An American Intervention

whitney plantation

Photo: The author inside a human cage at The Whitney Plantation, the only American plantation restored to honor the memory and plight of enslaved African people.

Welcome to the week of waking up.

I am watching the stream of Official Statements from various organizations from the back of the room, leaning against the wall with my arms crossed, side of my mouth turned up and brow furrowed.

This week of black squares on social media has been what the rainbow logo is to Pride week: easy, convenient, trendy. Meaningless unless followed by tangible, measurable action.

Businesses that declare support for black people and yet do not spend their resources on it are lying to you.

Organizations that claim support for black people and yet do not put us on their boards, their payroll, their contracts, are dishonest.

People who say that black lives matter and do not commit to understanding and dismantling their own privilege, even at their own expense, are in denial.

Let’s meet back here in 30 days… three months… three years… and see who can show the receipts.

If this week is the beginning of your awareness, welcome. Truly. We need you and we are so glad you’re here.

But please understand that you are only taking one step. Just like Neo taking the red pill, waking up is only the beginning.

***

Many of us arrived to this week already exhausted. George Floyd was not the first black man murdered, only the latest in a 400-year history of American genocide.

We’ve been out here. We’ve spent years mourning, marching, pleading, explaining, educating, despairing.

I, too, was late to the game. Although my paternal side descended from enslaved African people who somehow survived horrors so great that Hitler himself studied American slavery as inspiration for his atrocities, my white mother remarried when I was young and so I grew up in a white family in a very white suburb of one of the whitest cities in our country.

And I am very fortunate. I have enormous white privilege because of how I look and because I was in near-total oblivion to my blackness for most of my life. That has benefited me greatly, as much as I simultaneously struggle to dismantle it.

I have experienced racism in every area of my life; usually subtle, always soul-injuring. I have lost opportunities. I have gained others. I have weighed when to “come out” as black. I have felt like an impostor in black spaces. I have felt loved like never before in black spaces.

I get to play the race card. I also get to retreat, to blend in, to opt out. It is my superpower. It is my burden.

***

I have been extremely direct this week in my reactions, both in real life and online. I don’t think this situation is helped by anything other than clear and concise communication.

In this moment, I am tired of gently explaining, patiently guiding, coddling and enabling. The resources are out there. They are easy to find if you want to find them. I am not your magical negro.

I’ve been working on these things for some time. I can’t do it alone. I need more help.

I need your help.

I need you to read and share my favorite article on privilege. I try to read this and share it at least once a year. Many people will never hear me. I need you to amplify.

I need you to read or re-read my article about how racism manifests in small business and the startup world. I need you to check yourself and check others. What we don’t say is as important as what we do say. Not calling out racism is normalizing racism.

I need you to realize that in a capitalist system like the United States, money is what makes people pay attention. Move your money to create results. Stop buying from companies that don’t reflect your values and tell others about it. Start buying from companies that help everyone succeed.

I need you to understand that supporting black business is not just buying barbecue from a food truck once. We are attorneys, consultants, accountants, architects, financial advisers, software developers. We’re not just musicians, we also own a streaming service. We’re not just performers, we’re producers. We’re not just players, we own teams. We’re not just entrepreneurs, we’re investors. We’re not just tellers, we own banks. (We’re also damn good cooks, so go ahead and get that barbecue.)

I need you to vote in local elections including primaries. I have been asking you to do this for 10+ years. Know how the game is played so we can win it. As Barack Obama pointed out this week, the people who make decisions about policing are elected officials at the local level. In cities and states like mine, the candidate is often chosen in the primary and by a very small margin. Voting for the president only is not enough. Opting out is counterproductive. Educate yourself.

I need you to catch yourself when you sigh or feel overwhelmed or confused or frustrated and realize that – that! – reaction is the definition of privilege.

I need you to believe me. To stop gaslighting me when I share my experience of the world and of other people. Yes, that is how it happened. Yes, that is what I am feeling. Yes, I deserve to feel that way.

Above all, I need you to realize that one only achieves wokeness by committing to continue the process of waking up. There is no finish line, no enlightenment. This is an iterative process. This is our evolution.

