“Why do you focus on systemic racism as it impacts on Black people? Other groups experience racism too. Your voice would go so much further if you included more of us in your advocacy.”
Variations of these questions, comments, suggestions and strongly worded advice has plagued me ever since I proclaimed I was on an unapologetically Black vibe.
Dependent on my mood, my replies varied from a clipped response to silence.
Why is advocating for a community of people who have been so harmed by systems of racism, white supremacy (or inferiority) and oppression so difficult for others to understand?
Why is it deemed wrong to focus on Black people? (Ironically, the anger about this is louder than systemic racism itself).
Why is advocacy therefore weaponised against us?
Why do we struggle with practicing equity within our own community, workplaces, day-to-day lives?
Why do we run to rescue for everyone else but us?
I don't, and have never, denied that systemic racism affects everyone to different degrees, in different circumstances and within different contexts. Yet I’m not about to be co-opted to ‘include everyone’ because of the pressure of anti-Black racism. Because yes, that’s what it amounts to when you seek to divert attention away from the very people who consistently pay the price for systemic racism.
It is up to us to determine how we speak up, use our power and influence, and I am steadfast in centring and uplifting a community I am a part of.
This is me now, but it wasn’t me then.
Part of my reluctance to speak out about racism, as it has affected me and others, was born out of fear.
Fear of being rejected, ignored, gaslit, and a worry that I wouldn't be seen as being inclusive. Because how can you be seen as a fair, balanced and logical individual if you let yourself be distracted and consumed by how systemic racism impacts on your lived experience?
The other part was confidence – who am I to think I can make a difference? I’m just one lone voice walking into virtual and physical rooms of racism deniers.
Hearing the inevitable chorus of:
‘I don’t see colour.’
‘Not everything is about race.’
‘You Black people don’t help yourselves.’
‘Yes, but all lives do matter.’
Even when my videos were doing the rounds on social media, I wondered if I was taking things too far and contemplated softening my message and delivery just a little. But then some BS would occur, and off I went - tempering my directness could wait until tomorrow.
When the global protests died down, well-meaning individuals advised me to be careful about how I speak about racism, what l say and who l direct it to.
"White people don’t like racism shoved down their throats."
"Tread carefully. Don’t go too hard."
"I understand emotions are high but think about what you're going to do when this is all over."
"I'm just worried about your safety."
I remember at one point earlier this year, looking across at my Black peers on LinkedIn and seeing how so many had dialled down their public challenge about racism (unless there was something trending in the news) and dialled up their sound bites on diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Were they worried or concerned about focusing on Black people?
Should I be too?
In my book, The Anti-Racist Organization: Dismantling Systemic Racism, I speak candidly about how the confidence, and some would say fearlessness, in how I show up isn’t the result of a lifelong journey of advocacy and championing the rights of Black people.
Like the insights gleaned from the psychological experiment, Pavlov's dog and the discovery of classical conditioning, I had learnt to shy away from showing any form of ‘favouritism’ for Black colleagues in the workplace. I was actively told not to show any leniency, unless I was ready to risk my career and professional standing.
“Black(s) are the only community of people who will advocate for everyone else other than themselves.” - Dr Claud Anderson, author Powernomics
Having too many Black people in my team meant I was trying to make an ‘equal opportunity statement’. Not enough meant I had issues with ‘people of my own kind’.
The irony of working within many white majority spaces is that nepotism and favouritism was and still is rife. White managers and leaders can openly sponsor, promote, and champion other white colleagues, with very few questions asked. Often, including some colleagues over the exclusion of others was blatant. Obvious. With no attempts to hide in plain sight.
It was just something that wasn’t allowed if you’re Black.
We punish Black people in the world of work for seeking to favour their own, even if it is only to improve the conditions of colleagues who are most impacted by racism and discrimination. By marginalisation, bullying, and harassment. By intimidation and retaliation.
Then we're criticised for not doing enough.
Society and individuals in leadership positions rewards those who toe the line, who say very little to draw attention to how racism affects them. Those who have climbed the corporate ladder and their presence used as a testament that racism is a mentality, not an actuality.
And many Black professionals have bought into this way of thinking. Or at least they never openly challenged that notion.
The ultimate sign they’ve made it.
An example of how meritocracy works for everyone.
Or so they thought.
Until the day they make a mistake
Then they really understand what being Black actually means.
To be pro-Black when you’re Black means to be called divisive and a ‘race baiter’ by white people.
To be accused of reverse racism by other global majority folk because you’re not directly speaking to their struggle.
To be labelled militant by Black people who worry that you're making things harder for them to fly under the radar.
Have we ever truly been accepted? Despite how much we have contorted ourselves to fit in?
Are you playing the game?
Was it worth it?
Do you really feel free?
Considering how we’re surrounded by statistics, stories, experiences of how racism is still rife, why are we so uncomfortable with being pro-Black out loud?
Why did I buy into that same notion that to be pro-Black was something to hide?
There is nothing more humbling than to look at yourself in the mirror and realise that you ain’t all that. For all my talk and bravado, I too was an active and passive participant in perpetuating systemic racism - through silence, apathy, fear and discomfort. Through turning the other cheek. Prioristing white comfort over Black pain. Making excuses for why l couldn’t do more. Some valid, others not.
Rebuilding my identity according to who I wanted to be, my culture, the legacy I wanted to leave behind, and the values I wanted to live by meant I had to actively practice decentring whiteness.
