I hadn’t thought about him in years, the most awful boss I ever had. He was a condescending and ill-informed bully, hiding behind a shiny educational pedigree in a city – Memphis – where he clearly did not want to be. It was a scary time in journalism, and for a while, his ideas were the answer to every question about how to “save” the newspaper.
I know now that he was also a racist, thanks to a heartbreaking recent Facebook post by a former colleague. I’m only sorry – and embarrassed – that I didn’t know it then.
As I continue to process the terrorism in Charlottesville and think about my response to the hateful Confederate statues in Memphis, I see and hear often from my African-American activist friends about how I can help, and what they need to keep going.
One thing they DON’T need is to have to keep explaining what white people can do about racism. That’s up to me.
It seems to me that the first thing I can do is own it. My privilege makes it easier for me to step away from the pain and aggression and exclusion and go back to my comfortable life any time I want. (Not necessarily easy, but easier.) But the racism and hatred that fueled the violence in Charlottesville is only a new point on a very long continuum for my black friends. This IS America. I know that now.
The next thing I can do is try to see the world around me in a new way, as it really is. Where is the exclusion? What systems don’t work for everyone? Who is being marginalized and excluded, especially at work?
The Facebook post that has haunted me tells of meeting after meeting where my friend’s ideas and input were ignored, until she was finally physically excluded in a meeting room full of people. I wasn’t in these meetings, but I could have been much more aware of the power dynamics of race that were working so painfully against her.
Finally, I can take action, especially as a business owner. What messages do I send by where I sit and whom I speak to at meetings and social events? How do I broaden my pool of potential clients and contractors to include ALL kinds of people? If I am helping make a hire, are there African-Americans in every pool of finalists?
I also find power in the prosaic: Where do I choose to eat ... do I seek out black-owned restaurants to try? What neighborhood might I explore on my way to an appointment to get a new look at my city? Whom should I call for coffee to find out how she’s feeling about things?
To admit privilege and complicity in racist systems and seek understanding and growth is difficult and uncomfortable. But the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King is fast approaching, and here I am in Memphis.
I have a lot of work to do.