A well-meaning, genuinely nice, white Christian professor once told me and a couple other African-American graduate students (in front of the entire class) that black people need "a new narrative;" that we need to get over slavery; that because it's in the distant past, we need to "move on."
Although I will be the first to admit that I believe some Black people use slavery and racism as a crutch to rationalize their mediocrity or passivity, that professor's recommendation felt too flippant and dismissive.
So we asked her if she would say the same thing to Jewish people who lost their family members in the Jewish Holocaust. To her credit, she was consistent. She said Jews need to move on too because Germans are sick of hearing about the Holocaust as well.
Then, we calmly and lovingly tried to explain to her how we have LIVING relatives who were born so close to the end of slavery they still have the stench of slavery on them. We explained to her that some of our relatives have seen family members lynched by white mobs—like literally killed in front of them!; we tried to help her see that their stories and struggles live on through us; and, we tried to explain that their struggles, in many ways, are our struggles as well.
We tried to explain that anti-Black racism is not past history, but it is an unhealed gaping wound in America and in our own lives. That is, the effects of slavery through personalized prejudice, discrimination, and systemic racism are still robbing many Black people of their rights, privileges, and opportunities today.
Exasperated and frustrated by our response, she threw up her hands and asked, "What more do you guys want?"
If you are white and still reading this, and, if you've asked that question too, let me share with you what I share with anyone who asks questions like that.
What Do Black People Really Want?
In commemoration of Juneteenth, let me try to answer that question as concisely and lovingly as possible: Black people want white people (and anyone who will listen) to know that we KNOW that the white people living TODAY are not to blame for slavery or the effects of slavery, but because white people are most often the ones in positions of power and influence, they, bearing no personal blame, still have the responsibility to remove the systemic and institutional injustices they see in their organizations and in their circles of influence.
It’s no mystery that Black people, who make up only 13% of our country's population, do not have the power, position, and privilege to make our country equitable on our own.
However, with help, we can!
There are several white people of influence—superintendents, principals, teachers, CEOs, and elected officials—who can help change things. I know because I have had the privilege of personally working with many of them through the years.
So what do Black people want? We want our friends who have power to use their power to disrupt and correct the systems around them that perpetuate racism, injustice, and inequity, so that all lives can really matter, all lives can really flourish, and, so we as a country can finally live up to our greatness.
What Can Leaders Do?
I dislike uncomfortable conversations as much as the next person, but I know that our race and class problems as a nation cannot be solved unless leaders are willing to deal with the problems head on by having real conversations about the parts of our problems that make us most uncomfortable.
With everything going on in our country—the protests, rising racial tensions, and political polarity—what can the leaders of organizations and school districts do to help their staff have these conversations, and affect these kinds of changes in healthy, mutually respectful, and meaningful ways? Ignoring the problems is not the answer, or denying that these problems even exist is not going to somehow make them go away.
Right now, leaders have an opportunity to facilitate meaningful, positive changes in their organizations in ways that can help our country live up to those inspired words that flowed from the pen of Thomas Jefferson,
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
My friend, right now, many black people in our country are being denied their right to life, liberty, and the opportunity to pursue happiness, and it is being caught on camera (and, it's been happening for hundreds of years off camera!). You and leaders you know can really help to change these things.
This Can Help
To help your organization live up to Jefferson's supernal words, I have designed a presentation/seminar called Becoming Interculturally Competent. It deals with racism, but also deals with so much more than that. It's designed to help organizations increase their cross-cultural understandings, relationships, and impact.
If you are interested in helping your organization create a more equitable culture, or you just want to somehow be a part of the solution, please take a look at the presentation, and tell leaders you know about me and it.
A First-Hand Look at a Slave Castle
Finally, I took my family to a slave castle in Africa where we believe our African ancestors were held before they were shipped across the Atlantic in slave ships. If you would like to see pictures from that journey and read about that life-changing experience, you can download it below.
In any case, please do your part to make sure all lives really do matter in your school, organization, and community. That's the only way things will get better.
P.S. Even on your worst day, you can be someone’s best hope.