I have been experiencing low-key depression ever since the coronavirus pandemic started ravishing our country in March. My depression reached a new low last week. I grew up with chronic depression so I assumed that it was just another episode. It wasn’t until last Friday that I realized what I was experiencing at this particular moment wasn’t depression. It was grief. Grief often looks like depression but they’re not the same thing. I have been in stupefying grief and rage at witnessing yet again a black person being murdered by the police in this country. To witness the killing of three black Americans (George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery) in a matter of two months during a pandemic that has already devastated black and brown communities triggers a deeper level of injury to my psyche. Even as I write this, grief is showing up as a massive migraine in my head. My body is slightly catatonic and I just want to go to sleep. I am in deep mourning as I witness yet again how much disdain this country has for black lives and how little regard it holds for black pain. I have more rage than my body can handle at witnessing the racial disparity between the police’s muted response to armed, white people protesting the coronavirus lockdown and their violent response to black people calling for justice. I have become convinced that this country is committed to its racism. There is no reasoning with white supremacy. Negotiation and incremental change seem naive. The only sensible response is direct action in order to cause systemic disruption and plant the seeds for collective liberation.
I struggled all weekend to write a special message to our network of clients, partners, and communities to acknowledge this moment. For one thing, I’ve been emotionally distraught and my thoughts are a mess. But also, in thinking about the audience I’m writing to, I realized that I have two different audiences. One audience is all the black, indigenous, and people of color in my social and professional networks and who work in our client organizations. The other audience is all the white-dominant organizations that we have worked with and the white leaders that run them. These two audiences need two vastly different messages. I thought about sending segmented emails, but I believe there is value in everyone seeing the two messages, and so I ultimately landed on this single email that contains both of my messages below.
In solidarity with black lives,
A Love Letter to Black People
Black people. Black people. Black people. So many in America feel awkward just saying ‘black people’, they rather say ‘people of color’ and ‘African-American’. It is affirming to say ‘black people’. Black women. Black trans folks. Black men. Black children. Black people with disabilities. I stand witness to the exceptional pain that many of you are experiencing right now as this damned country once again weaponizes the full force of its media and police forces against your existence. Seeing how much contempt this country has for black lives, I can only show you the opposite—I show you my love. I see you going to work every day in white-dominant workplaces and enduring a daily onslaught of anti-black microaggression, and many times overt prejudice. A normal day is already hard, but to pile on top of that the disproportionate impact of the pandemic and recent police killings, the pain becomes excruciating. I join you in grief over all the black lives lost. I join you in rage at the cruel injustice. I stand witness to your resilience living in this country, but I also know that black resilience is not to be taken for granted. It is not magic. It is human will, which has a limit. We are seeing what happens when that will to remain composed in the face of relentless oppression breaks and all the rage bottled up inside finally gets unleashed. I see your rage. I honor it. I share it. You deserve so much better than this. You deserve joy and beauty. You deserve love from your fellow Americans and your government. You deserve to exist in glory and reach your highest potential as human beings. I recognize that your liberation is the key to all of our liberation, and so I stand in solidarity with you, literally on the streets in protest. Thank you for your grace. Thank you for your excellence. Much love and solidarity in conspiring to fight for black liberation and black joy.
A Call to Action to White Organizations & White People
This moment is a reckoning for this country, for your organizations, and for yourselves as white individuals.
You may think you’ve done enough for diversity, equity, and inclusion, but if you’re still using those words to describe what you do, you haven’t done nearly enough. When you’ve risked so much of your white privilege that you feel completely out of your comfort zone, you still haven’t risked enough. Black people are being murdered by state-sanctioned violence. Latinx asylum seekers are still being held at ICE detention centers. Asian-Americans are being assaulted as the pandemic rages on. Indigenous women and girls are still being kidnapped and murdered with no media coverage of it at all. Until the harm against people of color ceases, nothing we do is enough.
All the diversity and equity work that you have done—that you have hired us to do—was meant to prevent a moment like this from happening. Organizational DEI work was born out of real social justice movements happening in communities and the work was always intended to feed back into this larger fight for justice and liberation. This is a now-or-never moment for you and your organization. If you stay silent and “neutral” now, then your DEI work means very little because you will have broken the link between what happens inside your organization and all the racial violence happening outside in our society.
When we live in a racialized and racist society, being “not racist” is not good enough. That’s not how racism works. You are either racist or anti-racist. There is no such thing as being “not racist”.
I ask you, how are you going to leverage the full power of your institutional and personal white privilege to fight for racial justice and collective liberation? How are you showing up for black lives right now?
Here are five things you can do in the immediate term:
Lighten the Load on your Black and Brown Employees
Many people of color struggle to remain “professional” in the workplace when they are witnessing and experiencing racial violence in their lives. If you expect your black and brown employees to continue to function at 100% during this time, then you are just heaping on emotional violence. Support your employees of color by relaxing your work performance expectations. Check in with them and provide them the safe space they need to open up to you. Ask them what they need and give it to them. Make sick days available to take as mental health days. If you engage in conversation with them about what’s happening, remember to provide them with your emotional labor, and not the other way around – do not make the conversation about how upset you are or expect them to make you feel better.
Talk about What’s Happening
Silence is betrayal. When the country is going through coast-to-coast civil unrest and your workplace pretends it’s not happening, it is disingenuous to the employees who are being affected by the unrest. Dedicate 1 to 2 hours a week to hold brave space conversations in which staff members can relax their guard and open up emotionally. Staff members affected by the unrest need a communal space to grieve and express anger. Make sure you have a trained facilitator, of course, and remember to center black voices in these conversations.
Talk to Your White Friends, Colleagues, and Family Members
White people tend to listen to and believe other white people. Actively start conversations with the other white people in your social circles about what’s happening, the history of racism, and what racial justice looks like. Call out your apathetic white friends and racist family members.
Participate in Direct Action
Organizations that regularly do community organizing are no stranger to attending protests. If you are an institution that does not normally protest, but you have a lot of white and socioeconomic privilege to do so as a staff, please consider organizing your team to join a protest for a day or more. Physical bodies matter in direct action. This is a high-risk action so only organize participation in direct action if your staff feel moved to do so and definitely make it an optional, opt-in action.
Donate $100, $500, and even $1,000 to any of the on-the-ground organizations that are organizing direct action around the country. Here are a couple of black-led organizations that can use your money right now: Black Visions Collective, Reclaim the Block, North Star Health Collective, and The Bail Project. Better yet, donate to a local black-led organization in your community.