Last night our daughter showed us a video recorded by the company she works for, during its Thursday Town hall meeting – an all-staff get together to talk about something topical. One of their directors is an African American called Charles and he spoke for fifteen to twenty minutes about his experiences as a black man raising a family in that part of America he referred to as “a white man’s world”. He spoke of himself and his friends in now familiar tones, being singled out while going about his regular business such as driving, or entering an office building and in each case being treated with contempt. It was spellbinding. If he had been speaking in an auditorium, the audience – some 230 people in this case – would have been as silent as they were on mute. He spoke freely and deeply personally with a sense of courage and openness that could not fail to bring tears to my eyes.
It was Arline Geronimus, a researcher, who nearly thirty years ago first referred to the cumulative impact of discrimination on the health of African American women, as ‘weathering‘. Weathering is now recognised to affect much of the African American population and to have profound health impacts in later life. It is likely one reason for the abnormally high death rate of African Americans as a result of Covid.
Now everyone, from past presidents and leaders in business, to the regular friends of George Floyd, has been speaking of the suffocation that is part of daily life for their communities and asking ‘when will white people care enough?’ Perhaps, this time, they hear and something may really change.
Being older, white and middle class, many would say with justification – ‘So what would you know?’ Very little except that asking people to support children in Cambodia and to give them a chance with a better education, has taught me something about inequity and entitlement. Whatever change happens, it has to be more than a change in the rules. It has to be reflected in attitudes that promote justice. Changing attitudes gets me onto safer ground, but this does not happen by looking at it as a problem to be fixed. On the contrary, raising the levels of understanding about inequity requires that a sense of justice be cultivated and grown, involving each of us in the solution.
The family conversations are a great start, encouraging the opening of a safe space, where we can acknowledge our own contributions to the problem and consider the cost of change. We are going to have to think about what we might be prepared to share so that others can lead lives with dignity, including our wealth, power, privileges, education, and assurance that we are right.
As a compulsive ‘soapboxer,’ it is great to see the topic of justice arrive at last at our dinner tables. With distrust in institutions and fractured political systems, even in once proud democracies, we have lost the ability to speak and to hear the truth. We need the opportunity to say what is not ok, what we want from our leaders, wrestle over different ways to divide the pie, and for us, the privileged, accept we may need get less – at least initially. Perhaps there is the rub, can the message that ‘we deserve it’ be nudged by the marketeers to be that ‘we are fulfilled by what we share’ and that ‘we are greater for those who we embrace’?
Perhaps the isolation we have experienced under Covid has given us a time to ponder bigger questions and an appetite for more nuanced explanations beyond the sterilised news sound bite. Perhaps also now we will accept that the world needs to be different and that means me. I am grateful for a place to stay and that I don’t attract attention from the police, the security officers, or the desk clerks. How bad would that be – to be constantly judged? Surely I wouldn’t share my experiences with my work colleagues under those circumstances.
Thank you Charles for your story, or a part of it at least. You show us a way to begin to be generous and to personalise each other. Black lives absolutely matter and to allow suffering of any marginalised group diminishes and dehumanises us. Please can we build on this beginning, look for honesty about the world we have created, and work together with an expectation of achieving greater equity for all.