“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Victor Frankl, Concentration Camp Survivor.
I’ve been struggling to choose my response this week. I have also been struggling to write this post. There is so much trauma wracking through my body I am having trouble being coherent. So like Tyrone Edwards’ response on CTV’s The Social (please watch it!), I am not going to sanitize my response. I am going to share what’s so for me today and allow you to see some of my humanity—beyond the professional me, the put together me, the masked me, the happy laughing me in high heels, the leader me, the scholar me—under my skin, there is a being that is angry, sad and tired…and that is because I live in skin that has been classified as Black.
Monday May 25 was Africa day and this week was African Communications Week. I had meant to write my monthly post about that. I was going to share our continued hopes and dreams for #WeWillLeadAfrica and tell you about the questions and stories my We Will Lead Africa co-founders and co-editors and I are planning to explore next. You can count on me to come back to that sometime, but today, it feels tone-deaf for me to go there when people of African descent globally are struggling to breathe. I can’t breathe and we cannot breathe, because George Floyd could not breathe.
Today, I grieve and I am choosing to tell you about it, because Martin Luther once said: If you want to change the world pick up your pen and write…so I do. I have also never been good at staying silent about issues and injustices that impact me or that I see. How can I stay silent? The haunting video* and words of George Floyd are in my head repeating: I can’t breathe. And when I see him being crushed there on the pavement, I see what could have happened to my husband, my brothers, my uncles, my cousins, my nephews….my two black sons. It’s an American problem you say. Think again. I live in this skin and I can tell you story after story, including blatant racism my Canadian-born children have already experienced in the school system in ways I never did growing up in Sierra Leone (check out a story from my family I wrote about in 2017). Indeed, part of my pain this week (and a few weeks ago with the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery) has been watching my American and Canadian young adult nephews posting about the impact these killings have had on them on social media. If I was once an apologist for these issues, my writing, speaking and book signing on issues of African identity and ancestry has opened my eyes to just how unprepared the Canadian public is for this conversation and how much Black Canadian communities are starving for safe, open and unapologetic spaces for this dialogue.
However, beyond my stories, if you want systemic facts on Canada’s anti-black racism, please go read Desmond Cole’s national bestseller: This skin we’re in, or go chat with the families of D’Andre Campbell or Regis Korchinski-Paquet, who are still grieving the loss of their children in the past few weeks. Isolated cases you say? I hope you hear your own denial and how much that matches the exact ethos that has created the ‘American Problem’ to the extent that even video evidence is rendered debatable and does not guarantee justice. This is a global problem, rooted in the systemic colonization and dehumanization of peoples of African descent on and off the continent. It is the result of the same social stratification that created a class system that has endured, continuing the neo-colonizing of black, indigenous and people of colour globally, with a forced social ranking of second-class human. The coronavirus story in America and the fact that the Africa continent has fared well with outcomes of COVID19 but with widespread acknowledgement that structural and global wealth inequalities would make higher spread levels devastating for the continent tell the larger story.
So to my friends and allies classified as white, I say to you that this is OUR problem. I know these conversations are hard for you because they evoke guilt and shame and threaten your status. I get that. But while I understand it, I would say to you that I do not need your guilt and shame. I need your voice and action. I would much rather you get enraged with me and do something, because those classified as black, indigenous and people of colour, need you to be part of the solution. Indeed, my heartfelt thanks to those of you who have spoken up this week—it seems to me there has been an outpouring of allyship more than before this time. I shed tears for the first time this week watching a video call to action (aka rant) by a self-identified white American wife of an ex-cop and another one by a white man. I think I cried from the relief of their acknowledgement more than anything else. I also see friends in my circle whose silence was once deafening acknowledging an awakening of their conscience. I am so grateful that we have a leader who is willing to name that anti-Black racism exists in Canada and we have work to do too.
So to you friend, who has been asking: What can I do? I have offered some thoughts from my experience before and here is what I would say again now. You might accept that reducing your privilege to equal levels as all other people is not the same as the loss of livelihood and life that results from the social inequalities and injustices people of colour endure regularly. You might read a book, educate yourself and stop asking us to defend the issues to you. You might speak up in humble acceptance and with a sense of responsibility toward solutions and not in defense of the privileges you enjoy. You might build true relationships with people of colour, not based on the tokenism of some equity, diversity and inclusion programs, but as the equals we are when we have worked hard (often twice as hard) for our seat at the table with you. You might realize that though you may have experienced some underprivileged rankings too (like growing up poor), when Black people speak up, the conversation is not about you, but about compounded historical and persistent injustices you have not experienced in the same way. Try being both poor/poorer and a constant target for violence and oppression, generation after generation.
We understand that all humans have pain that needs to be acknowledged and that is precisely why we are asking you to hear and acknowledge ours. And we have listened to yours. We had no choice but to learn your history in our colonial schools. If you would only stop to listen to a fellow human’s story, experience and perspective, we might all find our way forward together. So please stop. Stop arguing. Stop ignoring. Stop dismissing, Stop comparing, Stop minimizing, Stop belittling, Stop rationalizing…just STOP. Because if he could not breathe…we ALL will not be able to breathe. Martin Luther King Jr could not have said better that: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Are we really in this together?
I research posttraumatic growth and I know that many will internalize the trauma, make sense of it and choose to move on. It is beyond unfortunate that the Black community is well practiced in doing this for our survival and our sanity. It is however clear as day that it is no longer enough for a few or even parts of our communities to do this. As the research evidence shows and I chronicle in a forthcoming book, social traumas require social healing and transformation. The world needs a collective and seismic shift for the better. In the meantime, the Black community will remember his name and all those who have gone before him. Because Black Lives Matter.
RIP George Floyd. As the memorial mural that has been made in your honour reads, we know you can breathe now.
Yabome (a grieving Black sister)
* Traumatic content. Watch at your own risk. Raw Facebook Video of George Floyd Arrest.