Our country is broken and it was designed this way. The systems that have created the current state of events are doing exactly what they were intended to do. Our systems were created by white people, for white people. So it’s no surprise that the systems have created an otherhood and caused a divide. Our country’s history begins with stolen lands built with labor from stolen people. Racism and white supremacy are embedded in our laws and policies that have kept the status quo of inequality.
Do we call this civil unrest? That sounds too vanilla, too nice. The words I want to use would be peppered with expletives like, “This is complete b******t,” or, “I am f***ing tired of this.” I’d say “I’m surprised,” but, I’m not. There is a new hashtag every few months and the list of names of Black people killed by police grows longer.
In the words of NPR’s Code Switch: A Decade Of Watching Black People Die, how do we talk about what is actually happening, and how do we do something that actually influences change? As local government professionals, no doubt you know plenty of officers yourselves. I know I do. And, no doubt you are grappling with disgust and hatred for state sanctioned murder of Black lives while caring for many of your colleagues in law enforcement. This is a complex, moral dilemma and people are dying. There are no words to identify the cognitive dissonance this invokes in all of us.
I recently read the words of Eugene, Oregon’s Police Chief, Chris Skinner:
“[O]nce again, we as a profession can’t seem to get out of our own way and continue to hire officers who find ways to tear apart the very trust and confidence most of us work so hard to build with our entire community.”
This is how I want Police Chiefs to respond to George Floyd’s murder. Or to Breonna Taylor’s murder. Or to Philando Castille’s murder. Or to Mike Brown’s murder. Or to Tony McDade’s murder.
Every single thing that we do is a choice. Doing nothing is a choice. Not taking a stance is taking a stance. We all have our own levels of influence. Every single one of you has a platform where you can impact people every day, with every action from the businesses you choose to purchase from to the accounts you follow on social media or the shows you binge watch. The people you think of, who you reach out to and who you don’t. What you say and what you don’t.
I am a white person and I’m speaking from my own experiences. I hope that I will help others learn. As white people, many of our biggest fears are being called racist, saying the wrong thing, causing more harm than good. For some white people, this stops them from saying anything at all. The belief that saying something wrong is worse than saying nothing at all. But if you dig deeper into that belief, that line of thinking considers only you and your own feelings rather than the impact of the injustice you observe.
Your silence is speaks volumes. Your silence is a choice and it sends the message “I don’t care enough to risk being vulnerable so I am choosing not to engage.” Not everyone shares that same privilege.
I know that I come to my work from “the skin that I’m in,” meaning that I can only approach my work and my life as a white, cis-gender, straight, agnostic, middle class female. I have my own set of lived experiences that guide my actions, and most of the times what guides our actions is subconscious. We often act without realizing it. That’s why we are surprised when we mess up. We didn’t mean to marginalize someone with our words or actions. We would never intend to hurt someone, which is why our response almost always starts with, “What I meant was…”
It is important to understand the difference between intent and impact. What I meant was to be an ally, to be a friend, to be someone who stands up in the face of injustice and impacts systemic and institutional change. However, when our efforts land flat we need to acknowledge our error, and apologize. This usually means we have to acknowledge ignorance, obliviousness, and potential other descriptors that we generally prefer to avoid. But apologizing for the pain we have caused and pledging to learn more and do better, we are changing our own paths to actually be better in the future.
If we remain silent and do not say something that exposes our ignorance, obliviousness and privilege, we will remain that ignorant person and not become better through a learned experience.
It is not the job of a person of color to teach you about their experiences, or explain on behalf of an entire community how something would hypothetically impact them. The best way to learn is to educate yourself. I found this video from Franchesca Ramsey a few years ago, and it helped break down for me my role in my own education. She is also host of MTV’s Decoded which answers a lot of questions that you probably shouldn’t ask people of color or the LGBTQ community to explain to you. Instead you can just scroll through and probably find an episode on it. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.
Another stellar resource is the NPR Code Switch podcast. NPR has a number of other shows that discuss race and inequities in our society. I just caught one yesterday morning called Racism and Economics on The Indicator from Planet Money.
Check out this short video from NPR Code Switch’s Gene Dempby. The video lays out the history of redlining and how the real estate industry and local planning authorities had a huge impact on where black and brown people could buy homes, their ability to access loans, and created neighborhood segregation that continues to impact our communities today. There is likely history on your own community, and you may be able to find more on it through local research. Check out if your library has a research librarian on staff and they can help you learn about historical laws and policies in your state and region that continue to impact lives right at home.
If you prefer to learn by watching, Trevor Noah’s Daily Show or Daily Social Distancing keeps you up to date every single day, or check out The Patriot Act with Hasan Minaj.
There are a number of organizations you can use as resources. Just this week, Standing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) put out a toolkit called #EndWhiteSilence Action Toolkit. SURJ is an organization created by white people to teach white people how to do this work in the most meaningful way. Check out the Blackout Collective, Racial Equity Tools, Black Organizing for Leadership and Dignity (BOLD) for ways that you can educate yourself and learn skills to help educate others.
If you’re a reader, check your local library for these books, or buy them directly from the author through these websites:
Lastly, you need to check out the Government Alliance on Race and Equity. It’s a national network of government professionals working to achieve racial equity and advance opportunities for all. They have resources from cities who have already implemented change, and they will work with organizations on your own initiatives. It’s a great local government specific resource to see how you can impart change in your own organization.
You are the one who can decide that you need a more diverse interview panel and candidate pool. Did you know that if you have at least two women in the finalist pool, a woman has a 79x better chance of being hired, and if there are two or more people of color, a person of color has a 193x better chance of being hired? If there is only one woman or person of color in the finalist pool, they have virtually zero chance of being hired (Source HBR). You may have the opportunity to roll out a new initiative and you can take the time to evaluate how you are reaching different populations within your community. You may take on a greater role in police accountability or negotiate a more fair and equitable police union contract.
Equity work is a part of every single person’s job. You have customers, both internal and external, who are looking to see if your organization reflects the community it serves, and if staff are inclusive to the whole community. You have your own network, and with that you have your own influence. Take some time to think differently and challenge yourself to build inclusion and equity into all that you do. Change begins individually. You find like-minded people who become your partners, and you grow to a larger group of equity champions. Begin by doing the work, and be part of change that is desperately needed. Make a choice.