The news has been filled with stories of woe, there are articles on global warming, wildfires, drought, famine, and storms. And that's just the weather! Then along came COVID-19, a global economic shutdown, and millions of people losing their jobs. As if all that weren't enough, the political divide grew wider as each side dug deeper into their positions. Just as we seemed to be coming out of holes as the economy started to reopen, there was the horrific video of the killing of George Floyd that tore open deep wounds around inequality, criminal justice, and unchecked police brutality. Seemingly out of nowhere, the Black Lives Matter movement sprang back into the nation's consciousness.
While the country faced the challenge of reopening, the news was suddenly filled with images of protests, riots, and even some unfortunate troublemakers taking advantage of a situation to loot and vandalize. You could almost hear an audible gasp from many as this practically non-stop parade of difficult news took a new turn, and we were faced with having to deal with a genuine discussion of systemic racism, privilege, and inequality. Without a break, we moved from COVID-19 to Black Lives Matter, and for many of us, it has been a lot to process and figure out the best way to thoughtfully respond.
The Black Lives Matter Movement is Real
By trade, I'm a marketer. I help businesses build awareness for their brands. I understand the power of visuals, and at this moment in time, people taking to the streets, holding up signs, shouting out slogans, and confronting authority was powerful. We live in a time when everyone has a camera and videos of encounters gone bad, looting, and verbal shouting matches can quickly go from a phone to Twitter, and end up on CNN. Information moves faster than we can digest it.
But I'm also very aware that with this flood of information comes editorial selectivity. Does a peaceful protest make Anderson Cooper's show or do the videos of looting or police brutality take center stage? What should newspapers write about? Defunding the police, changing the names of military bases, or the outrage from the President's constant stream of insensitive tweets? Agendas are in play, and it's tough to sort through the noise and the politics of it all.
To be clear, this is a seminal moment in our country's history. The Black Lives Matter movement isn't new, but the frustrations it represents have clearly reached a boiling point. Economic inequality has never been more pronounced than it is today. And to make matters worse, the pandemic of COVID-19 has hit the black community harder than other segments of our society. While the reasons for that are under investigation, it seems likely that lack of access to healthcare, multi-generational living conditions, and underlying health issues are suspect causes.
Yet even as I write this, we've seen a massive run-up in the stock market after the crash earlier in the year. It's happening at the same time as thousands march in protest, millions of people are filing for unemployment, and COVID-19 is seemingly clawing its way back in certain cities. How can the stock market, and the mostly wealthy people it represents, be so seemingly disconnected from the realities of the moment and the plight faced by people of color? How are those at the bottom of the economic ladder continually being pushed further down? They're out of work in record numbers with little hope on the horizon.
As I've pondered these things, I have been trying to figure out the best way to personally respond the Black Life Matter movement. I know I've been the recipient of privilege but really didn't know what that meant when viewed through someone else's eyes. Growing up, the first African-American student in my class didn't appear until my junior year of high school. In college, I could count the number of people of color in my class on the one hand.
Even as I entered the workforce, my exposure to anything but a sea of white people was pretty limited. I moved around a bit before settling into a home in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was a booming banking town but also one with a clear divide. When you crossed over "the tracks," the difference between the white suburbs and the urban black areas was stark. The banks were trying to become more diverse places, but progress was slow. That said, I met some fantastic colleagues of color while working there, and that began to finally expand the diversity of my circle.
When I moved to Orlando, Florida, things were very different. Orlando is truly a melting pot with people from all over the world. My circle of friends almost immediately became more diverse, and I believe I've grown to be a better person because of my exposure to this diverse mix of friends. Exposure to other cultures, viewpoints, and life experiences deeply impacted my view of the world and challenged my assumptions. Orlando is not a perfect place, we still have an "other side of tracks" here too, which means we have work to do.
As I was contemplating my response to this moment, a good friend of mine texted and shared an observation about me:
Chat with my close friend
Why has your voice been silent on social media?
I don’t like jumping on bandwagons just to do it. It feels disingenuous...a “thoughts and prayers” kind of response. I don’t just want to be some privileged white guy who shares a few posts and feels better. I’m searching for the right thing to do or say.
