“I see you, I love you, and I don’t need you to respond. I just want you to know.”
This is what my friend Ace Callwood asked for in his article The Burden of (Finally) Being Seen. In the immediate aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and consequential outbreak of protests across the country and Richmond, VA, in particular, I had no idea what to say or do. I was thunderstruck, every well intended message or question a potential landmine under very very thin ice.
I have known Ace since my very early days in Richmond and never once – I’m ashamed to admit – did it occur to me that his experience of our beloved city was different from mine:
“When you get stopped by the cops, you’re probably frustrated or inconvenienced. When I get stopped by the cops, I immediately turn on my voice recorder or camera. I grip my steering wheel with white knuckles lest an officer think I’m “reaching for” something. I tell the officer where my wallet is before I move. I tell him I’m going to be opening my glove compartment to get my registration. This isn’t being polite or well-behaved; it’s survival.”
Seeing me, seeing us, was your job as a human from the very beginning.Ace Callwood, The Burden of (Finally) Being Seen
Ace goes on to explain: “If you want to help, sit with your discomfort for a minute. I need you to not know how to change things and be torn up about it… I cannot absolve you of any guilt, nor am I inclined to bestow a gold star upon you. Seeing me, seeing us, was your job as a human from the very beginning. I appreciate that some of you are finally doing so and that others already have for some time, but don’t obligate me into your conversation about it. I’ll engage as I see fit, and I’ll educate as I have the energy, but I will not continue to thank you for seeing.”
Reading Ace’s account of his experience as an African-American still invokes feelings of shame, fear, guilt and disbelief. And I will feel them and be torn up about it, however long necessary.
If you want to help, sit with your discomfort for a minute. I need you to not know how to change things and be torn up about it…Ace Callwood, The Burden of (Finally) Being Seen
The first time I read The Burden of (Finally) Being Seen was during some of the most heated protests in Richmond. I was in the mountains of North Carolina with my daughter, taking in the news and social media reports from friends in Richmond in small and carefully measured doses. I was trying to decide how to show up. I will admit, dragging my 2-year old daughter into a crowd being tear gassed by Richmond police did not feel like making a difference. Posting some words of shock or solidarity on social media didn’t either. I was torn up about what my role was.
Find your lane
Then I read I’m not a protester by Josh Epperson and gained a little more clarity:
“I wasn’t always comfortable admitting in-the-street protest was not my lane. Unfortunately, there’s a false stigma that if you’re not on the front lines, you’re not about it. And I fell into believing that — which made me feel small, lazy, and self-doubting.
But I grew out of that belief. I realized my place in the fight isn’t on the front lines, but that doesn’t mean I can’t make a difference. This is about how I got there, and how when we own our role in social justice, we better support the roles of others.”
There’s a false stigma that if you’re not on the front lines, you’re not about it.Josh Epperson, I’m not a protester
In his article, Josh talks about how he made more conscious decisions about how to spend his time and money. He stepped away from commitments that did not directly further Black liberation and instead searched for new ways that were more closely aligned with his values:
“I started from who I am: a creative, an introvert, a writer, and a communicator. Then I asked myself, how could I use who I am in the best way possible? Not trying to emulate others, but using my unique skill set, something only I could offer the world.”
There are many different lanes on how to make an impact and take informed action. Josh closes with:
My work and journey are far from over, and I continue to explore how I can play the right role. But if I could help a younger me get here quicker, I would say this:
- Learn. Knowing the history will help you understand just how deep this shit is. Research redlining. Research convict leasing. Understand how revolution has been done before in this country. Get into the money. Don’t just understand — overstand just how broad and deep the enemy has entrenched himself.
- Broaden. Your network, your friends, your interests. Do it now. No matter how committed to #blacklivesmatter you might say you are, if you only have white friends, you’re not living your commitment. It’s harder in a quarantine. But not impossible.
