It is safe to say that George Floyd’s death has caused a ripple of racial consciousness throughout the world unseen since the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s. In the past being a non-black minority (Latino & Native American) has made my feelings complicated during these times of racial unrest. I would post on social media but that would be the end of my “activism.” I chose not to protest, I chose not to march, I chose not to sign petitions, I chose too many times to stay silent. I was wrong and complicit with the same racism that I myself have experienced in my life. I wouldn’t listen to my black friends for that very reason, “I’ve put up with it and so can you.” In the digital age I like many Americans have seen a disturbing number of black men and women killed by the police on cell phone video. This vicious onslaught of visual death has left me distraught, traumatized, and feeling empty at times because it leaves me powerless. How can I help? With age I have learned that my silence was wrong, I saw that my lack of empathy was my own avoidance. The subject left me uncomfortable and I chose not to confront those feelings. Much has changed in the last few years, I have made the decision to educate myself, confront things that make me feel uneasy, and most importantly listen. I want to use this platform to help others understand the plight of black Americans, their relationship with the police, and the racism they have had to combat their whole lives. I have reached out to my black friends and other members of the black community in a short interview series below. Here is me reaching out.
Michael Stewart II, Territory Manager for a CPG Company
What does the Black Lives Matter Movement mean to you?
Black Lives Matter is a slogan proclaiming that we, as black people, are standing in unison to state that we will no longer tolerate the racial indecency that parts of America represent. Everyday, whether directly or indirectly, I’m reminded that I’m black, and usually it’s a negative reason or situation that reminds me of that. I don’t want to continue to be typecast as a negative stereotype of black people that has been perpetuated against us over the course of time. When we say, “Black Lives Matter,” we are letting it be known that time’s up and we are prepared to fight for equality across all platforms. It’s amazing how some people ignorantly say, “All Lives Matter,” but we all should know inherently that all lives do. With that being said, black lives have been discounted since the days of our enslaved ancestors were brought here. There are countless examples, from police encounters to the education sector to obtaining occupations in the workforce, that show racial bias against blacks and other people of color (POC) is alive and well. Until blacks and POC are treated fairly, I will continue to use my voice to stand against racism. Having a niece and nephews, I don’t want them to have to deal with the oppression that we continue to face today. It’s been particularly great to see millions of white allies joining the fight, especially in the past few weeks in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. I truly believe that it will be white people that will help us get over the hill to make permanent change in this country. I fully stand with all that are being actively anti-racist, and will forever say Black Lives Matter until there’s no need to say it anymore. It’s going to take much more work, but I believe we are really at a historical turning point, and I’m encouraged by it.
Do you have any advice to young black men and women who may have experienced racism in the workplace?
This question is tough to answer, simply because I haven’t directly dealt with racism in my work career (it may have happened indirectly, but I don’t know). However, I have black friends who have, and my challenge to them is to confront those individuals who have wronged them face-to-face. As tough as that may be sometimes, especially depending on what occurred, there could be situations that could be resolved by having a conversation. I’ve done some workplace trainings on how to handle racism in the workplace, and as uncomfortable as it may be, having that tough conversation might actually help someone realize that they offended you and help them to change moving forward. If that doesn’t work, then hopefully you feel comfortable being able to contact your HR department to discuss next steps. It’s sad that only in recent years, there have been things such as having dreadlocks not disqualify you from a workplace. Also, and I know this as I’ve spoken to individuals who have verified this to be true, reading the name on a resume and automatically throwing it away because the name is “ethnic” are practices that must be eliminated. I would like to see more blacks and POC in leadership positions to help break down the systemic racism that still exists in some workplaces. As those walls are broken down, it will help to maintain a culture that helps everyone be comfortable. To quote a line from the movie, “Remember the Titans,” a character in the film says, “Attitude reflects leadership.” If leadership is strong at the top, that should help create a more cultivating and inclusive environment.
When you were younger growing up was your experience different than your white classmates? What would you want white adults (especially teachers) to know about teaching and mentoring black youth?
