the minority. When it comes to race, white people you are the majority. We *need* you in this fight for racial justice and equity. We *need* you now and for the long haul to help create systemic change. We cannot do this without you. We need all people of goodwill to work for racial justice and equity so that all people benefit from a world that works for everyone.
I have many friends and know many people who have been actively engaged in these difficult conversations for years and have consistently been in action around this racial justice and equity.
This next part is NOT addressed to you.
For many years I’ve marched, campaigned, organized rallies, health fairs, fundraisers, protested, canvassed, and coordinated efforts to further racial justice and equity locally, nationally, and globally. But, it’s been a few years now since I’ve been engaged. My actions, for some time, have been limited to social media shares, retweets, online petitions, voter registration drives, etc., which are all things required to support these efforts and this movement. But, I haven’t shown up as I am now — not for a while. My friends, bosses, and people in my life are experiencing a re-engaged version of me. In a sense, who I am now is new or new-ish for many people. I’m coming to the subject of racial justice and equity different, purposeful, intentional — now.
White people in my life are also engaging in this conversation, now. They’re coming to me with a new commitment to racial justice and equity and I’m encouraged and appreciative, especially because we *need* them. Rather than being upset that they weren’t here all along, I remind myself of this moment I had when I came out as a gay man.
It must have been about two weeks after I first came to terms with my sexuality and spoke the words, “I think I’m gay.” I was with two friends talking about the possibility of coming out to my parents and siblings and preparing myself for the conversation. Anticipating them not accepting me for who I am, I started ranting, “If they don’t accept me for who I am, they can go to hell! I don’t care about them anyway. To hell with them!” One friend turned to me, waited for me to finish, and said, “Ruben… shut up. After all these years, you are only recently coming to this. Yeah, you knew about it, in your heart, and always felt it, but you’re just now coming to it like this. If you tell your parents and brother and they don’t come around to it immediately and need some time, give them some grace. It took you some time to come to this. Give them some time too.”
What I find myself doing with my white colleagues and friends (and boss) who are stepping up and coming to this, is giving them some grace for not being here all along. I know they, like me, have known what’s going on for some time but choose not to come to this conversation sooner. They’re here now. So, I give them some grace, particularly since I’m just re-engaging in this again, in this way.
When I speak with my white friends, I establish the context and framework for my expectation in this unified movement and this moment.
Specifically, here’s what I do.
Black lives matter
I do ask white people, if they haven’t already, to publicly reaffirm that black lives matter, not as a belief, a feeling, or thought, but state it as what it is — a fact. Black lives matter — period.
I do tell white people to educate themselves. White friends, there are resources out there. Look them up. Van Jones said, (God forbid) but if you learned that your child had cancer on a Monday, by Friday of that week you’d be an expert on that particular cancer and all its treatments. You’d know everything about it. Why? Because it mattered to you. If this matters to you, take committed action, now. If it matters, start learning and start making a change, now.
Don’t show up innocently.
I do tell white people NOT to show up innocently to their friends, co-workers, employees, customers, and community as if this is something they just realized is happening. Here’s why you can’t show up innocently. You’re not innocent. We know you’ve watched us be murdered. We know you didn’t grieve with us. We know it wasn’t important (enough) to you. You had to get to work, take your kids to soccer, binge Survivor, and or do whatever else it is that mattered more to you than black lives. We’re aware of your choices. The LAST thing we want is for you to show up pretending to be innocent as if you had no idea. You’re here now. Don’t pretend to be innocent. Take responsibility. You ignored our murders. You can feel sad, but please do not approach us as if you’re just learning about this. You don’t rally behind a movement after one incident. You’ve seen it all along. Eight minutes and forty-six seconds of someone pleading with you, reaching for you, asking you to stop pretending that you don’t see what’s going on, while his life left his body, was too much to ignore. We get it. You’re here now. You’re committed. Let’s get to work healing the wound of our past and bridging the divide of our communities so we can work toward racial justice and equity, and create a world that works for everyone.
Share in the uncomfortability
I do let white people know it’s going to be uncomfortable, that I’m almost always uncomfortable, and we will perhaps for the first time be uncomfortable together in our commitment for racial justice. When we take the uncomfortable risk of being authentic and powerfully vulnerable with you, specifically around race, we do so because we care about the relationship, about the business, and about societal progress. So, when you get the benefit of our unvarnished truth it’s not the time to run away because you don’t like what we said, or how we said it, and it made you feel. We ALWAYS feel uncomfortable. Imagine, constantly biting our tongues and choosing to be uncomfortable so that others are comfortable, daily, simply because your skin is darker. The reason for the uncomfortability is because we are healing the wounds of the past that are present today, in our relationship. We may be angry, pissed off, hurt, and sad. We’re grieving losses that you don’t even acknowledge; we’re trying our best to push through the routine of life carrying the pain of those losses and those to come, while you show up innocently hurt by our confrontation — a confrontation designed for healing, reconciling, and truth. So, it’s going to be uncomfortable but all growth is.
Here’s a list
I do send white people a list of things they can do to advance racial justice and equity if they ask “how are you doing? do you need anything?” Yes, I do. I need you to do this… The list is often specific to their business, industry, network, and influence. If they’re going to ask, I’m going to answer, with specifics.
I do ask white people to send updates. If you’re going to ask me if I need anything and I send you a list, I’m asking for updates. It’s not enough to commit to making a change in their families, communities, and work. After the news cycles pass, routines may set in, and people may go back to pretending not to know that we’re being murdered by a cruel system. So, if white people are committed, I ask them to share their commitments publicly, and publicly commit to sending updates.
I do thank white people, on behalf of myself and humanity, for stepping into this fight for racial justice, for committing to creating a more equitable world, one that works for everyone. We need all people of goodwill in this fight.
My request is that, if you have the energy, you do the same. Set the context for your white friends, colleagues, and bosses — if you can. Take care of yourself. Take care of each other.
Good luck. Godspeed. I love you.