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.)
Picture this. The coronavirus is over. Scientists have given the “all clear”. One million white people have gathered on the Mall in Washington, DC with signs that read “Black Lives Matter” “I am marching for Ahmaud Arbery” “I march for Trayvon Martin” “I march for the thousands of black men and women imprisoned who simply can’t pay bail to get out” “I march for clean water in Flint” “I march for quality grocery stores in black and brown neighborhoods.” “I march for the black people who white leaders don’t listen to.”
Can you see it? Can you see one million white people marching for black lives, for black bodies?
I appreciate all my white friends who have posted their outrage on social media about the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. I value your allyship and your sense of humanity. I also value your public statements. Many think the thoughts, but then don’t write the words where one of their friends, or family, or colleagues might see them. “You know,” they say, “I have to pick the right moment.”
White people, as Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote in her 1619 essay, “Our democracy’s founding ideals were false when they were written. Black Americans have fought to make them true.” I’m not saying that white people didn’t participate in the Montgomery Bus Boycott or Selma or the March on Washington or in countless other protests to make America’s promise true. You have. But, I need you to step it up. America needs you to step it up.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Black people’s voices have been, and continue to be, powerful in enabling our own liberation, 400 years ago, 200 years ago and today. But to paraphrase racial justice advocate, Dr. Robin DiAngelo, “Could women have gotten the vote without the leadership of men? No.” Black people can march, and will march, until the soles of our feet are raw. We will protest until our voices are strained to a whisper, but white people, we need you to step it up.
In large measure, your people run Congress … your people lead states … your people run business, the Fortune 500 companies … your people control the media. You run America. Raise your voices. Step it up.
Over the last couple of years, I have heard a lot of talk about racial healing. I have the same reaction every time: How can we heal without treating the wound, and how can that be done effectively without understanding it?
I want America to recognize the depth of the racial wound and to acknowledge how that wound, that injury, that disease… spread and infected society.
Recently when talking with a black friend, she reminded me that my perspective is that of a black person. In her view, white people want this conversation to go away. When she hears ‘racial healing,’ she thinks it is code for ‘Black people need to get over it.’ Hmmm. Get over it.
I am just beginning to understand IT; the extent and impact of racial inequity and injustice were hard for even me to see. I too was duped. I understood prejudice and discrimination, but I thought those who were prejudiced were ignorant people or those whose views were ill-informed because they hadn’t gotten to know black people. And then, ignorantly, for decades, I thought discrimination had ended with the passage of critical pieces of civil rights legislation. I believed this country was a meritocracy. I believed that if you worked hard and played by the rules, you would ‘win’ by American standards. I was so very wrong. I didn’t understand the facts or the subtleties, the biases that shaped how the world was presented to me.
It wasn’t until recently that I began to fully appreciate the white lens through which many stories and ‘facts’ are told. Even when the recounting is not directly by a white person, the story is influenced by the majority culture/lore/norms. With each visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, or when reading posts on the blog, The Root, for example, I get a deeper appreciation for how much I never learned of the history, the accomplishments, the positive impact of black people on America. And it still isn’t being told in the dominant media.
It took the injustice of Trayvon Martin’s murder, coupled with the lack of consequences for his murderer to shock me out of my stupor. And it took listening to countless podcasts like ‘Uncivil,’ absorbing the wisdom and in-depth racial analyses from leaders and thinkers like john a. powell (capitalization is his preference), Robin DiAngelo, Richard Rothstein, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ibram Kendi for me to learn the insidiousness, intentionality, and impact of structural racism; the structures in place for decades causing black people to be disadvantaged as white people moved farther and farther ahead. My learning until 2012 had been casual, family-influenced, experiential. After the horror of Trayvon, my eyes opened to an obscured reality. I started on a conscious learning journey to understand the depth, breadth, and impact of structural racism on society and on me.
There have been decades of Band-Aids placed haphazardly with no real sense of where the wound was or the fact that the injury may present as a flesh wound — a small cut, quickly addressed, but it isn’t. IT is cancer, invasive, and all-consuming. Those Band-Aids were insufficient unless their intent was not to heal but to both mask the problem and the fact that no one was trying to cure it.
That’s how I see the rush to racial healing. Another Band-Aid.
Even though wounds can be ugly and painful to look at, they must be revealed and their cause understood. That’s my issue. I don’t think the racial wound has been fully revealed and understood. Has it been diagnosed by people with the insights, knowledge, and sensitivity to determine the problem fully, i.e., has the cadre of diagnosticians gone through the educational rigor to understand the symptoms, how the problem operates and how to treat it? Who is studying how to prevent it from returning? Who is focused beyond treatment to eradication?
Personally, I want to heal. I want America to heal. I just know that if it has taken me, a black, educated person directly affected by structural racism and implicit bias, some time to see and begin to understand it, how long will it take those who benefit from the way the country is?
