One of the common themes of my most recent sessions with clients has surrounded the topic of “systemic racism”. There are so many reminders in our local and international communities that have been present in our newsfeeds. It seems that everywhere we turn, whether or not it’s in the news or on all social media platforms, people are talking about the tragedy of race-based violence, particularly the lives of the black community in the United States. What happened to George Floyd was horrific. And he is one person among SO MANY. He has become a symbol and representation of a systemic problem that has been present for longer than a few months or years.
I have talked to clients of different races and ethnicities about how this issue has impacted them and their worldviews. I continue to talk to my two boys, who are both beautiful children of colour about privilege, racism and discrimination. I have talked to friends and family members about this issue, at great length. And throughout all of these discussions, one thing has stayed constant. People are angry. And uncomfortable.
So what wonderful words of wisdom and life-altering advice have I given my clients during this time?
The honest answer is this: “Feel angry. Feel uncomfortable. Feel whatever emotions surface because of what is happening in the world.”
You don’t have to a person of colour (POC) to have a moral compass that dictates that we treat people humanely and without undeserved hatred. Here is my confession: I have not always been this passionate about this topic. Sure, I grew up as a POC and experienced comments and looks from others that were a reflection of the stereotyped thoughts that they had about people of my racial background. But I never looked at it past my own experiences or those of my peers and family. It was only within the last decade of my life that I acknowledged that this is not fair – the fact that people of colour all over the world are subject to differential treatment, expectations, and rights through the inheritance of a system that marginalizes them. So I educated myself and continue to educate myself. I learned to empathize and not sympathize. I recognized my own privilege. And here I am, ready to talk to anyone who wants to talk about this issue – for however long they want to. This is my penance for my years of disregard and avoidance.
Here are few things I’ve learned through my own personal and professional journey:
- Knowledge is Power. Educate yourself about the history of the movements that you hear about and see on television and social media. They weren’t formed a few months ago. There is a rich history behind advocacy groups like Black Lives Matter. A history that is tragic and disturbing. But necessary to know about in order to understand where the anger and frustration is stemming from. (I recommend the 13th and Time: The Kalief Browder Story on Netflix.
- Embrace the discomfort. If you feel angry, feel angry. If you feel uncomfortable, feel uncomfortable. The atrocities that have happened in the past and continue to occur now should not give you the “warm and fuzzies”. If we avoid these feelings when they are present, we are ignoring the issue. We are saying to ourselves and to others that it does not concern me and therefore does not require my attention. But it should be concerning because it’s unfair and inhumane.
- Recognize your own privilege. Part of the process is to recognize where you sit on the spectrum of privilege. I may be a POC, but I am educated, employed, heterosexual and married. I have a house to live in and healthy children. I have family and friends and a supportive community. Acknowledging my privilege acknowledges my responsibility to those who may not be as privileged to speak for them when necessary. If I deny my privilege, I deny the fact that there are people in the world who work as hard as they can but are still not afforded the same rights and opportunities as I have. I deny the systems put in place that may help me but not help others.
- Curb the defensiveness. It is very easy to feel like people’s responses are personal attacks to your privilege. But that it not what it happening. It doesn’t have to be about you. It’s about a flawed and unjust system that you are part of. Defensiveness is adding the “but” to your statement of alliance. As in, “Yes, it’s totally unfair, but…” Drop the “but”. Leave it as “It’s totally fair”. No need for further elaboration. Just let people know that you are hearing their frustrations. Don’t change the narrative.
- Practice empathy not sympathy. I am not black and I would NEVER attempt to believe that I understand fully the experience of systemic racism, particularly against the black community. But I can imagine that it’s terrible to live a life, knowing that because of the colour of my skin, I will be treated unfairly or seen in a negative light regardless of who I am as a person. A fellow human being. But I can also respect that the black community would not want me feeling sorry for them. I hope they they would appreciate me feeling angry for them. When I have spoken to some of my white clients, I hear their fears of being labelled “racist”, just because they are white. But I am also confident enough to draw the parallels to their feelings and those who are labelled “criminal” or “violent” just because they are black. That’s what empathy is – recognizing how someone feels, seeing the world through their eyes.
- Continue the discussion. To not talk about it means to avoid it. And avoiding it means that we are not giving the topic enough respect to acknowledge it. Keep talking about it. Contribute to the dialogue by talking about it with others about how change is needed. Reach out to your black friends and family to let them know that you stand with them. Listen to and learn from their experiences and feelings. Challenge those who may not be aware of the history, of their privilege or don’t want to sit with their own discomfort.
I know that these lessons are probably self-explanatory and, maybe even, obvious. I am fully aware that my journey is ongoing. And I also know that the more I continue on my journey, the more I will be able to use my voice and my privilege with confidence, passion and conviction to stand up for change.