Welcome to the latest Race Matters a column with tips, featuring the wonderful Christine Pride. Today marks the anniversary of George Floyd’s death: May 25, 2020. Looking back on last year, how far have we come? How much has the country grown? Today, the reader wonders how to stay hopeful in these difficult times …
On the anniversary of George Floyd’s death, I can’t help but wonder where the state is in terms of race. It was a relief when former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of Floyd’s murder. But what happens next? How to make a change that is essential and lasting? That would mean facing bias in the way we control black-and-brown communities; how we educate black and brown students; how we create jobs that give people more opportunities. In short, can we create successful neighborhoods where everyone has an equal opportunity to participate in the American dream?
That goal seems more challenging at this point than ever before.
As a 56-year-old brunette, I’m not at all misled about the American racial problem, but I’ve always been a half-full person and trying to stay positive. But a year after the assassination of George Floyd, I fear our country has stalled in its efforts in our racial showdown. After all the protests and hashtags and discussions about diversity and training for inclusion, I worry that we are losing that shift towards institutional and systemic change. What recommendations do you have for a tired traveler who is desperately trying to stay positive and hopes for a fight that must continue?
Signed, sick and tired
Dear sick and tired:
I appreciate you signing the immortal words of the activists with your head Fannie Lou Hamer: “I’m sick of fatigue.” How could we not be tired after the year we had? It is a reminder that the ability of human resilience is extraordinary. As much as we are demoralized by the rash of police violence, COVID, economic conflicts, intense national elections and the general fear that everything could get out of control, we are still here, we get up every morning and get dressed prepare a few meals to support and hope on good days to find enough flashes of joy to be a mermaid’s call to repeat everything tomorrow.
I think our first step is to recognize that fatigue. It’s okay that we’re not okay. The emotional exhaustion and cynicism that creeps into it are not a character flaw. Too often women, and especially black women, are not given time, space, or permission to sit in their feelings and simply be. Yes, there are voting rights to advocate for, children to feed and wages to persecute, but that will still be present if we take a moment and rest our hands; to wipe our eyebrows and say, woo wee, this shit is impossible.
So, I want to start with some counterintuitive advice: really sit down with those feelings, before we move on. It’s hard to do, I’ll admit, because I’m also half full of glass optimists when it comes to life and race. I recognize that this optimism is a form of privilege, a byproduct of the happiness and success I have had in my life. I have a career I love, I own a home, I have savings to spend me in an emergency. But I am also reassured that I am the exception, not the rule. Wit: Only 44% of blacks own a home compared to 74% of whites; the average wealth of white Americans is $ 142,000 compared to only $ 24,100 of Black Americans. Black workers earn 15% less than our white counterparts. In addition to the economy, blacks are more likely to die from gun violence … or complications in pregnancy or cancer, diabetes or COVID. I could go on with even more devastating statistics. How easy it was for too many people to distance themselves and rationalize these big differences with the false belief that they must be the result of cultural deficits or personal shortcomings, instead of facing harsh reality: the system was designed this way from the start, preventing the whole group people to access education, economic opportunities and equal rights and then blame them for it.
That’s why I hate the idea that people might point me to some example of how we have to exaggerate in racism, because LOOK! in these successful Blacks. It is a dangerous myth of “excellence” and ignores the dazzling reality for the hundreds of thousands of people from BIPOC in this country and the oppressive system of inequality that prevents them from having the same opportunities.
Finally, how could it easily be a whole other story. If I lived in another city, I could be Breonna Taylor; if I set out on some summer roads on a summer day, I could be Sandra Bland; if I had decided to have children, I could have been Lucy McBath. Still and still. I am constantly aware that my life as a brunette is very much a there but for the grace of God I go situation.
This is the weight I have felt over the years, as I am sure you have been – an increased recognition of all the ways the world is dangerous, unjust and humiliating towards people who look like us. That’s the weight I felt as I cried at George Flyod’s funeral last summer and as I sent well-meaning emails to white friends who would never truly find out what it’s like to be Black in America and as I dealt with a painful career situation with disturbing racial implications.
Which all led to a feeling of helplessness. For, if one thing has become crystal clear, it is that since whites built this system, they must be the ones to dismantle it, even if they could feel so far removed from its harmful effects; even if it could cost them. It seemed like there was momentum on that front, didn’t it? Protests, marches and education; those thoughtful texts and e-mails I received; a collective primal scream, “This must stop.”