***

Some people want to burn it all down and start over; others are perfectly fine working within the structures we already have.

I believe in dismantling and re-imagining what no longer works. I also believe, and Pregame is founded on, the idea that you change the game by understanding the game. Fire and water. The answer is not either/or; it’s both.

So what should you do?

Here is exactly what to do:

1. Call out racism and declare it unacceptable.
Not just in business, but in all areas of life. Silence is complicity. Speaking up is especially lacking in spiritual communities, which have so much unrealized potential to show leadership through sincere change and introspection on the level of heart, soul, values, and family.

2. Take active steps to repair.
I assume you already understand that even if you personally did not enslave people or lynch George Floyd, you have directly and indirectly benefited from systems borne of the American history of black oppression. You did not earn everything you have, just as black people do not deserve their disproportionate disadvantages. Redirect some of your resources – money, time, social capital.

3. Don’t stop.
Keep asking, searching, learning, growing. Do not give up.

This is my experience; my editorial. This is all I have for you right now. Please do not ask me for more resources or referrals. I am not a professional expert in this space. Plenty of those exist. It is not my job to find them for you.

I cannot be the unpaid curator of your black awareness, because it already takes me extra work just to hold my place here. Especially now, I do not have extra time or energy to volunteer as your guide. I am desperately trying to protect my Self and to be there for fellow people of color who have fewer resources than I do.

***

I am overwhelmingly hopeful. I am optimistic. This week, I have danced in my apartment, smiled in my mirror, prayed thanks to my god. I feel like – just when I was about to go hoarse, people are finally listening.

I am grateful for the layers of internalized racism that have started to shake loose this week; for the blind spots that have begun to dissipate.

I am also committing to show up for others when the conversation turns to their struggles. Indigenous people are descended from and continue to endure equally grave injustices. There are still children in cages at the border. Trans people are still harassed and harmed. Mental illness is still treated like a choice. Women are still treated like property. And that’s just America.

We have a lot more work to do.

***

Perhaps we’ll brand this period the American Intervention. Just like breaking free from any addiction, stopping the use of the substance or behavior that is causing harm is only the first step. Step one is awareness and a rebalancing of power.

The hardest work and the real growth in life and community comes from commitment and recommitment to the process. Maturity is not achieved without struggle.

There is a grave misconception that personal growth is easy and that the “right” solutions can only be found in peace and positivity. This concept doesn’t come from spiritual traditions; it comes from people trying to sell you stuff. Jesus did not float around on a cloud. He spoke out against those in power, he challenged people, he got angry, he protested. He did and said what was right, not what would make everyone like him. The Buddha was very clear that life involves suffering. Using spiritual tools and ideas to avoid existing in the real world and grappling with real problems is not maturity; it’s materialism.

In the words of Angela Davis: I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.

7 thoughts on “An American Intervention

  1. Damn, Ciara. Whenever I say this is the best thing you’ve written, you go and make me a liar. Again. You’re such a fine writer, a solid business coach, and a beautiful human with a huge heart and the laugh of a bodhisattva. Thank you for your leadership. And thank you for your vulnerability and transparency. I believe in your vision. More so I am dedicated to doing The Work.

  2. This is sobering And beautiful. Thank you for sharing. I needed to hear this and so does the world. There is much to be learned and unlearned. Sitting in this discomfoRt, listening, and promising to do better.

  3. A beautifully written piece. as a queer, trans person this sentence stood out to me: “I get to play the race card. I also get to retreat, to blend in, to opt out. It is my superpower. It is my burden.”

    I can play the trans card. I can also opt out and blend in. unless i come out no one knows i am trans. i also feel it is my superpower and my burden. it is what i use to disarm people and then educate them about their cisgender privilege. but combined with my white skin and presumed male cisgender/straight identity i also benefit from the highest level of privilege. that EXPONENTIALLY increases the burden, as it should.

    so much more work to do. i hope this time brings more of us together. it’s the only way to sustain true change.
    thank you!

    • Thanks so much for your comment. I’ve often thought about the similarity for queer friends who can “pass” as cis or straight when needed. It’s a strange and complicated privilege.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *