I’ve been actively teaching Anti-Racism, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion for nearly 20 years. And over that time, I’ve had to develop a somewhat thick skin in order to process and manage the stories of pain and trauma that people invariably share with me. I know that as a person of colour, it’s a defence mechanism that’s allowed me to do this work and stay both hopeful and sane. That said, like so many others who watched George Floyd’s murder, I found myself unprepared for the intensely violating and crippling nature of the moment. Like so many others, I’m mad. Like so many others, I can’t take one more image, one more story, one more cry of pain and desperation. It feels like we’re in a perverse version of the movie Groundhog Day where every morning we wake up just knowing that the hammer is gonna fall, we just don’t know from whom, from where, when or how. Think about that!!! When you wake up every day, not knowing if this is the day you get pulled over and your life changes. Can you appreciate what that would feel like? What that does to your psyche?
It was a maelstrom of in-your-face violations over the last few weeks. Almost everywhere you looked, racism of some sort was showing its face. George Floyd, killed for what? Supposedly passing a counterfeit 20-dollar bill? Amy Cooper called the police and feigned being threatened by Christian Cooper (no relation) because he asked her to put a leash on her dog? Ahmaud Arbery, murdered for jogging? And then there’s the police-involved death of Regis Korchinski-Paquet, who fell to her death from a 24th-floor apartment window. It has been an absolute whirlwind, and the sense of grief, anger, frustration and loss have birthed protests across North America. Social media posts of solidarity from other people of colour like myself. Would-be White allies trying to figure out how they can stand, how they can walk beside us. Hopeful, right?
But then there’s the other all-too-familiar story arc. The unavoidable and sadly predictable excuses and retorts from what I can only assume are the willfully blind or tacitly complicit. I don’t care about the opinions of the “all lives matter groups” or the “Blue Lives Matter” groups. If you can’t recognize and accept that Black people are under siege in North America, well, maybe I’m just asking you to square a circle, and you should just stop reading now. I wouldn’t want to waste any more of your time. As the old saying goes, you’re entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts. The reality is that Black people are:
• Far more likely to be carded/stopped and searched than non-racialized people.
• Far more likely to be incarcerated than non-racialized people.
• Far more likely to be unemployed than non-racialized people.
• Far more likely to be pushed out of public schooling (drop-outs are better recognized as push-outs) than non-racialize people.
• Far less likely to be hired and promoted than non-racialize people.
Do I need to go on?
From overly simplistic takes on the nature of freedom and democracy in the post-Civil Rights era, to cries of “reverse racism,” to their unabashed attempts to blame and pathologize Black people for their “oh so reactive and uncivilized behaviour” in protest. They move so smoothly, from “what happened to George Floyd was horrible” to “the nation is in mourning, and we mourn with you” to “but let’s not blame all police.” We have to remember it’s just a few “Bad Apples” to, “and then there are the looters. These thugs are horrible. Look at the looters. Talk about the looters.” I am so tired of the spin. I am exhausted and drained by the never-ending smoke and mirrors by politicians and media personalities attempting to demonize rightfully angry citizens while maintaining the status quo. The line runs directly from the few bad apples to the few looters. Can you see how in one case the “supposed few” bad apples are used to exonerate and extol the rest, but in the other case the few bad apples are used to stand proxy for the rest? It would seem that the 24hr news networks suddenly feel “looting” is the story. Looting is not the story! Why is it that you can’t keep your eye on the ball? I wonder.
Martin Luther King Jr. called riots “the language of the unheard” for a reason. For those of you who feel the protestors (or should I call them “thugs”) are just too emotional, too angry or reactionary, I’d ask that you take a step back and explore why they might react that way. Is it that they just want anarchy? Is it that they just have chips on their shoulders? Or could it be that they are responding to a lifetime of pain that you have never faced, seen, experienced or acknowledged for yourself?
For those of you who are still reading, I’d like to draw another thread that runs directly through the Regis Korchinski-Paquet case. Her mother, Claudette Beals-Clayton, called for police assistance in getting her daughter through a mental health crisis and asked that they take her to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). There is clearly more here than meets the eye, and there are some pretty large X‑factors in this case that make the narrative of police brutality and racism not quite so cut and dry. But that’s not the issue. The issue arises when the head of the union representing Toronto police officers says it’s important that people withhold judgment until all the facts and evidence were available. “In the absence of information people are just putting out this type of narrative based on nothing, demonizing our police officers without any facts or evidence.” Without any facts or evidence? Based on nothing? NO. I’m sorry. You don’t get to play the victim here.
Yes, I’m sure that the vast majority of police officers are fine people, but when they work within a system where carding/stop-and-frisk target Black communities, they are complicit. When they function to support, maintain and reproduce the school-to-prison pipeline, they are complicit. You don’t get to expect, let alone demand, the benefit of the doubt from a population that has been systematically targeted, over-policed and over-incarcerated for decades. Their suspicion of you should be expected, and you should be understanding about that at the very least. You don’t get to demand the benefit of the doubt when everything about the anti-Black approach of policing in North America has taught Black people that you are there to serve and protect everyone but them. Or perhaps more appropriately, the notion is that you serve and protect everyone FROM THEM! NO. You don’t get to claim righteous indignation here. The “thin blue line” is clearly not what it is supposed to be, and every conscientious, ethical, moral police officer out there should be demanding this as much as we are.
So you want change? Start where you are. For those of you in positions of power in your organizations, THERE IS NO SILVER BULLET. Don’t talk about change unless you talk about changing how you recruit, hire, train, oversee, discipline and promote. And again, it’s not just about policing. It’s about a social framework that teaches us every day, in ways subtle, obvious and gross, that “these people” can’t be trusted. That “these people” are less-than. That “these people” are not deserving of the same freedoms, opportunities, empathy, compassion and common decency as other people. Every business leader needs to take a very real and hard look at how they run their organizations. And again, it’s not about tick boxes. The time for comfortable, easy half-measures is done. You can’t engage in half measures and feign surprise when your minoritized staff just never seem to make headway and move up the chain, or move up the chain and then leave quickly. If you want change, then your actions have to start with an understanding that social power dynamics are a fundamental part of everyday life. You can’t just move forward with business as usual.
This moment in time is just that, a moment. It was built on a history and soon enough we will move on into the future. The key is that what we do with this moment has everything to do with what kind of future we want. The kind of future we are dedicated to creating. I titled this piece “An Open Letter to Anyone who is angry and Desperate for Change.” So? Are you actually desperate for change? George Floyd was desperate when he called out to his mama as he was being murdered. Are you really desperate for change? Use the word if you really mean the word. If you are actually desperate for change, this is where we start.
Racism is a cancer, but it’s a cancer that only infects certain parts of the body politic. That old song and dance about racism hurting everyone is just insulting, idiotic and nonsensical. It’s SPIN. It’s B.S.. I want to scream this out to the high heavens. Racism hurts people of colour, not White people. And Anti-Black racism is a whole different animal unto itself. Yes, I know we should all be aware of the systemic targeting of other minoritized populations (e.g. Indigenous, Latinx) and we should be angry about that too, but let’s just focus on anti-black racism today. We need to because Black Lives Matter, and everyone doesn’t seem to understand that.
In deep compassion and solidarity,
Leeno Karumanchery, PhD
Co-Founder and Head of Behavioural Sciences