It’s been a rough week.
First there was Alton Sterling. Then there was Philando Castile. Then Dallas. Death, death, and more death, and I don’t see an end.
Because in order for this cycle of murder and retaliation to end, we’re all going to have to accept some hard truths. There are significant racial disparities in this country. These racial disparities impact not just quality of work and life, but life in general. Black people are literally dying just because they’re black, and the people who have the most power to effect swift and decisive change remain almost completely silent.
Someone asked me recently how is it that I work for a publishing company focused on HR issues when I speak so freely and often about social issues? I immediately began to laugh. I told that man, “A better question might be, why do you think they’re separate?”
Do we really think that what happens in the world — videos of men struggling with other men on their backs before they’re killed in cold blood and left to die on dirty ground — has no impact on how we behave at work?
How could it not? The Sterling and Castile murders at the hands of police, and the deaths of five officers in Dallas, are currently headlining every news cycle. The recorded evidence of these men’s last moments of life, of their children’s tears and their families’ and peers’ anger, confusion and suffering, all of these things follow us into our offices.
They nestle in dark corners of our brains, and if we’re not careful, our feelings about these tragedies will slip from our lips and effect our behavior as we move through the world of work. I’d go so far as to say that without effective leadership, without savvy direction from diversity executives and HR leaders, these things could have a negative impact on the diversity work currently underway for one simple reason: we have to trust each other in order to collaborate effectively and perform at high levels.
People are angry. They’re hurt. They don’t understand why these things are happening because, let’s face it. There’s no logical reason for it. As Larry Wilmore so eloquently said, “The punishment for resisting arrest shouldn’t be death. The punishment for selling bootleg CDs shouldn’t be death. The punishment for having a gun in an open-carry state shouldn’t be death. The punishment for being a black man shouldn’t be death.”
Trust is difficult in that scenario. And I’d venture a guess that collaboration might be almost impossible.
Minorities are tired. Mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted. We’re fearful because there is seemingly nowhere in this land where we work and live, pay taxes and raise our children, where we are safe from persecution from those in authority.
And not only must we absorb these bloody tragedies as we consume our coffee in the morning and our dinners at night, we have to deal with the unenlightened dismissing this devastation as though it doesn’t exist. As though we are somehow to blame for our own misfortune.
I hold my co-workers up on a very open-minded pedestal. But others are not so lucky. One of my girls got into a red-faced, screaming fight a few days ago with a white male coworker who tried to sell her that holey “if these people would just obey the laws, they’d be okay” argument. Castile’s death flushed that tired message out of sight quite nicely, I’d say.
Inside the office or out, we have to deal with naysayers incorrectly parsing out words and ideas and quibbling over suspected slights in the ridiculous debate over #BlackLivesMatter vs. #AllLivesMatter instead of acknowledging the blood and chalk outlines on the ground.
Is this really a battle of verbal semantics? Or is this a battle for life and equality? Are we really so petty that people can die, and because they are a hue that society has traditionally devalued and systemically mistreated, some of us feel compelled to perpetuate distractions and illustrations that suggest for even an idiotic second that this pain and devastation is not real? Are we really so heartless and entrenched in antiquated thinking that we’ve become inured to pain and loss because the victim is black?
Before Sterling, Castile and those Dallas officers were murdered, I’d planned to write about why we should beware the appearance of diversity. I got the idea after noticing multiple fashion ads — Dolce and Gabbana and Ralph Lauren I’m talking about you — featuring stuck in minorities. You’ve probably seen them. They’re the only people of color in the ads, and they’re the only ones not smiling, not looking at the camera, or not part of the group pictured having such a fabulous time in their stylish clothes.
The idea solidified when Marvel announced this week that Ironman would become a young black girl. You may have seen me tweet about it. I’d planned to dig into how, on the one hand, that’s absolutely fabulous: There’s a young, black superhero in the making.
On the other hand, they named her Riri Williams. And while she is a genius, going to a prestigious college at age 15, her back story is rooted in violence and chaos based on creator and Iron Man writer Brian Michael Bendis’ observations during a visit to Chicago a few years back. That’s disappointing.
Just as those fashion ads would have been more cohesive and genuine had the minorities been included in the shots rather than just stuck in, it would have been so much more creative had Marvel not fallen back on the easy stereotypes. Equally disappointing, news outlets reported that there are no black writers currently on the project.
That same employment lack would explain why the minorities in those ads I referenced don’t quite fit. In the case of Riri, it would explain why her back story is stereotypical. Surely the fact that the best name you could come up with was Riri Williams — I know black women named Ann, Meredith and Jacqueline, and I don’t doubt their blackness; there’s no need to offer up a nickname to get the audience to relate — suggests that black presence during the creative process might not be a bad thing?
I’m aware that in superhero lore, the common backstory is that the hero or heroine comes by their extraordinary powers as the result of tragedy, stress, something horrific from which they are compelled to rise above and do good. But this isn’t a continuation of a successful formula, not entirely. This is a numbers cruncher realizing that there are tons of black people like me out there who habitually go and see every superhero movie. This is about money, not art. That’s why there are no black writers. This is about perpetuating the appearance of diversity in order to avoid unsavory labels.
Having written those strong words, I don’t believe they’re entirely true. I don’t deal often in absolutes because they’re silly and unrealistic. Bendis spoke eloquently about his own experiences dealing with racism from fans as he introduced more diverse characters into the superhero roster. But the whole no black writers on a black superhero story thing? That shoots everything he says in the foot. His credibility is literally limping.
When will minorities be granted the right to be three-dimensional human beings whose stories do not begin and end with violence? Whose motivations are self-generated — because we’re smart and capable — and not just a result of extreme, often unnecessary pressure? When will minorities be perceived as credible enough to help tell our own stories? And not on the news after our boyfriend is killed in the seat next to us with our child nearby. When will our voices, even when screaming out at the top of our lungs in agony, be compelling enough to hear and to motivate corrective action?
People are dying because we are not educating each other that dark skin is not automatically threatening. That someone having dark skin does not mean it’s acceptable to dish out questionable behavior with the conscious or unconscious intent to make that body suffer by degree and by virtue of its shade.
And the people who can educate us don’t ever seem to have a prominent enough platform to create a noise loud enough to get people to act. Hell, video’s not enough, and we in the media know how compelling images are when creating an impact.
Whether it’s as a result of a bullet to the chest, or the less deadly but still hurtful litany of slights and microaggressions minorities endure at work, or the continual struggles with no visible solutions to be paid the same as male peers while doing more or the same work, change is coming.
I pray it’s non-violent. The Dallas incident suggests that it won’t be. But change is coming.
Which side will you be on?
The side that accepts that things, people, are not solely what you see or have been led to believe? Or will you be on the side that refuses to accept that the old ways are not the right ways?
Will you be one of those who distract and refuse to listen when people tell you why how you are speaking to them or treating them is wrong? Or will you be one of the people who believe that equality, in the street, behind a desk, and everywhere else, is the only way that we’re all going to survive and prosper together?
It’s time to pick a side, y’all.
Photo caption: Jamelle Bouie, photographer