By KJ Williams, Leadership and Equity Consultant with JustLead Washington, Owner and Founder of R.I.S.E., LLC (Radical, Insightful Solutions to Create Equity), & 2015 Leadership Academy Fellow.
This blog post is personal, painful and challenging. The content underscores truths that I, as a black woman find imperative to speak. Not all will agree, and yet that is the beauty of our difference.
The death of Ahmaud Arbery flipped a switch in me. When I saw his face, I saw myself, my wife, my children, my family, my community. I saw all of us in him, living, breathing, and navigating everyday life without an active awareness that the hue of our skin is justification enough for an unprovoked attack. It made me sick and angry, but more than that, it forced me to engage in the space the COVID-19 pandemic has created. I have had time to deeply reflect. How can I protect myself, the people I love, and the communities I engage with? I don’t purport to have all the answers, but I do suggest a different approach – a new truth that we can all individually and collectively operate from. So, I encourage you to take a deep breath and read on.
The pandemic has taught all of us new lessons. So many of us are working from home or are experiencing the challenges of unemployment or unsafe employment, a significant reduction in income, lack of child care, reduced transportation options, and the unexpected isolation from family, friends, community and important support systems. While most Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) are already familiar with the challenge of navigating these issues, it does not mean it is easier for us. In fact, it is just the opposite. Crisis is often the breeding ground for increased oppression, exclusion and violence. We know this. We are actively experiencing overt racism, and barriers to much needed resources.
What can we do? What is this season calling for? And how do we respond?
We must operate from a greater truth. A truth which promotes a connection of the heart and mind and allows us to develop new mental pathways for advancing equity and justice. The truth is, we – as BIPOC individuals, groups, and communities – already hold as power within ourselves to effectuate sustainable, transformative, equitable change. And the truth is that our existence is one of value and worth regardless of the acceptance, validation, or recognition from white, dominant culture. We are the intelligent, innovative, beautiful beings we know and have proven ourselves to be. In the face of racial, economic, emotional, and physical genocide, our continued existence, survival, and success are the manifestations of this greater truth.
If we look closely enough, the pandemic is simply another experience carrying with it a wave of this truth. If we believe what we read, hear, and see as the only truth that exists, we will continue to make ourselves smaller and smaller. We can no longer submit ourselves to the lie that white people are more deserving, intelligent and beautiful than we are.
And, we cannot stop there. The power of intra- and inter-group colorism and horizontal oppression has us broken from the inside out. This time calls for us to dive deep even while our physical and material needs are screaming and demanding an audience. We must shift our paradigms, reconsider our intra- and inter- group biases that play out and keep us all stifled, stagnate and afraid. Generation after generation we continue to perpetuate our own harm in the name of Willie Lynch (whether the letter is real or not the strategies and behaviors are in full effect). We have allowed our politically constructed identities to inform who we believe ourselves and others to be.
But if I hate or am ashamed of myself, I will bring that hate and shame to bear into the lives of others. When I hate the color of my own skin, the cultural history of my DNA, the characteristics associated with my genealogical imprint, I cannot expect to bring authentic healing, wholeness, and compassion to others. And we need this, desperately. We – as in you and I and other people of color. We’ve hated ourselves and one another for too long. We’ve bought into the lie that pursuing whiteness (in all of its deceptive forms) is the goal. It. Is. Not. Nor should it be.
We cannot operate from a new truth until we acknowledge, accept, and engage the hate, fear and distrust within and among ourselves. We know within our own racialized groups that colorism flourishes and impedes our collective growth and healing. Horizontal oppression is one of our greatest barriers to collective impact. The negative racialized stereotypes within and across communities of color has paralyzed our efforts to establish deep trust, solidarity, and collective organizing.
Our focus is to heal from within so that we can change the external space we occupy. There is so much healing to be done, and it is hard work. We have deep seated issues rooted in real life experiences and threatening, demoralizing stereotypes across and within all communities of color. Some communities have been able to transcend the economic oppression first thrust upon them, but Indigenous and Black people have not been able to do this. Anti-Indigenous, anti-Black, and anti-immigrant policies and strategies employed by the dominant culture have been effective in suppressing the collective growth, protection, and success of these communities. And yet, we collectively represent the economic back bone of our society.