- Audit. How you spend your time, your money, your words, your thoughts. You’re gonna feel shame at how little you spend at Black businesses. You’re gonna feel shame about how few Black events you attend. Suck it up and change it. Steal time from other places. Commit fully.
- Be you. Your life doesn’t have to be a struggle to be a part of the struggle. Start from where you are, who you are. Find your path and get on it. Happiness and liberation can be lived as they are pursued. Take heart.”
Check your bias and leave your pity party.
“A man and his son were in a car accident. The son was badly injured and the father died. When the boy was taken to the emergency room the surgeon said ‘I cannot operate on him, he is my son.’ The question is, who is the surgeon?”
This is how Tiffany Jana and Ashley Diaz Mejias introduce us to occupational bias in chapter 3 of their book Erasing Institutional Bias. How to create systemic change for organizational inclusion. I failed this riddle and had to admit I am as biased as everyone else.
“No one becomes a cultural ally overnight, but your intention does matter, and putting yourself out there in service of building authentic relationships across differences is definitely worth it.”Overcoming Bias, p. 5
As I mentioned earlier, I don’t believe in formulaic approaches for how to become an anti-racist but I can absolutely get down with some guidance on how to become self-aware, check my bias and privilege, and how to learn and understand the problem so that I can decide what lane is mine. Overcoming Bias. Building authentic relationships across differences resonated because Tiffany and Matthew make it crystal clear that
- We all are biased and have a responsibility to overcome harmful biases and learn how to hold ourselves accountable.
- Bias expands beyond racism. We all have some implicit biases towards people of different ages, genders, religions, ethnicities, occupations etc.
- We are not stuck with our biases. The book provides some guidance in how to take some first steps to work our way through and eventually out of them.
In a recent 1-hour talk (that I highly recommend!), Tiffany said “I have no time nor tolerance for white guilt. If that is what you are harboring, I want you to take a deep breath and I want you to breathe in goodness and light and love and equality and all of the things you wish to embody, and I want you to exhale the crap out of all that guilt. Because what that guilt does is it allows you to exist with the construct of a personal pity party. It becomes paralyzing, it becomes debilitating. You and noone on planet Earth today created all of these institutional hallmarks of racism. The whole foundation of the structure was created before our time. We inherited this gnarly legacy [code] and now we have the really complex job of dismantling that and building something new with intention.”
In Overcoming Bias, Tiffany talks about the essence of privilege and how to overcome or utilize it to empower others.
Privilege can blind you to the experiences of others, or cause you to misunderstand their experiences, choices, and opinions.Overcoming Bias, p. 72
She and Matthew discuss the importance of asking instead of assuming (“Developing the curiosity reflex goes a long way toward opening doors, extending empathy, and building connections.” p. 92) and listening empathetically instead of judging (“The moment you start thinking about what you want to say, you have stopped listening.” p. 105).
The really good news is that as more of us accept our individual responsibility for owning our biases and overcoming them, the potential impact on systemic bias is significant.Overcoming Bias, p. 6
Did you figure out the solution to the riddle about the surgeon who said “I cannot operate on him, he is my son.” with which we started this sub-chapter? The surgeon was the boy’s mother.
As you consider your role in fighting social injustice, I implore you to start with yourself, as uncomfortable and painful that might be. Accepting the fact that we are all biased – against different ages, occupations, genders, ethnicities, etc. is an excellent first step. For better or worse, you have to do the inner work before you can address issues in the system. As you do, take with you Tiffany Jana’s and Matthew Freeman’s advice:
No one expects to get on a bike and ride effortlessly without ever taking a tumble and scraping a knee. Overcoming bias is no different. We can provide the tools and skills, but be gentle to yourself as you road test these activities. No one becomes a cultural ally overnight, but your intention does matter, and putting yourself out there in service of building authentic relationships across differences is definitely worth it.Overcoming Bias, p. 5
Ready to dive deeper? Grab our resource guide on Allyship for changemakers!
photo credit: @and_rew_and_you