When I was in my late teens I wanted to change the world. Bush Jr had just been elected to his first term and my friends and I thought it was the end of the world. It’s almost funny to reflect today on the dread I felt during that time considering the White House occupant of the most recent three years. My friends and I channeled our angst into action, attending protests and writing letters to members of Congress and local political officials. Then nothing happened. So we formed a group and called ourselves ONCAP, the "Organization for Non-Complacency Among the People.” Our aim was to coordinate resistance efforts with other humans so we could present a unified message.
We recognized there is strength in numbers, but we didn't quite understand how to capitalize on that potential with any sort of efficiency. What we should have done was seek out an already established organization doing the work we wanted done and add our voices and time and energy to their ongoing efforts. That did not occur to a single one of us, however, so instead we met a couple times a week, continued protesting, and tried to start a newsletter. We talked to people we already knew and asked them to join with us in action. Unsurprisingly, we were not effective operating on our own, essentially in a vacuum, without an expansive social network and with no readership for our newsletter. We kept trying anyway.
Then I accepted a job with the federal government. During orientation I learned that I was no longer able to exercise my first amendment rights publicly to the same degree I had been. I could speak out on legislative issues, but could not comment on candidates running for partisan office. I could not fundraise. I could not canvas. I could not speak publicly about things that affected my agency without first going through the media relations officer for my state (who at one point was a human named Panick - the irony was not lost upon me).
With the restrictions of my public service, I couldn’t keep ONCAP going and it didn’t continue without me. So there I sat for the next 14 years, red tape over my mouth, writing anonymous letters to Congress, making donations, and working internally to protect employee rights as a union steward.
During that time I became passionate about social justice issues. I learned what privilege is and identified some of my own contributions to systemic racism. I started my personal work to uncover my unconscious racism, own it, and learn how to choose new behaviors. I have made a lot of changes in my life while working to dismantle my own racism. But the one thing I haven’t been doing is talking about it publicly. I left my government job in 2017, but I didn’t leave the practice of being quiet.
I could have shared my process more widely before now. I could have reached out to the friends and family not already onboard and asked them to please join me in doing this very important work. Working silently was where I have continued to fail, and it took George Floyd's death for me to realize I could take that red tape off of my mouth.
Doing my work out in the open is the new change I’m making now. I am calling all the professional organizations I belong to and all the vendors currently providing my business services and asking what they are doing to dismantle the systemic racism within their organization and in our industry as a whole. I am calling my family and asking where they are in their personal journey and asking them to begin looking at themselves or to continue the work they are already doing. And fortunately, I am not alone.
There has been a Great Awakening across the country. Many white Americans have finally come to realize the problem is not just "a few bad apples" in the police force; it’s an entire system designed to punish some people just for existing. White folks everywhere are asking what they should do to help actually abolish the slavery of black Americans that was supposed to have ended with the 13th amendment.
If you are one of the newly arrived, welcome into a little more awareness. The journey you are beginning is long and challenging, and also unbelievably rewarding (as personal growth tends to be). And if you're feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of identifying your internal racist narratives, unlearning your racist behaviors, and taking down the institutions of racism in our society, then realize you don't have to figure out how to solve the whole problem on your own. There are many people and countless organizations that have been doing this work for decades. Do your personal work, and go find those already established organizations doing the work you want done and add your voice, your time, your money, and your energy to their ongoing efforts.
The demands for change in the last two weeks are starting to work. Last week Los Angeles redirected $150 million from the police budget into health, education, and other community programs. The city of DC painted “Black Lives Matter” across two blocks of 16th street leading up to the White House. More people are registering to vote and talking about electing leaders who will take down the old systems. More black voices are being heard and recognized. And this is just the beginning.
Which is why I want to encourage a long-term perspective. We are trying to change systems that have been around for hundreds of years and were deliberately designed to do exactly what they have been: keep black and brown folks intimidated and under control. We need to be out in the street with raised voices demanding justice and legislative changes. We need to boycott institutions that refuse to change their policies and practices. We need to write letters and make phone calls and post on social media. And we also need to do the dishes and get the laundry done.
To accomplish real system-wide change this movement cannot be just a break from regular life to demand justice for two or three tragic deaths before we go back home, order dinner, and Netflix 'n chill. This has to be a lifestyle change. We have to completely change our societal systems to remove the racism, and we have to completely change our life systems to sustain our momentum for demanding these changes until they actually happen.
I think people are ready. Books on racism and white privilege are sold out all over the place. Groups of white folks are watching documentaries, listening to TED talks, and committing to challenging self-reflection. Churches are speaking out against the poisonous narratives perpetuated by conservative white evangelical institutions. We already changed our whole life routine when Covid hit, so why not continue to adapt our lives for the extremely worthy cause of finally ending slavery for real.
So wherever you are in your personal process of reckoning with your racism and systemic racism in America, take the time you need to process. Grieve, get mad, read books, post online, do all the things. Then, as soon as you can hold on to one more thing: figure out how to show up for the black community while living your everyday life. We all need to include community activism as part of our "regular life" so we can march downtown demanding that black lives matter and then go home and do the laundry.
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Jaydra is a human in-process, working to make the world a better place. Sharing thoughts, feelings, and observations about the human experience.