Welcome to the latest Race Matters advice column, featuring the wonderful Christine Pride. Today marks the anniversary of George Floyd’s death: May 25, 2020. As we look back on the past year, how far have we come? How much has the country grown? Today, a reader is asking about staying hopeful during these difficult times…
Dear Race Matters:
On the anniversary of George Floyd’s death, I can’t help wondering where the country stands regarding race. It was a relief when former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty for Floyd’s murder. But what happens next? How do we effect change that’s substantive and enduring? That would mean confronting bias in how we police 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 thriving neighborhoods where everyone has an equal opportunity to partake in the American dream?
That goal, at this particular moment, feels more challenging than ever.
As a 56-year-old Black woman, I’m not at all delusional about America’s race problem yet I’ve always been a glass-half-full type of person and try to stay positive. But a year after George Floyd’s murder, I fear that our country has stalled in its efforts in our racial reckoning. After all the protests and hashtags and talk about diversity and inclusion training, I worry that we’re losing that forward motion toward institutional and systemic change. What recommendations do you have for a weary traveler who’s desperately trying to stay positive and hopeful for a fight that must continue?
Signed, Sick and Tired
Dear Sick and Tired:
I appreciate that you signed off with a nod to the immortal words of activist Fannie Lou Hamer: “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.” How could we not be weary after the year we’ve had? It’s a reminder that the capacity for human resilience is remarkable. As demoralized as we may be by the rash of police violence, COVID, economic strife, an intense national election, and general fear that everything could spiral out of control, we’re still here, getting up every morning and putting on clothes, scrounging up a few meals for sustenance, and hopefully, on good days, finding enough flashes of joy to be a siren call to do it all again tomorrow.
I think our first step is to acknowledge that weariness. It’s okay that we’re not okay. Emotional exhaustion, and the cynicism that creeps in with it, is not a character flaw. All too often, women, and especially Black women, aren’t given the time, space, or permission to sit in their feelings and just be. Yes, there are voting rights to advocate for, and children to feed, and paychecks to chase, but that will all still be there if we take a moment to drop our load and rest our arms; to wipe our brows and say, woo wee, this shit feels impossible.
So, I want to start with some counterintuitive advice: to really sit with those feelings, before trying to move on. That’s hard to do, I’ll admit, because I, too, am a glass-half-full optimist when it comes to life and race. I recognize that this optimism is a form of privilege, a byproduct of the luck and success I’ve had in my life. I have a career that I love, I own a home, I have savings to carry me through an emergency. But I am also hyper aware that I’m an exception, rather than the rule. To wit: Only 44% of Black people own a home compared to 74% for whites; the median wealth for white Americans is $142,000 compared to just $24,100 for Black Americans. Black workers earn 15% less than our white counterparts. Beyond economics, Black people are more likely to die of gun violence… or pregnancy complications or cancer or diabetes or COVID. I could go on with more crushing stats. How easy it’s been for too many people to distance themselves from and rationalize these gross disparities with the false belief that they must be the result of cultural deficits or personal shortcomings, rather than face up to the harsh reality: the system was designed exactly this way from the very start, to keep an entire group of people from accessing education, economic opportunity and equal rights and then blame them for it.
Which is why I hate the idea that people could point to me as some sort of example for how we must be over-exaggerating racism, because LOOK! at these successful Black people. It’s a dangerous myth of “exceptionalism” and ignores a glaring reality for hundreds of thousands of BIPOC people in this country and the oppressive systems of inequality that keep them from having the same opportunities.
After all, how easily it could be a very different story. If I lived in another town, I could be Breonna Taylor; if I took a road trip on a summer day through some back roads, I could be Sandra Bland; if I had decided to have kids I could be Lucy McBath. And on and on. I’m constantly aware that my life as a Black woman is very much a there but for the grace of God go I situation.
This is the weight I was feeling over the past year, as I’m sure you were, too — a heightened recognition of all the ways the world is dangerous, unfair and demeaning to people who look like us. This is the weight I felt as I cried through George Flyod’s funeral last summer, and as I fielded well-meaning emails from white friends who would never truly know what it was like to be Black in America, and as I dealt with a painful career situation with upsetting racial implications.