We are fighting the wrong fight and it’s time for us to set the record straight; for ourselves and the generations behind us. We have the capacity and creativity necessary to forge authentic change and inclusion. We are alive at this time for a reason. This is our crisis, and our work. The truth about our own power, intellect, and beauty brings healing and freedom and is what BIPOC must fight to believe and hold onto daily. Until this vibrates down into the marrow of our bones we will continue to struggle to produce sustainable change. We don’t need the acknowledgment and approval of white colleagues to confirm or affirm our value, and we must challenge our own limiting beliefs and reliance on the status quo “systems” to live out the broader, deeper truth of our own worth.
This truth demands that we not just consider, but actively remember the reality for all racially marginalized groups – that the structure, experience, and impact of oppression has had a virulent impact on us all. The historical violence perpetrated against BIPOC has been well documented, and it’s not just physical. It includes the systematic messaging and narrative of not belonging, being less than human therefore less deserving and certainly less valued, and it engenders harm and trauma to the emotional and intellectual aspects of one’s being. The horrific impact of colonialism to Indigenous Peoples and African Americans in particular has yet to be accepted and recognized in a manner supporting full recovery and rehabilitation from being kidnapped, enslaved, raped, tortured, dismembered, hunted, gutted, butchered, bought, sold, terrorized and dehumanized. None of this is a myth, but for some it is easier to believe that the degrading, amoral manner in which their not-so-long-ago ancestors acted, was a lie made up by the oppressed. Ignorance and the fear of truth sustains the lie of our existence as an aberration of humanity.
The truth can often be violent, nasty and painful and yet, we remain capable of collectively transforming the very systems that maintain our suppression and exclusion. But, this type of transformation is beyond difficult and first requires that we heal ourselves from the inside out. And, the pandemic has offered us the time and space to reconsider who we are, how far we have come, and the power that lies within each of us. BIPOC embody the historical and ancestral blood of perseverance, determination, survival, and success, we have accomplished this over and over again. We must reconsider the current time, not through the cries of our pain and oppression but through the understanding of a new truth, centering its strength within us for the here and now.
We must also recognize that we are losing ourselves in the fight for equity and justice. Instead of speaking truth to power we are still operating from a place of fear and anxiety, rooted in our own need to succeed at all cost. We limit our words, our thinking, and our actions because, whether conscious or unconscious, we continue to pursue “whiteness” in its many forms as a measure of success. For some reason we are expecting a shift towards acceptance and inclusion from the very powers that hold the chains of captivity and economic bondage. This is a truth that we must finally address in a wholly different manner.
They killed Ahmaud Arbery. He died because he wasn’t white. He was the target of internalized self-hatred projected on to black bodies. But, he also represented a certain type of blackness – an inability to assimilate based on the hue of his skin. In other words, he would forever be too dark to blend in and disappear amidst the dominant culture. He lived, breathed and died Black. And though the color of one’s skin may signify blackness to others, all blacks are not treated equally. Black in America is a different kind of black. The descendants of African slaves have no place to call their home.
We are black but what does that mean? It means that we are seen as “ghetto”. It means that we are characterized as lazy, gang affiliated, having low intellect, having little to no morals, inherently poor with criminal tendencies, uneducated, and dangerous as hell. It means that we are always at higher risk of death or severe harm when engaging in conflict with white people in this country. The images, narratives, and messages informing the world of who Black Americans are, connect to the lowest most negative forms of energy and are reinforced by the world’s acceptance of these narratives. This is why we must transform our own thinking and relationships with one another. These expressions of both explicit and unconscious bias are the mines buried and threaded throughout our society. With every thud of his sneakers Ahmaud drew closer to a mine. Black Americans represent a threat just by our existence. Our experience in this country has always been fraught with violence. And yet we continue to live.
I understand why dominant culture works so hard to vilify us. I believe it is a projection of others’ own fear. Think about all of the work that has gone into suppressing and oppressing the descendants of slaves in this country, generation after generation. The political machinations necessary to develop and maintain clearly racist (not to mention misogynistic) laws. The sheer lack of humanity that black children have been physically subjected to at the hands of white adults.
They killed Ahmaud Arbery. Ahmaud ran with too much freedom flowing from his being. He was running for his health but had to run for his life. He could never run fast enough. None of us alone can, therefore it is time to stand, to refuse to cower in fear, and to reject each and every narrative presenting lies about our value, our worth, and our humanity.
We are inextricably connected, and when Ahmaud died so did a piece of each of us. Ahmaud died because of what he represented; a person of color moving freely through the world in pursuit of his own goals at his own speed, in his own power. Ahmaud’s death and the millions of other unprovoked violent acts against BIPOC are continued, persistent calls for our collective healing, accountability, and connection. His death is also a call to recognize and accept that we are fighting against systems which maintains its life and power through the assumptions and deceptiveness of white superiority; and that this superiority is revealed in the overt oppression and violence against BIPOC at every, single level of society.
