What makes me hopeful

“May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.”                                         Nelson Mandela

When I learn more about the history of Black and brown people in America or am confronted by the latest racist act or inaction, I realize I am often in a space with just two emotions – anger and sadness. Anger and sadness that my people have faced such hardships and inhumanity. Anger that racism still thrives in America. Sadness that the will to achieve racial justice still seems to be embraced by so few.  When I realize I have these feelings, I make myself think about what gives me hope.

Richmond, VA activists for racial justice — Chelsea Higgs Wise, Jewel Gatling, Valerie Slater and Chlo’e Edwards

I am hopeful when I go to my hometown, Richmond, VA, and interact with young activists committed to challenging the system, utilizing new tactics, and continuing the fight for racial justice.

I am hopeful when I read a friend’s Facebook post about her white yoga instructor in Vallejo, California who closed her class asking for prayers for the people of Ukraine and continued by offering prayers for the Black and brown people in Ukraine who were forced to let white people leave first.

I am hopeful when a reader of my blog tells me she is white and 80 years old and asks me not to give up on her demographic’s role in understanding and working for racial justice.

I am hopeful when a white friend in Florida notices that the Google pictures for a nearby majority Black community feature only negative imagery of Black people and then does something to change that.

I am hopeful when an all-white group of college friends decides to pursue a deep examination of some of the racial elements of our school – William and Mary – its community – Williamsburg, VA – and our country’s current racial reality.

Weissberg Foundation trustees and staff at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ Kehinde Wiley sculpture, Rumors of War

I am hopeful when a foundation board on which I serve commits fully to learning, understanding, and investing in the pursuit of racial justice through its support of Black and brown-led organizations and -owned businesses.

I am hopeful when the Richmond Public School system embraces a supplemental curriculum called REAL Richmond, focused on the parts of Richmond, Virginia’s racial history that aren’t in the textbook.

When thinking of what makes a person hopeful about the pursuit of racial justice, some might point to the president’s selection of a Black woman as his nominee for the Supreme Court or the multiple efforts across the country to protect voting rights for people of color or  Evanston, Illinois, an evolving case study in how a municipality can offer reparations to the descendants of enslaved people. These are interventions that will have deep, meaningful, long-lasting impact. They represent major change, change writ large.

At the same time, I recognize that each of those actions started with one person finally getting it. One person, who understood racial injustice, and acted. And that one person may not have known what an inspiration they were to others. Often, seemingly small, isolated steps lead to institutional, and societal change that will ultimately ensure racial justice.

What are you doing that gives hope to others? Five years from now, who will recognize you as the inspiration that sparked their work for racial justice?

                                          “A leader is a dealer in hope.”                                                                                        Napoleon Bonaparte

 

Are you working for racial justice? How?

I’d like you to reflect on a racially just America.

What would it look like? What would you see — in your neighborhood, on the news, at your workplace, in your child’s school? Think about the steps/strategies/tactics necessary to get there. Now, sit back. Relax. Reflect on these questions for a few minutes. Is an action plan forming in your mind or are you already engaged in this work?

Some folks have told me that they’re working for racial justice by volunteering at a local foodbank (or another social service agency) or by tutoring disadvantaged children.  I used to cringe, silently, when I heard that. Not anymore. Now comments like those are a conversation starter.

America has a rich, and necessary, history of volunteerism.  During economic downturns and times of human need, donations to foodbanks, for example, and volunteers to hand out food are critical. These actions keep people alive.  When we look at food lines, depending on the location, we often see people of color disproportionately represented. While donating and assisting at the multitude of agencies assisting people in need is an important service, this is not racial justice work — even if those sites primarily serve Black and brown people.

The work is important. It is lifesaving. It is humane. It simply isn’t work for racial justice. It doesn’t change, or help to change, the racial imbalance.

Racial justice work would prompt you to consider: why do Black and brown people predominate among the needy in many communities? What are the conditions and circumstances that create this level of disproportionate need? What am I doing to change those conditions and circumstances?

Thinking about those questions might still lead you to see your work as a tutor as racial justice work. Tutoring –> better grades –> college  –> good career opportunities –> a level playing field.  If only we lived in a meritocracy in which this trajectory was real, but studies have proven that this is not the case for many, if not most, Black and brown people in America, and those differential outcomes start early in a child’s life.

So why do some people see strategies like those as working for racial justice? Just because the beneficiaries are Black or brown, is that it? It certainly feels good to volunteer. But, in some situations, I also see a negative side. Volunteering in social service or education programs clearly positions the haves and the have nots. While it may not be in the forefront of thinking, subconsciously, could there be some feeling of superiority? If the children are underprivileged? Are you overprivileged? You have the financial resources. They don’t. You have the academic credentials. They don’t. How does volunteering at the foodbank address the employment conditions that contribute to food insecurity? Does tutoring change educational systems or hiring practices? I know the response: It helped that family. It helped that child. Yes. Just don’t call it work for racial justice.

