In honor of Black History Month in the United States, I’ve taken inspiration from Martin Luther King Jr’s book Why We Can’t Wait to talk about the need for all of us to be held accountable in the fight for racial justice.
In the current political climate, it seems like our deepest, darkest flaws are coming to light. Bigotry, homophobia, sexism and racism that has existed and persisted has now been brought to the surface.
I believe that it’s all of our duties, especially allies, to fight for the world we want to see. We cannot stand back and allow divisiveness to get hold of us. This is not about politics; it is about our core values. America was built on immigrants, on valuing diversity, on the belief that everyone should be given the opportunity to thrive. America may have it’s flaws, but “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free...” those words did not come with caveats. Our ideals are being threatened, and we cannot wait for others to ensure that we move towards a more egalitarian, inclusive world. Every 28 hours a black person is a victim of police brutality. Immigrants are afraid to go to work for fear of being deported. Trans rights are on a state to state basis and constantly challenged. Though we have come so far, we have so far to go. We should all be enraged that America is not a place where everyone is safe and that it can feel at times that for every step forward we take, we take several steps backwards.
With that, I encourage everyone to choose one action that they can commit to in order to ensure that marginalized groups are supported and protected. We cannot wait. The time is now.
Here are a few ways to begin your journey to being an ally:
Imagine coming into your school or your workplace every day, and being the only: the only woman, the only LGBTQIA student, the only conservative, the only Black or Latin student in the room. Imagine how uncomfortable that would be. How aware of your difference you may feel, though that may not be perceived to those around you. How aware you may be of any little mistake you may make, and not wanting that to be held against the greater group you represent.
It’s something underrepresented groups go through every day. It may show up in many ways, like microaggressions, seemingly little quips that over time can feel like a big deal. It’s like death by a thousand paper cuts. Microaggressions wear on you, make you feel like you don’t belong, and can affect someone’s perceptions of if and how they fit in in their environment. You can imagine that it is very tiring to always be wondering if people are judging you or are holding you as the example for a whole demographic you represent.
Remember this when you see or interact with someone different than you and try to build empathy and use that to enact change. The burden is not on underrepresented--- it’s on everybody. Be fearless in standing up and calling out the wrong behaviors. It gets easier the more you do it.
To move forward, we have to be real. We need to be raw, and drop pretenses. Remember, you can always speak from your own experience. You may get nervous or emotional, but that’s ok. Speaking from your own personal experience, using “I statements” and opening up can help people think in a way they haven’t thought before. No one can argue with your feelings-they are unequivocally yours. We don’t all have to believe the same things, but if we cannot be honest with each other, we’ll never move forward.
Check Your Privilege & Your Bias
We all have privilege. It’s important to note that and realize that each of us have been a part of the majority and the minority at some point in our lives. Similarly, we all have bias. It’s important to keep that top of mind and work to debunk the narratives that have been embedded in the American experience about certain groups. When thinking about privilege, it’s important to not get defensive. Yes, all of us have had hard times. That does not mean that you may not inherently have privilege (see: The Invisible Backpack). Remember that there are several groups that have had to fight hard to be seen as equal, and have not won that battle yet, while that has not been top of mind in your life’s journey. That is privilege. Use your privilege to elevate the plight of the minority. MLK said that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” So speak up when you hear injustices. Give space for those in the minority to speak their truth. Bear witness and take action.
There may be times when you feel like core values do not align in any way with someone who doesn’t think the way that you do. It’s easy to write people off and ignore them, to silo ourselves in communities of comfort, where everyone thinks and believes your truth. I’m telling you, don't. I’m telling you that is treacherous for you, for your genius, for your growth and for our world. When you feel like you can’t come to an agreement, or someone is so different from you that you cannot find common ground. I want you to Love. Harder.
I’m not saying it’s easy. I’m saying it’s necessary. MLK knew he had to humble himself at times and work with those who fundamentally did not want what he wanted, did not believe what he believed, did not see what he saw, and did not feel what he felt. But without working with, understanding and empathising with them, he would not have taken the movement as far as he did.
All of us have a role in being able to move society forward and it’s a necessity that you find out what part you must play. It won’t be easy, but you have to truly feel discomfort sometimes in order to grow. Black people, and many underrepresented groups walk through the world in a constant state of discomfort; being a stranger in their own homeland. They have to struggle with balancing their authentic self with the self that is “acceptable” or “normal” to standards that were created without them in mind. Stretching yourself is essential to being an ally. This is the work. You have to sit in it and feel it and then grow from it.
As young leaders, it’s on us to push for the world we want to see. We cannot hope that our current leaders will push for the drastic, earth shattering, core shifting change that we need. This is the modern civil rights movement, and it’s on us, as one young world to stand up and fight for what we believe in. It’s on us to fight for the world we want to see. It’s on us to speak for the voiceless; to fight for the weary; to stand for the weak; and to ensure that every human being has an equal opportunity to realize the American Dream. We cannot wait.
Annie Jean-Baptiste is a Global Diversity Evangelist at Google. She is an American Heart Association spokesperson and a Jamie Oliver Ambassador.