I hope that makes sense.
Silence is no longer acceptable. Your feelings of being disingenuous and your discomfort with those “feelings” are no longer excusable.
People are dying. You’re white. You have privilege. And you have a voice!
A Cancel Culture? Am I Not "Woke" Enough?
The conversation gave me a lot to think about. On the one hand, I get the point that silence is a statement. Part of the reason we have so many problems today is that people have been silent or simply looked the other way instead of raising their voices or taking action. It's a valid point and one I've been considering and, in all honesty, probably overthinking.
On the other hand, the underlying tone was that I was being called out for not jumping on a social media bandwagon of black squares, video shares, reposts of protest signs, etc. in support of the protesters and the Black Lives Matter movement. Let me be clear, I'm not in any way discounting the importance or relevance of other people's voices and how they choose to express their support. Everyone is entitled to their own voice and how they want to raise it. But what bothered me was that I was apparently being called out for not following the pack...for not being "woke" to the moment. Regardless of how I felt or what I might be doing on my own without fanfare, I was not acting in a prescribed way, and that apparently had raised red flags.
Someone shared this video on Twitter, and I thought it summarized entirely the thoughts going through my head.
Sorting Out My Feelings
I decided to reach out to my brother, who has made his life's work serving in disadvantaged communities. He works to provide support and opportunities in a hands-on way, without fanfare or boast. He's a man of action and has been actively working for years to make a difference on the "other side of the tracks." I wanted to get his perspective on the current situation and thoughts on how best to support the issues underlying the Black Lives Matter movement.
Here's my letter to him and his thoughtful response to my inquiry.
Excerpt from a letter to my brother
It sounds like you've been given some significant responsibilities and who would have guessed that the problems with COVID would only get multiplied by the recent protest movement. Given that you work closely with the black community, I'm sure you have much better insight into the feelings and angst than those of us primarily isolated from what's going on in our urban environments.
I've personally struggled to figure out the best way to respond to recent events. While I fully support the cry for reform, I'm absolutely against violence and looting. I also think it's unfair the frame policing as all bad instead of focusing on specific individuals and policies. I have both black friends and friends that are police officers. There are always two sides to any story. But overall, I understand the frustration of a system that seems to be keeping people down instead of providing more opportunities to rise up. Protests have ignited conversations from the board room to the family room, and that's what I'd hope should happen from a moment like this. It feels like there's something more to this moment than others in recent years.
All that said, I got pushback yesterday from one of my friends who questioned my silence. What he was really alluding to was my lack of posting black screens on social media or sharing black lives matter photos, etc. In other words, his perspective was one only of what he sees from social media because we've had many private conversations on the topic. To make matters more confusing, he commented that some of our mutual friends had also noticed and commented on it to him. My natural response in situations like that is to get defensive. I was annoyed being questioned and even more annoyed to hear I was the topic of behind my back conversation. At the same time, I appreciate it when friends bring up issues of concern, and it wasn't done harshly, just strongly. His point was, silence WAS my response from his perspective.
So, all that got me thinking, which is my age-old problem. I tend to overthink things to the point of inaction, and then the moment to act passes by. My initial reaction to all the social media posts was much like The Ice Bucket Challenge. Everyone wanted to jump on the bandwagon because it seemed like the right thing to do, but I wonder how many really understood the cause or what they were supporting. The same was true with the blackout day, it had initially been started as something else and then morphed into this huge social media event, and I doubt most people even knew the genesis of it. That's not to say it didn't still have value for what it was, it definitely made a statement, but my personality is such that I tend to pushback on things I'm made to feel obligated to do just to fit in. I don't believe that's always the right approach because often it's just my stubbornness, but there is a case to be made that merely being a follower isn't all that much of a statement or stand. I think of the "thoughts and prayers" comment often made after a tragedy, it rings hollow mostly, but people feel obligated to say it in place of something more meaningful.
Anyway, …this whole thing has been on my mind a lot and silence is not where my head is, but I've struggled how to best express my views.
