This past week has been filled with a tremendous amount of emotion including sadness, frustration, anxiety, and hope. For the first time in my life, as a white privileged male, I acknowledged some difficult truths about race, social injustice and my role as well as my responsibility in both. I shared words publicly that were hard to write, and even harder to say out loud because as I noted in my last post “I Thought I was One of the Good Ones. I was Wrong.”
This acknowledgement came first with my black friends, then other friends and family, followed by my social network and ultimately my business network and peers. Each step was a bit more difficult than the prior one. I certainly wasn’t the first or only one speaking out, as I was continually challenged and inspired by those doing so ahead of me.
Each step also brought a different response depending on the audience. Literally within minutes, I was being challenged – from both sides. Some were challenging my authenticity, others my intentions – while others just disagreed with the message itself. And I’m sure there were plenty that said nothing, but felt the same. That’s a topic for another day.
What I want to focus on is the fact that I received far more positive comments and praise than anything else – in fact, it wasn’t even close. I was overwhelmed, and to be honest, quite surprised. In addition to hundreds of comments, I had so many people reach out publicly and privately to thank me for sharing “exactly how they felt”. There were old friends resurfacing from years and decades past to share their support, along with new friends from all over the country expressing gratitude as this resonated with them, too.
Given that my network is predominantly White, it was gratifying to see so many commenting, sharing and supporting my very personal thoughts. But the praise that often stopped me in my tracks, and brought me to tears came from the black community. Some I know and love, many I’ve never met. I was sincerely humbled.
I’m not going to lie – it felt good. Like that soul-filling kind of feeling you get after doing charitable work. Like you did something that mattered, something that made an impact, something you believe in. You are fulfilled and proud all at the same time. My kids used to call those “happiness shots”.
If you are White and you took a stand this week for the first time about racial injustice, I’m guessing your experience was similar to mine. And while I’m glad you too felt that rush of positive energy, as uncomfortable as it was, I’m learning it comes with a few important warning labels.
This isn’t charity work.
You are likely engaging in these issues because they are important to you, and that’s good. Don’t lose that, but know this is different. Being involved in non-profits over the past 20 years I’ve met some absolutely amazing people. They give so much of their time, money and resources for the right reasons. They are not in it for the praise – but that often comes with it and it’s a nice perk.
But be prepared for the praise to fade quickly here, not because people are ungrateful but because this is more than just a charitable cause or a project. You’ll need to find your motivation in something much bigger and different than ever before. This is not something with a clear and simple objective and finish line where we can all celebrate at the end together. This is good work, important work, but it’s hard work with lots of fuzzy lines. Nobody is asking for a handout or something to be given to them – they are asking us to join them. This is about fundamentally changing how we treat, work with, respect and support people of color in this country, and that’s going to take time, money and resources too.
The focus will fade but we cannot.
It’s probably hard to imagine now, but in a matter of weeks the news stories and large rallies will slow down. The public statements from corporations and CEOs will stop, the flurry of activity to take action will inherently stall out. The bold, black banners on websites and streaming stations will be lifted. That’s not to suggest this is a fleeting news story or that Black Lives Matter won’t be working hard, but focus will shift to the next big thing – not to mention an election cycle that will soon take over to ensure big ratings continue for the media. But this issue isn’t going anywhere. If you truly believe Black Lives Matter, if you received the praise, you have to take part in keeping the focus on the issue. Maybe that doesn’t mean posting and sharing content every day, but it means staying true to your message and continuing to stand up.
If you truly believe Black Lives Matter, if you received the praise, you have to take part in keeping the focus on the issue.
They Will be Watching White People
The most meaningful praise I received came from the black community, but I’m sure it came with cautious optimism. Well-meaning Whites like me have let them down before, and they will be watching to see if we follow our “courageous” social media posts with authentic action.
This is positive pressure. This is accountability. This is our chance to show that we really do care and we are now self-aware enough to do something about it. Let’s not let them down. If you are not sure where to start, ask. If you need resources, there’s tons of them floating around, maybe too many – go find them (I’m working on aggregating some for a future post to share). The key is to start, and then, don’t stop.
Where White People Can Start
I’m not in a position to tell anyone what to do, so I’m just going to share a few simple ways I’m starting. I have more on this I’ll share in a future post, particularly specific resources and suggestions, but for now we have to shift ourselves from empathy to engagement. I certainly don’t have this all figured out, but here’s a few I’m working on:
- Start at Home – we have had some hard, emotional and meaningful conversations with the kids. We’ve made it clear this is something our family is committed to and that Black Lives Matter is part of our core values. We discussed scenarios when we need to be more than just nice, when we need to stand up.
- Education – there’s a myriad of resources out there. We’re starting with some books for us and the kids in addition to a few documentaries on injustice and white privilege.
- Connect & Engage – I’m struggling a bit to find where and how to engage as my focus seems to move first to those sharing insensitive and/or inaccurate information, but I’m trying to focus my efforts to connect with those I respect, continue to have conversations in those spaces and carry them with me. I’ve also started to join black business groups so I’m exposed to more of these discussions and can begin to do a better job including black people in my network.
- Seek Mentorship & Accountability – find people of color that can provide educated leadership in this area and are willing to call you out when you don’t do the same. I’ve had this conversation with a few people, and they are ready, able and willing to help. It’s hard and scary but necessary.
- Commitment – find ways you can integrate this into your life long term. Are their groups you can join? Things you can align with the work you are already doing? Changes you can make where you work? Or just a commitment to standing up when the opportunities reveal themselves – regardless of where and when that may be.
For me, this started with our family – this is a stated value that’s been added to our core list. At work, we also started by forming a permanent committee in our company committed to a monthly forum on equality as part of our wellness program. I’m also adding this as a topic to Help & Hustle so it continues to get consistent focus as well as push me to find more leaders to speak on the subject. None of these are going to change the world, but it’s where I can start to make an impact long term.
In addition to the praise, I’ve received some really great advice over the past week from black peers. One piece of advice that really resonated with me was “focus on progress not perfection”. So, while I’m challenging White people to step up and lean in, to turn all that wonderful praise into something proactive, it’s important to remember this is a marathon not a sprint. This is not going to happen over night, so don’t put the added pressure on yourself to do so much that you end up doing nothing at all.
This is a moment we don’t want to miss, let’s show up and be better together.