I had to commit to the daily work of confronting my own uncomfortable truths, face my biggest fears.
And learn to take up space.
I recognised that if I carried on being motivated to show up in a way that avoids being rejected by white people, I would be destined to live a life where the only power I possessed was that which was gifted to me, if I’m lucky, by benevolent individuals who occupied those magical seats at those tables we keep talking about.
Those same individuals who did not know how hard it is to bite your lip, swallow your opinions because you know whatever you say will not go down well.
Those same individuals who thought nothing of what it’s like to feel a tightness in your chest when you have to enter majority white spaces over and over again. Sucking up the micro incidents of racial abuse and forever doing the consoling because Sally in marketing had no idea that what she said was racist. And accepting Mark in finance wasn’t operating from a bad place when he asked the DJ to play Rhianna’s Rude Boy at the Christmas Party so he could ‘see how Black women really danced.’ Boys will be boys after all and after a few drinks, well, these things happen.
We put up with a lot when we feel disempowered.
Trapped between a rock and a hard place. Speak up and be prepared to leave. Or put up and shut up. There’s only so many sympathetic head tilts I could cope with during 1-2-1s with managers who listened but did nothing and sometimes, were the instruments of exclusion themselves. No amount of cups of tea in the world is going to make up for working within organizations that continued to prioritise white comfort, champion white success, amplify white voices. Who expected people like me to be exceptional, just to prove we were a worthy addition to the team?
I’d had enough.
In 2019, after seventeen years, I left the corporate world as a PAYE employee.
But 2020 was the year in which I reclaimed my power, finally understanding that it was always mine to begin with and I should have never given it away.
I had to forgive myself for the years of pretending there wasn’t a problem. Of soaking up all the covert and overt forms of racism.
I’ve had to accept that shame tinged with embarrassment that I didn’t do enough, will be a semi-constant companion, reminding me of all the ways in which I had failed.
I’m okay with that, as I'm working through letting it go.
Therefore, I choose freedom.
And now feeling liberated is a state of mind that positively influences how I engage with people around me and the world at large.
I feel at ease. Excited. Hopeful. Nervous. Ready. Playful. Ready to receive.
Not harassed, burnt out, fearful, fatigued, and despondent.
Two years ago, I began the painful process of losing the resentment, anger and frustration I felt at myself, at the world, at the people I felt should have done more to be conspirators, advocates, champions of people like me.
I had to replace it with expansive love, compassion, forgiveness and potentiality. It’s bloody difficult, but a worthy practice that has made me accept, love, and appreciate the entirety of who I am.
I am taking accountability for being one of a growing group of global individuals who are doing the work to spearhead the decentralisation of white power to include Black colleagues and professionals.
Sharing, not hoarding.
Agency, not permission.
Dismantling systems, whilst empowering people.
Whether people champion my voice or resent my influence, I have been able to create opportunities for myself and those around me through being pro-Black. To be a magnet for individuals who believe in my message, my work and speak positivity into my ambitions and aspirations.
I have stopped thinking my identity is tied up in other people’s opinions.
I have lost the desire to seek external validation.
I’m not interested in playing the game of subservience just to get ahead. Muting myself, so I’m seen as less of a threat.
I hold the line on my value and what I contribute.
I’m still growing.
I take up plenty of space.
I’m not made of Teflon.
I have days when I wonder if what I’m doing matters. If I’m doing enough. If it’s actually making a difference. Dealing with trolls, personal attacks and exclusions from Black spaces because they too feel I am 'too Black'.
What keeps me going despite the resistance, the backlash and criticism?
Consistency, tenacity, time out(!) and a support network are important. Asking for what I need and being open to receive it is also a behavioural pattern I've had to adopt. Just because I can do things by myself, doesn't mean I should! There are no brownie points for being a martyr, suffering in silence and trying to go it alone to prove a point.
What inspires me to keep going is also the deep and unwavering (and yes sometimes frustrated) love, respect and admiration I have for how we, as a people, continue to overcome, despite the ever-present obstacles and barriers put in our way.
I am in awe of how we still create, invent, innovate, shape culture, and predict trends whilst living, working and playing in environments that are not yet optimised to recognise our humanity.
I am grateful for those who came before me and walk alongside me as we move in different lanes, yet pull hard to move in the same direction.
What keeps me going is knowing I’m no longer on my own.
I am honoured that individuals within global companies have championed my work and advocated for my team and I to be part of the journey towards becoming an anti-racist organization.
I am blessed to have people around me who selflessly offer their time, expertise, wisdom (and protection) to help keep me focused, allow me to share my doubts, who are there for the early morning or late-night voice notes and phone calls, the cussing, the laughter, the spiritual conversations and are willing participants in helping me achieve what I set out to do.
Irrespective of their ethnicity, they are supportive of me and not afraid or intimidated by my ‘Blackness.’
Being pro-Black is fine when there is a commercial value attached to it. When we are seen as a commodity and corporations and individuals can keep extracting from our labour and culture.
But make no mistake, being pro-Black is hard.
When you’re Black.
Yet I wouldn’t have it any other way.
It’s attitude, a lifestyle and an approach to how I do this work. It's reverting to my natural state of being and I'm here for it.
So, I’ll continue causing more good trouble. Care to join me?
"Why be a sunflower and turn toward the sun?
I am the sun."
- Ousame Sembène, filmmaker