Last updated: Your Black colleagues need allies now more than ever: Be one

Your Black colleagues need allies now more than ever: Be one


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I’ve grown used to the sound of helicopters outside my window in Oakland, California. First the helicopters seemed to occasionally monitor the adherence to social distancing around nearby Lake Merritt where Oaklanders congregate to exercise, BBQ, and enjoy the day under normal circumstances.

But soon the helicopters were overhead incessantly and they were joined by chants. 

Helicopters initially patrolled the sky as I adjusted to working from home, since coronavirus was ravaging the world and commuting on packed public transit to an open floor plan office quickly became too risky.

This time of transition varied by circumstance: some had to learn to balance full-time jobs with homeschooling children, caring for elderly relatives, and dealing with the mental health implications of missing out on face-to-face social interactions.

Next came mass layoffs, furloughs, and mandated closures of small businesses.

And then George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis. 

“Please officer, I can’t breathe. I can’t move … mama … mama … I can’t.”

Within days, the helicopters that had surveyed social distancing started to drown out everything starting in the afternoon and going well past when I fell asleep. While everyone had done their best to practice social distancing for over two months, it was hard not to take to the streets to demand change.

Protesters traded their sweatpants for masks, gloves, and signs. And despite the morning, noon, and night protests, there were still deliverables at work, children to look after, and meals to prepare.

Black Americans were less surprised, but no less outraged, about these racially motivated murders. 

The killing of Black people is not new. Racism in the United States persistently grinds away at Black Americans, leading to generational poverty, unequal health outcomes, and general exhaustion.

For the first time many companies have actually acknowledged the deep inequalities that have caused this extreme exhaustion by giving a day off to protest, rest, and reflect.

Many others have pledged matching donations to Black Lives Matter, the ACLU, the NAACP, among other organizations. However, most company announcements (except for a comprehensive and stunning statement of solidarity from Ben & Jerry’s) have failed to get to the root cause of the racial injustice we’re fighting against today. 

“If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” – Malcolm X

The current state of the country ties in with something you may have learned in Psych 101: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It is a pyramid that communicates increasingly complex human needs for survival that start with basic sustenance and safety that culminate in self-actualization.

The fact that we’re still protesting to secure the most basic needs of the Black community shows just how much progress is needed to make racial equity more than the latest buzzword.

If Black people in America can’t live, due to murder at the hands of law enforcement or unequal access to healthcare before and during a deadly pandemic, then how can we ever thrive?

Posting a well-intentioned black square to social media with no concrete action ignores entrenched racism that in the worst cases kills Black Americans on the streets and in best cases leads to dismal racial diversity at the nation’s top companies. To put it simply: it does nothing. 

“In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” – MLK

Structural racism in America is pervasive and impacts Black lives in education, at work, and in public. For example, even if Black students triumph over teachers who don’t believe in their dreams, dodge literal and figurative bullets from authority figures, go to great schools despite this, and achieve the highest levels of professional success, there is still a chance that some will be in the wrong place at the wrong time and have their dignity or life stripped away. 

Think of Henry Louis Gates Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. Upon returning home from a trip to China in 2009, he found his front door stuck and had to break it into order to get in. This led his neighbors to call the police, who arrested him and even charged him for disorderly conduct.

While Gates survived the situation, this is just one of many instances of the catch 22 that Black Americans experience. No matter what levels of success we achieve, because of the ingrained racism in American society, someone will always think that we don’t belong or even escalate innocuous situations. Both of these sentiments continue to be lethal, despite our supposed inalienable rights. 

Black colleagues need allies: Use your privilege to advance equality

For Black Americans, expecting the rights codified in the Constitution, like the freedom of assembly, become political or threatening acts. Right now Black Americans are being impacted from multiple angles: economic and social securities are being ripped out from under many of us, unemployment and COVID-19 cases and deaths are hitting our communities the hardest, and on top of this, we have to continue reaffirming our right to live.

While the deaths of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery woke much of the nation up, this racial imbalance is something we’ve never had the privilege to take a mental break from. So when you reach out to your Black colleagues next, keep this in mind. We’ve been exhausted. This didn’t just start last week.  

Yet there is hope. Despite our reality, it is still extremely heartening to see people of all ages, races, genders, and abilities taking to the streets to remind those in power that Black people deserve the right to live and thrive. But the discussions need to extend much further than that. It’s clear that change will only come if we continue to stand united.

The Justice in Policing Act of 2020 has risen out of weeks of sustained protest and outrage and it is just the start of the change we need. In the meantime, listen and elevate Black voices and ventures if you have the platform and influence to do so. Or donate to organizations that strive for racial equality.

And lastly, consider urging your employer to commit to hiring a workforce that is more representative of the American public.

Equality for ALL:
Go from messaging about inclusion to making it a reality.

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