Which all led to a sense of helplessness, too. Because, if one thing has become crystal clear, it’s that since white people built this system, they have to be the ones to dismantle it, even when they might feel so far removed from its detrimental effects; even when it could come at a cost to them. It felt like there was momentum on that front, didn’t it? The protests, and marches, and education; those thoughtful texts and emails I was getting; the collective primal scream of, “This has got to stop.”
But looking back, a year later, you ask a pressing question on everyone’s minds: have we stalled in our great racial awakening? Did we make tangible progress? There will be a million think pieces that explore those questions over the next few months. And I’ll leave it to the sociologists, economists and journalists to try to qualify that. From a personal standpoint, however, in a lot of ways, I say yes. One measure of that is that people (including Race Matters column readers) seem intent to be aware of the intricacies of racist systems. I think people are starting to understand that white supremacy is not a personal failing, but a deeply embedded institutional one. I’ve observed that more people are thinking critically about redlining, the gross disparities in the criminal justice system, police violence, attempts to quash voter rights, etc. And white folks are also more aware of their capacity for bias, defensiveness and fragility. Awareness is half the battle.
But the all important next step is, of course, action. Here, too, I have seen some heartening strides. For example, the publishing industry’s efforts to hire more BIPOC folks. I know that’s just one industry, but given its role in elevating stories and ideas and deciding who has a voice and a platform, it has an outsized impact in shaping our very culture, and thus the white supremacy at the heart of it.
Progress never feels fast enough though, does it? But it doesn’t mean we give up. We can’t; we don’t have a choice but to carry on, endure and strive; which are, themselves, acts of resistance.
So, given all of this, what are my recommendations for a weary traveler?
Soak up the positive. We see all the negative news; it’s liberating to also notice “feel good” fare that affirms the goodness of humanity. Sometimes we don’t focus on the positive because it seems a cop out, or a slippery slope to complacency if we dare turn away from the pressing struggles for even a moment, but we need these stories as fuel and balm. Consider following Good News Movement or Because of Them on Instagram. Poetry offers this, too — this Margaret Walker poem never fails to uplift me.
Do something. We could all stand to focus more on the power we do have and not the power we don’t. Volunteering, donating, supporting artists and activists — that matters and it gives us a sense of agency. Small acts do add up.
Have hard conversations. One thing I’ve realized is that we don’t talk about race enough at work, at school, in our families or with our friends. (And thus this column!) This isn’t just **people of color** talking to white people, but it’s white people talking to other white people. Racial enlightenment is not a quiet self-improvement journey. It’s dynamic and interactive and messy. A good adage is: see something, say something. We have to be brave enough to call people out when we hear cringe-worthy opinions and to share our experiences and perspectives, even when it’s hard or uncomfortable.
Remind yourself that hope is a muscle. It’s as easy to give into despair as it is to sit on the couch and eat French fries. Hope is the jog you take to get your blood pumping. Remember that hope is not something that comes to you — it’s a decision and an action.
Beyond that, I hold an image in my mind; it’s cobbled together from the many slave narratives I’ve read and maybe vestiges imprinted in my DNA. A woman working in bondage on an Alabama cottonfield with a newborn strapped to her back. Her circumstances are impossibly grisly and there’s no reason to believe that her child will fare any better than a life of cruelty and depraved conditions. And yet, she does. She imagines a world where her progeny are free, can marry who they want, earn a living, have a voice and a say in their very lives. It’s an audacious dream. And yet, if she were to glimpse the world today, she would be shocked. For all its imperfections, it is a world where those wishes came true.
Then another image: 100 years later. My own grandparents trying to rent a house only to be told by the landlord point blank he doesn’t rent to “ni**ers.” I see them walking away from that encounter shaken, dreaming of a day where their future children and grandchildren would be protected by Fair Housing laws, would be able to get a sound mortgage and own a home. Would have the right to vote to be able to ensure the fairness of those laws. They lived to see that.
And one more: This one is hazy, a whisper really… It’s 30, or 50, or 100 years from now, when we, too, could glimpse a world that is unrecognizable to us in the best possible way.
This imaginary triptych in my mind’s eye tells a story of progress and resilience, and it brings me comfort. It’s a reminder that true change is a long game and so then is hope.
So, rest up, Sick and Tired, for the journey is long. Have faith, for the road heads towards the sun. Take heart, for your fellow travelers 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, will be published by Atria in fall 2021. She lives in Harlem, New York. Feel free to email her with your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org or connect with her on Instagram @cpride.
(Portrait of Christine Pride by Christine Han.)