In racial justice work, there are allies and advocates, partners and collaborators, but there are no haves and have nots. Everyone is equal, bringing their perspectives and strengths to the table.  This is the model of mutual aid societies in which all members bring something supporting the needs of others. Each gives and each receives. Assets, not deficits, are the driver. Mutual aid, not charity.

So, for those truly interested in racial justice work, I offer two resources. Corrine Shutack’s article listing 75 ways in which white people can support racial justice went viral in 24 hours and continues to grow as new ideas are added. It along with Ibram Kendi’s How to Be An Antiracist are two of the best guides. But you don’t need those resources, not really. Just look around you – your neighborhood, your child’s school, your workplace. If you deeply reflect on what is contributing to racial injustice in some aspect of your world, you’ll see your role in changing that. It is in the accumulation of multiple actions by many people that leads to the societal change necessary to achieve a racially just America.

Again, my intent is not to diminish or devalue volunteering at social service organizations or working to improve educational outcomes for children. I simply want to underscore what actually contributes to racial justice. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr said, “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.” The service of the volunteer – their “philanthropy” – is often a stop gap, albeit valued and valuable, measure to solve an immediate,  individual need, not an effort toward correcting a societal wrong. Those working for racial justice look well beyond immediate need, to examine why those needs exist in larger numbers among Black and brown people and then work to change those circumstances. That’s racial justice.

 

 

My journey to understand racial justice

Today is the 10th anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s murder. Tom Adams, a blogger on racial equity and justice, spirituality and love, recovery and growth, and leadership and transitions, asked me to share my journey to understand racial injustice and justice. Since that journey started with Trayvon Martin, I share this post today.

(Note: the included video doesn’t tell the whole story, but, for many, it is an eye opener.)

 Learning about structural racism: One woman’s journey

The Ruse, the Governor, and Critical Race Theory

The latest reminder of the centrality and primacy of the white worldview happened for me on January 15, 2022, the day Glenn Youngkin was inaugurated as the 74th governor of Virginia. While I haven’t lived in Virginia for a long time, it is my home state. I wanted to hear what the new governor had to say.

Not far into his inaugural address, he said, “We will remove politics from the classroom.” Attendees jumped to their feet. It was the sentiment that parents, not the government, should control what is taught in schools – particularly regarding racial history — that pushed this never-elected-to-any-office candidate into the Virginia Governor’s Mansion. Then he continued, “We will teach all of our history, the good (here he paused) … and the bad.” The crowd sat, seemingly deflated.

Stop. Rewind. Had he actually said that? Yes, those were his words. I wrote them down; I was so surprised. Was there some chance that he had thought about it and decided to do the right thing? In his inaugural address, was he ready to signal, no, actually state, that Virginia was not only going to take down Confederate statues, Virginia would also teach the completeness of its history and that of the country?

No, of course not. Upon reflection, how could I be so naïve? Hopeful, I guess that he had thought deeply about his earlier position, understood another side, and decided to make a major turnaround in his first public address as governor.  Yes, I was naively hopeful.

Youngkin’s remarks were simply political theater.  He said those words just before issuing Executive Order Number One (2022):

“Inherently divisive concepts, like Critical Race Theory and its progeny, instruct students to only view life through the lens of race and presumes that some students are consciously or unconsciously racist, sexist, or oppressive, and that other students are victims.”

It goes on to read,

“The Superintendent of Public Instruction shall review all policies within the Department of Education to identify those that promote inherently divisive concepts. Such policies shall be ended.”

And, he knew he had the right person to carry out this directive. I checked. As Superintendent of Public Instruction, he had named the former Wyoming State Superintendent of Schools, a person who had been very public in her opposition to teaching Critical Race Theory.

Race is the lens through which life is viewed by many, including Glenn Youngkin. It energized his campaign and was his out-of-the-gate issue as governor.

Race used to sit quietly in the corner, but not anymore. Now, many, including Youngkin, want to put it back in its place – invisible, not discussed, unaddressed.

For our country to truly achieve its founding promise, we must understand and address our history. It is that history that has made America what it is today. History has been taught from the perspective of white people who control textbooks and decisions about curricula. Our country’s history has been whitewashed, sanitized to glorify whites, while denigrating or completely ignoring other races.

Just think about the number of people who had never heard of the Tulsa massacre until Watchmen streamed on HBO in 2019 or the number who’d never heard of the Tuskegee syphilis study until the use of Black men as research subjects was revealed in 2020 as the root of some African Americans’ concern about COVID vaccinations, or others learning — this year — about Emmett Till through the recent ABC series Women of the Movement. I am glad that racial history is being revealed through art and the news, but it should be taught in the classroom, not something one can choose to watch, but in-school subject matter required to be learned.

The claim by Youngkin, and others, that they want to avoid the divisiveness caused by teaching what they refer to as Critical Race Theory is simply a smokescreen. In fact, the current approach to teaching our country’s history, focused on the individual exceptionalism of a few, but not on the racially motivated actions of many or on the racist federal, state and local policies and societal practices that have shaped this country, contributes to ignorance, an ignorance that feeds racial hostility and separation.

Speak up when your government is doing the wrong thing.

History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.

— Martin Luther King, Jr., December, 1959