They killed us. We died. We were running for our health but had to run for our lives. We can never run fast enough. So, it is time to stop running.
We have the opportunity to anchor ourselves in something very different. Something which at first may illicit excruciating pain, yet its outcome is priceless and uniquely our own. We must believe in our own value as individuals. We must believe in the value of other people of color who may be very different than us. We must believe that melanin is a gift not a curse, burden or barrier. We must move beyond the experience of constantly suffering at the hands of white people who operate from a core of superiority anchored in fear, ignorance and self-shame. It is time to stop responding to their needs and respond to our own. We must believe that we are already empowered to succeed and to fight for the right to exist without unprovoked physical, emotional, intellectual and social violence.
No more running. It is time to stand; for ourselves first so that you and I can then stand together instead of allowing the white supremacy culture to determine the timeline and process for our healing and success. That is our work. While we can welcome and invite the presence of white allies, this is not their work to do nor can they bring the level and depth of healing we need into our communities.
As long as we remain silent in our homes, communities, schools, and places of employment, we give power to the lies that have chased, hung, and murdered us without remedy. It is our truth, the truth about who we are and who we have the power to become that must be the fuel of our own change, individually and collectively. Our change is our responsibility.
Ahmaud ran and now it’s time for us to stand anchored in a new truth.
Reflection Questions and Strategies for BIPOC
- Consider how you experience or internalize feelings of racial inferiority and superiority. How do they show up in your workplace and/or community? How do they interact with your understanding and feelings about other aspects of your identity (gender, age, ethnicity, class status, etc.)?
- What am I most afraid of when I think of speaking up for myself in the face of overt bias, microaggressions and discriminatory remarks?
- What are some small steps I can take to overcome the fear of advocating for myself?
- When was the last time I laughed when a racially biased comment was made in my presence? Why did I laugh instead of speaking up for non-biased communication?
- What negative racial stereotypes (of my own or other racial groups) do I secretly believe are true? How has this impacted my relationships with friends, colleagues and family members?
- How can I connect myself to other BIPOC who want to address horizontal oppression and colorism?
- Am I ready to acknowledge my own internalized racism and inferiority with other BIPOC who are working towards mitigating and overcoming these challenges? Suggestions: Start a small group with two or more other BIPOC to specifically surface, discuss and support growth towards addressing and healing these issues; write a blog post about your efforts and success in tackling internalized racism and horizontal oppression.
- What are the ways that “FEAR” (Fake Evidence Appearing Real)* stand in our way? We are often afraid of what we THINK/BELIEVE is going to happen without any real evidence or support that the perceived outcome will take place. These self-limiting beliefs are fostered by the influx of negative images, narratives and events promoted by the media, shared by colleagues, family and friends and client experiences.
- WHAT: Name and examine what you are afraid of. The simple act of openly naming fear can dramatically shrink its power to control our behavior. Denying that fear exists causes it to grow, but verbally externalizing fear to trusted allies can help to foster the internal strength necessary to deal with it.
- WHY: Ask yourself: What is the worst outcome imagined? Is it realistic to believe the outcome will take place? If not, be intentional about rejecting this self-limiting thought and replace it with an optimistic affirmation of a positive outcome. If a negative outcome is a real possibility that will bring harm to your personal and/or professional life, engage in a thoughtful cost-benefit analysis and decide what your non-negotiables are. It may be time for a personal or professional transition.
- WHEN: Consider: When is the first time you became aware of this fear? Addressing the root cause of fear is integral to mitigating and overcoming its impact. A painful event can grow beyond reason when left unaddressed and inhibit personal drive and perceived ability to take action.
- Educate yourself. Examine fear based on facts, not speculation or narratives anchored in media portrayals of people or places.
- Identify your strengths. We all have things we are good at. Identify one strength you can use to help you take the first step to overtly address and mitigate the fear.
- Set short- and long-term goals. Identify one step you can consistently take to address the fear over the next 90 days, i.e. audibly saying hello to someone very different from you as often as possible. When facing fear, it is also helpful to remind yourself that the step you take today is a step towards the future you desire. Visualize the outcome you want and remind yourself often of this goal.
- Buddy up for growth. Whenever possible gather your people, ideally a group of three. While a duo is often easier to manage a trio provides increased diversity and objectivity. Buddy up to hold yourself accountable to your short- and long-term goals.
* F.E.A.R. Developed by RISE, LLC and modified by JustLead Washington