Excerpt from my brother's response
Thanks so much for letting me know. Knowing what to say, how to say it in a world of social media and the internet is so challenging, isn’t it?
And I agree that sometimes good movements can turn trivial, fast.
It’s complicated, isn’t it?
In my opinion, the larger question for white folks like us is, “Where do we go from here?” — beyond our words. What books will we start to read with others, or movies will we watch with others, what small groups will we attend, where do we begin regularly showing up to engage in conversations, or volunteer in uncomfortable places? I think that’s where the real change occurs—when we step out into places that are uncomfortable for us, and serve in ways that are inconvenient to our schedule.
And perhaps that becomes a point of conversation with your friends. So maybe this is an opportunity to engage with your friends, and friends of color, to do some things together, even in a time of physical distancing. Maybe watch "Just Mercy" together, and have a conversation about it? Or see if a local health service organization is recruiting volunteers where you all can serve together in parts of town where black and brown neighbors are really hurting?
In other words, perhaps your response to your friend can sound something like, “I really want to do something meaningful–something that’s more than words. What can we do together to learn and grow and serve those who need help?”
And perhaps you even challenge your friend to serve and NOT post about it—just serve without the fanfare and publicity. I find that our neighbors appreciate when we simply show up and see how we can serve them, instead of coming with the mindset of, “What can this service opportunity do for me / my online image?” Our neighbors in need know when they are used.
My Habitat for Humanity friends are very weary of the “weekend volunteer” who shows up with their company work outing t-shirt, hammers in a few nails, takes the group photo, and then leaves, never to be seen again….
No easy answers, that’s for sure. But in the midst of the tension, I think this is fertile ground for us all to grow—moving beyond words, to meaningful servant-based action.
Keep me posted on what doors God opens up for you in this.
My Response: Why Black Lives Matter...to Me
After a lot of soul searching and consideration, this blog post is my response, at least my initial one. It's from the heart and hopefully expresses that I simply don't have all the answers. Still, I do care genuinely about inequality, injustice, and systemic racial problems in our criminal justice system within a culture that fails to provide everyone with equal opportunity.
I don't believe we should defund the police, nor do I feel that police are inherently evil. I have friends in law enforcement, and it's unfair to paint everyone with a broad brushstroke. I believe that there are systemic issues in many police departments, and there is too often a culture of silence that protects the bad apples. That needs to change. The Black Lives Matter movement is undoubtedly helping to bring those issues to light, and I'm fully supportive of exposing these problems and advocating for change.
As for me, I'm an entrepreneur, a writer, a podcast host, and a consumer of content. I will make a concerted effort to use my business and platforms to speak candidly about these issues to raise awareness and promote a dialog. I will seek out opportunities to actively participate in activities and organizations, making a meaningful difference in our communities and supporting politicians, legislation, and corporate initiatives designed to promote change and opportunity.
But finally, and most importantly, I want to do a better job of listening. As a self-acknowledged white man of privilege, I don't fully understand what years of systemic racism and injustice have done to impact the lives of those who did not have the same advantages I did. Too often, it's easy to look at my own problems and give them outsized weight when compared to the struggles of others. My understanding can only be enhanced by listening to those whose experiences are different from my own. So that too is my commitment. This isn't the end of the discussion, but it's my way, and in my own voice, of saying why Black Lives Matter....to me and how I intend to open my own mind and change my own actions to meaningfully demonstrate my support and commitment in advocating change.
If you have comments, please feel free to share them with me here.
Resources That Influenced My Thinking:
- The Up and Comers Podcast - The Up and Comers Show Episode 149
- New York Times - #BlackoutTuesday: A Music Industry Protest Becomes a Social Media Moment
- Men's Health - 8 Racial Justice Organizations You Can Support Right Now
- The Atlantic - Resist the Urge to Simplify the Story
- The Atlantic - The America I Love Needs to Do Better
- Obama calls out 'woke' cancel culture: 'That's not activism'
- Vox - “Be wary of things that are purely symbolic”: How to join the conversation on race
- CBS News - What is white privilege? What questions should white Americans be asking? Two academics weigh in
- HBR - U.S. Businesses Must Take Meaningful Action Against Racism