Even though I grew up in a “white world”, I was never fully embraced in it. I have a multitude of white friends who brought me into their homes and made me feel like family, so I’ll be forever grateful to them for all the things they did for me. However, I had some white friends who would sometimes make me feel guilty for being black. It was statements that had some racial undertones that caused me to often question myself. I heard things from white friends like, “You talk white, not ‘ghetto”; “You’re an oreo, black on the outside, but white on the inside”; “Why are you ‘acting’ black, you’re not black, you’re WHITE like us.” I could go and on, but these are things I heard regularly growing up. At the same time, my black friends couldn’t understand me either, and I wasn’t fully embraced in that circle either. Black friends would tease me for being in private school, which I was from 2 nd through 8 th grade. I also would hear things from black friends like, “You dress funny,” “stop talking like a white boy,” and “you’re boujee.” It really didn’t help that I mainly only saw my black friends on Sundays at church, so I always felt like I was missing out on doing things with them that would help ‘define my blackness.’ I felt like a mixed child of black and white descent, constantly trying to figure out which side I belonged on. It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I started to embrace myself. Being a former athlete that eventually went on to play Division I football, sports was always a great equalizer. In whatever sport I played growing up, which was everything from baseball to soccer to tennis, race didn’t matter. I was a pretty solid all-around athlete, so I always felt loved in those atmospheres. It’s sad to think that some people out there only like black athletes when they’re competing, but don’t truly care about our real life experiences as blacks in America and the struggles we face daily. Even though I dealt with all those things when I was younger, my experience was 99% better than black kids; I’m going to say that again, my experience was 99% BETTER than BLACK kids. I had a father who played in the NFL, and we grew up in some upper class areas at times, so I didn’t have to want for anything.
Black friends later in life shared that they were envious of the experiences and things I had in my youth, and some of the things they said to make me feel bad came out of jealousy. With all the NFL games that I got to attend, the people I got to meet like Deion Sanders, and trips to the UK and Australia before I went to high school, I got to do a lot of things most kids can’t imagine. I never, and not to my surprise, had ONE white friend say that they would trade their experience for mine. It doesn’t surprise me because many of the white friends I had growing up had it even easier than me. They had the same access and finances that I had to do the things I did and more. When I got to high school, and finally went to school with black peers regularly for the first time since pre-school, I saw the stark differences between my black classmates’ lives vs. white ones. So many of my black friends came from difficult situations, and dealt with life in a way I never had to. To have friends struggle so bad, and much of it was due to the environments that they had to live in, it made me grateful yet embarrassed sometimes that I had it better than them. Some white friends couldn’t understand why some of my black friends acted in the manner that they did, and couldn’t comprehend that a lot if it had to do with white privilege. Many also didn’t empathize with them either, but much of that had to do with low levels of interaction across the racial lines. Knowing how it was from being on both sides of the track, so to speak, I tried to be a voice of reason, but usually I would end being called an apologist for the other race that I was speaking to. It was difficult to feel stuck in the middle, but seeing and knowing what the true black experience was like helped me learn that my black experience was atypical and nothing like the norm. I’ve been profiled by police on multiple occasions and have had some tense racist-based interactions, but it doesn’t even remotely compare to what my black friends have gone through. Money didn’t make me IMMUNE to racism, so even white friends of mine who have known me for a long time can’t comprehend how certain things have happened to me. What I would love to see from white teachers is for them to have real conversations of what life is like is being black vs. being white. When I was attending San Diego State University, I took a cultural diversity class that was eye opening. We had some very open dialogue about racism in America, even so much as the teacher of the class that admitted she was racist growing up against blacks (she is no longer racist as an adult). We also did psychological tests on ourselves, and found that we all had some level of prejudice against others. We learned how to channel those prejudice thoughts and not act on implicit bias because we collectively understood how dangerous those thoughts could be if that was placed onto another person. I would be nice to have better curriculum that discussed race relations, but that could take a long time to implement. Just like we are currently having many conversations about race, I think by listening and learning about one another will help lead to growth and change.
Blaine Dylan, Artist & Musician
What does the Black Lives Matter movement mean to you?