But, looking back, a year later, you ask everyone a burning question: have we stopped in our great racial awakening? Have we made tangible progress? In the next few months, there will be a million research papers that will explore these issues. And I will leave it to sociologists, economists and journalists to try to qualify it. From a personal point of view, however, I say yes in many ways. One measure of this is to make people (including readers of the Race Matters column) seem aware of the intricacies of racist systems. I think people are starting to realize that white supremacy is not a personal flaw, but a deeply embedded institutional one. I have noticed that more people are thinking critically about reorganization, gross differences in the criminal justice system, police violence, attempts to abolish suffrage, and so on. And whites are also more aware of their ability to be biased, defensive, and fragile. Awareness is half the battle.
But the most important next step is, of course, action. And here I saw some encouraging steps. For example, the publishing industry’s efforts to hire more people from BIPOC. I know it’s just one industry, but given its role in raising stories and ideas and deciding who has a voice and platform, it has too much of an impact on shaping our culture itself, and thus on the dominance of whites in its heart.
Still, progress is never felt fast enough, is it? But that doesn’t mean we give up. We can not; we have no choice but to continue, endure, and strive; which are themselves acts of resistance.
So, given all this, what are my recommendations for a tired traveler?
Absorb positively. We see all the negative news; it is also liberating to note the “feel good” tariff, which affirms the goodness of humanity. Sometimes we don’t focus on the positive, because it seems like a cop or a slippery slope to complacency if we dare at least for a moment to turn away from pressing the fight, but we need these stories as fuel and balm. Consider following The good news movement or Because of them on Instagram. Poetry also offers this – this song by Margaret Walker he never manages to lift me up.
Do something. We could all focus more on the power we have rather than the power we don’t have. Volunteering, donating, supporting artists and activists – this is important and gives us a sense of agency. Small works add up.
Have difficult conversations. I realized that we don’t talk enough about work at work, at school, with family or with friends. (And therefore this column!) These are not just ** people of color ** talking to whites, but also whites talking to other whites. Racial enlightenment is not a quiet journey to self-improvement. It is dynamic, interactive and messy. A good saying is: see something, say something. We need to be brave enough to call people out when we hear grumpy opinions and share our experiences and perspectives, even when it’s hard or uncomfortable.
Remind yourself that hope is a muscle. It’s as easy to indulge in despair as it is to sit on the couch and eat french fries. Hope is a run that will pump blood. Remember that hope is not something that comes to you – it is a decision and action.
Above that, I keep a picture in mind; it is cobbled by the many narratives of slaves I have read and perhaps the remnants imprinted in my DNA. A woman who works in slavery in a cotton field in Alabama, and the newborn is tied to her back. Her circumstances are impossibly awful and there is no reason to believe that her child will fare any better than a cruel life and perverted conditions. Still, he knows. She imagines a world where her descendants are free, they can marry whoever they want, earn a living, have a voice and say in their lives. It’s a cheeky dream. And yet, if she looked at the world today, she would be shocked. For all its imperfections, it is a world in which these desires have come true.
Then another picture: 100 years later. My own grandparents try to rent a house just to have the landlord tell them not to rent to the “n ** ers.” I see them walk away from that encounter shaken, dreaming of a day when their future children and grandchildren will be protected by the laws of fair housing, able to get a solid mortgage, and own a home. They would have the right to vote so that they could ensure the fairness of these laws. They experienced it to see.
And one more thing: this one is foggy, really a whisper … 30, 50 or 100 years will pass, when we too could see the world that is unrecognizable to us in the best possible way.
This imaginary triptych in my mind tells the story of progress and resilience and brings me comfort. It is a reminder that true change is a long game, and so is hope.
So rest, Sick and tired, for the journey is long. Have faith, for the way goes to the sun. Accept your heart, because your companions are right here with you.
Rest in peace, George Floyd.
Christine Pride is a writer, book editor and content consultant. Her debut novel, We are not like them, written with Jo Piazza, Atria will publish in the fall of 2021. He lives in Harlem, New York. Feel free to email her your questions at [email protected] or connect with her on Instagram @cpride.
(Portrait of Christine Pride author Christine Han.)