America doesn’t seem ready – as a country — even to admit that racism exists, much less to learn how it occurred, and how it continues. And there is no quick, easy fix. It will take years of work. Racial healing is a process, not an event. We must unspin the web that created and now perpetuates racism. Then, systematically, we must replace it with a new societal reality. Only then do I think we can heal.
“It takes a deep commitment to change and an even deeper commitment to grow.”
Sometimes parts of your world connect in ways that are only clear in hindsight.
It happened seven years ago. It was February 2012 when I started to write Daughters of the Dream. Initially, it had been my friend Renee’s idea to write a book about our lifelong friendship — eight girls as we grew to become women — but she didn’t have the time; so it became my project. New author, same focus. Then, on February 26, 2012, a tragedy happened. Trayvon Martin was killed. His death changed the story.
My son, AJ, was roughly the same age as Trayvon (born 366 days apart). I kept seeing AJ in that situation and knew only fate had led Trayvon, not my son, to that horrible destiny. About a month after his murder, I wrote a post for The Daily WRAG, the blog produced by my organization, the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers. In the post titled “Trayvon Martin, Silent. We Must Speak” I openly shared my feelings about Trayvon’s murder and discussed talking with my son about how he should negotiate everyday life events, like driving- and shopping-while-black, to lessen the likelihood of a similar situation and threat to his safety.
Following the post, many white colleagues expressed surprise I still had to talk with my son about discrete behaviors because of his race. That is when I knew it. They perceived me to be like them. They thought my life experience was like theirs. In some ways, we may have presented to be similar—education, family background, community standing—but our worlds were very different.
Only in hindsight did I recognize these factors as all contributing to how I approached the book: Trayvon’s death, my WRAG blog post on his death, and then my clarity on the lack of understanding of what my world is like from some of my white colleagues. And lastly, it was February, Black History Month. Subconsciously, I was processing all of this as I began to write Daughters of the Dream., a book initially only about a lifelong friendship.
The first conscious shift from a focus solely on friendship was my decision to frame our story within the context of black history. My structured education on black historical facts stopped when I left segregated Albert V. Norrell Elementary School, but at least I had had that foundation along with a black family and a black community that ingrained in me an understanding of the accomplishments and challenges facing black people. As I wrote, I wondered how, or if, white people learned black history, that is black history at any depth. I knew that they got the high level information: slavery occurred, it was terrible, maybe something about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, then the exceptionalism of Frederick Douglass, skip to Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, maybe Malcolm X, and then the election of Barack Obama. Perhaps they received a quick introduction to a few other black leaders during Black History Month, but there was no immersion in facts about the black experience in white people’s day-to-day education.
The recent incident in Virginia, my home state, of a picture unearthed of someone in blackface and someone else dressed as a hate-filled Klansman revealed a lack of understanding of the viciousness of such imagery, or maybe it revealed a more base lack of caring. Perhaps if those in the picture had an underpinning of knowledge about black contributions to America and clarity about the oppression and degradation of blacks by whites, their actions, and those of others, would have been different – perhaps. For far too many white Americans, their knowledge about African-Americans is very limited, coming primarily from personal experiences or the media. Far too many in white America still do not understand black Americans.
I wanted to use my book to introduce white readers to ordinary black people, living everyday lives. I wanted them to see that there were families free of the pathology they so often heard about from the national media and, at one time, even from leading sociologists and psychologists. I wanted them to see parents who were not living in deprivation, but who worked through their daily lives in the positions available to them while preparing their children to rise to the next rung of societal opportunity. And, I wanted them to see those children as adults, similar to them, but with issues of race and racism swirling about them everyday, realities of which many white readers may be unaware.
And, I wanted black readers, particularly younger ones, to recognize another aspect of black history from what they typically learn. I tried to reinforce that the struggles of Selma and Birmingham were real, violent, and important, but so too was the gentler resistance of the Richmond34 protesting the segregationist practices of the two major Richmond department stores or the get-out-the-vote efforts of the Crusade for Voters working to elect leaders who would understand and represent the issues of all Richmonders. The fight for racial equity has taken different paths, but all black people have been a part of the fight.
As I wrote our story, I recognized that over the years, whenever my girlfriends and I gathered, we would go to a black-themed art exhibit or see a black-themed movie. We would follow that with lunch at a black-owned or Southern-themed restaurant. And, always our talk was, and is, of some current event that affects black people. Why? We are always thirsty for black culture, knowledge, and for balance. We swim in a white world, moving upstream against erroneous white narratives of criminality, dysfunction, incompetence, and immorality. Our group offers a needed space to process the events of our world, to re-fuel our souls, and to develop the inner strength to go on.
So, yes Daughters of the Dream captures our friendship, but it also captures our history, our normalcy, and our desire to shape America to be the country that recognizes all who built it and all who contribute to its place in the world. We may not all have been visible, named leaders, but each of us played, and continues to play, a part in the ongoing push for racial justice.