To me, the Black Lives Matter movement is an opportunity to invite everyone, especially non-Black Americans, to reflect on the way we as a society and we as individuals view and treat Black Americans and Black people. The phrase is only three words, three simple words but, these words have a lot packed into them. And I think most Americans can intrinsically feel that weight when they read those words. These words though, however few and however simple, mean different things to many people. Some see them as a challenge to be argued with and some are more receptive to the call to action that these words more or less subtly imply. It is no secret that America is divided fundamentally and morally. And as long as people see the color of their skin as a privilege over others, it always will be. The Black Lives Matter movement invites us all to focus in on the Black experience in America and offers an opportunity to implement moral improvements on our entire country and hopefully the World. This type of change is deeply personal and can only be truly realized when each and every one of us takes the time to reflect on the prejudice we’ve been exposed to, whether be in our homes, the media, or our communities. And once we adequately reflect on these themes we must take to actions to steer ourselves in a new direction. The practices have to be put into place. What needs to take place is more sharing, more welcoming, more exchanging of ideas. We need to bring our worlds closer together in order to create more positive memories. This is not a change that can come from any outside source. It is something that we have to practice individually in order to add to the greater whole over time. I think eventually and, under the appropriate circumstances, the Black Lives Matter movement can be seen as a symbol for a period in time when people realized that we can do more as people to treat one another better. And hopefully we can all learn to respect one another with a greater appreciation than previously realized.
As an artist do you think art can help heal and give perspective to the black experience going forward?
Art can be a therapeutic device. There is no doubt that art can and will be essential in aiding all of our understandings when it comes to the Black experience in America. It’s important to consider how and to what degree our perspective will be shifted. The sheer amount of art that came from the tragic murder of George Floyd is a strong example of how art can be a necessary tool in expressing empathy. Currently our museums are filled with painted depictions of early Colonial and European leaders – Kings, Queens, and Presidents painted by master painters. Today everywhere you look, you are almost guaranteed to see a painting or illustration of George Floyd whether it be on the news, social media, on a piece of apparel, or painted on a wall in your town, all of it coming from a myriad of different types of artists with different areas of skill. Kehinde Wiley, the artist who painted Barack Obama’s portrait, beautifully bridges these worlds and adds a much needed illustrated narrative of modern Black people through fine art. His work is healing. Art is also a great platform for communication. Be it a comic book or a brass sculpture, as long as there is something to fight for, people will create art and it will inevitably add to the greater understanding of the Black Experience.
What would you want your white friends to know about racism and its effects?
What I would like people to consider is that racism is experienced differently by different people. The better that we understand one another’s perspectives and experiences, the better we can understand each other and push towards dissolving racism. This would require having more open dialogues and forums where people could speak openly about what they have experienced and their ideas on how to implement change moving forward. The outer shell of the effects of racism is what you see on mainstream media, and it may trickle into your news feed from time to time or be blasted on to the front page of every news paper for weeks or months, but the inner core of the effects of racism are experienced every day by common, regular people. What needs to be brought to attention is that racism is traumatizing. And the long term effects of that trauma has had an affect Black communities. It has affected our students, our businesses, our communities, and our attitude towards our place in this society. It’s affected our minds. And if you want to help to heal the effects of this long term trauma, you have to put yourself in a place of listening. Listen to your Black friends, your Asian friends, your Hispanic friends. Listen to the stories of anyone who is different from you. Learn their values, hear their experiences. Help to create a safe space where all can be honest, respected, and heard. If we can help to ease the trauma caused by a long history of systemic racism, we will be helping to heal the country.
Tiana McKnight, Esthetician & Mother
What does the Black Lives Matter movement mean to you?
The Black Lives Matter Movement in my opinion is meant to bring awareness to police brutality toward African American men and women coupled with bringing awareness to systematic racism that we have fallen victims to for over 400 years.
Being a mother, do you fear for the future?
I fear for my child’s future- Yes, I want my child to grow up in a world where people are kind and all people are treated equal. I don’t want my child to undergo the stress of wondering if her beloved family members will be safe while going on a run or going to the grocery store- things that no white person ever has to ask themselves.
What is one thing you would want your white friends to know about the black experience?
One thing I’d want my white friends to know about the black experience is understanding, I want them to do some research and understand that there are systems in place that are solely meant to keep the African American race down and hopefully after doing that research they’ll feel more inclined to help the fight toward real equality in this country.