I’m convinced that the boundaries between us are not our cultural differences at all. What really divides us are the walls of misunderstanding about our differences – and the actions we take based on those misunderstandings.
I can recall with unfortunate clarity the close of my first full year in the workforce: Disbelief. Frustration. Fear. Anxiety. Anger. Like many in the U.S., I was disquieted by the violent beating of Rodney King by five police officers in the spring of 1992, and the travesty of injustice at the acquittal of all five officers. Social unease that had simmered below the surface erupted into volcanic unrest. Los Angeles was on fire.
The articulation of the Black community’s pain through protests, fires, riots, violence and looting was not easily understood by those with no insight into these individuals’ experience. Yet understood or not, it was on dramatic view as the smoke of this racially charged unrest overshadowed the nation.
Support vs. Meaningful Support
Meanwhile, on the opposite coast in Philadelphia, two hands united in a handshake – one white and one black. As a designer at a billboard company at the time, I had participated in the project to paint this image on a 48-foot panel that stood aloft over Philadelphia’s busiest highway. It was a needed and appreciated symbol of racial unity that garnered social attention and news coverage, but its back story provided me a lesson on race in America I won’t soon forget.
I’d asked the leadership of the billboard company to create this image of unity. We agreed quite quickly on the image, but then had to consider which hand would be the dominant one in the illustration. In the climate at that time, a white hand appearing to dominate a black hand — on a gigantic billboard — could be easily misinterpreted.
While I understood the delicate nature of the moment, our CEO — who just happened to be white — did not. From his perspective, it was good enough that the company provided support; he questioned why it should matter which hand appeared in control.
Ultimately, he relented — not with understanding but with frustration. That lack of understanding became an insightful learning moment for me. While it was true he wanted to support this symbolic gesture, it was also true that his limited cultural understanding kept him from getting behind it in a way that would be most meaningful. To do something that really matters, you have to care about how you do it.
Fast Forward to 2020
That lesson is as significant today as it was while the L.A. fires burned 28 years ago. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, protest and unrest have blanketed our nation with cries for justice and a needed acknowledgment that — like all others — Black lives really do matter. How the white community helps will matter. How the Black community guides this movement will matter just as much.
The outpouring of support and momentum of allies seen across the nation has brought optimism for real change. However, measured caution in how allies show support is warranted in some cases.
Prominent sports figures, leaders of industry, politicians and celebrities have felt the impulse to use their platforms and voice to stand for the Black community and demand change. Yet, some who do not fully understand the depth of the historic pain in the Black community have written or said things that unintentionally deepen pain and reopen wounds. This ought not be. How you care for others matters as much as – if not more than – how you express it.
The Difference Between ‘Standing With’ and ‘Standing For’
The lesson here for those who desire to help is this: There is a difference between standing with us, and standing for us. Standing with us – while we voice our concerns – is culturally safe and meaningful. Standing for us requires more. It requires more listening so that you gain more context and come to understand the historical and current pain that brings us to this critical point in our journey as a Black community. Your presence with us will at times be more impactful than your voice for us. The sequence of supportive action should go something like this:
- Listen more.
- Facilitate the amplification of our voice.
- Support our voice.
- Trust our voice.
- When you know enough, then join our voice.
Stay Strong, Be Heard
Black lives absolutely matter. But so does the voice of the Black community.
In a recent panel discussion with former professional Black athletes, the question arose: What can the white community do to help? One athlete angrily responded, “It’s not my job to educate [people] on what it is … [People don’t] have to ask me what should [they] do … Put your money and your time where your mouth is.” He could not see the need to inform and guide those ready to help now. He was frustrated that others hadn’t listened before.
Though I understood how he felt, I couldn’t agree. This man was known for his detailed articulation and insight as he broke down plays and allowed couch potatoes – like myself – to feel like they were coaching the game. He was that good. But on a subject of such personal and national significance, he refused to share his voice, his experience and his wisdom. The failure was remarkable, and eclipsed only by my livid disappointment as a fellow Black man.
Those of my Black community, your voice, experience and wise guidance is needed more today than ever before. The pain of our past caused us to bite our lips when we weren’t allowed to cry out. Life’s inequities have trained us to grin and bear it, lest we suffer the repercussions.
Today is different. Use your voice. Even if they ask 1,000 times, tell them, show them and help them. For some, you will be the only safe place to ask the right questions. For others, you may be the only influence that makes a difference. Don’t be silent. Lift your voice above your pain, and help remove these boundaries between us.
My belief in the united strength of our humanity convinces me that these boundaries between us are not enough to keep us separated. Together, we can build bridges to span and repair the breach of our understanding.
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