An Attempt to Heal: Raw Perspectives from Your Black Colleagues
Josette Thompson, Denvol Haye, Ulric Kelly
It’s been a tough week, weekend and year so far and it's all a lot to handle. The outcry we are seeing is against systemic racism and hate that has been pervasive in America for hundreds of years, and I'm sure it's scary to witness it, but I can tell you that living these injustices have been downright terrifying. As I tried to grapple with my thoughts and articulate my feelings this weekend, I thought there might be a way to try and heal by sharing an honest and raw perspective with my non-black or brown friends, colleagues and broader professional network. And after speaking to two of my black male colleagues, Denvol Haye and Ulric Kelly, and hearing their words of pain, we collectively decided to speak out, aim to educate and try to take action in a positive way, but understand…we are not okay.
First, understand that the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and the weaponization of Chris Cooper’s blackness isn’t a new issue, but they have underscored a grossly broken system, and people of color are simply tired of being marginalized. I personally am tired of self-policing to avoid being stereotyped as the angry black woman when I’m simply being a strong leader. I’m tired of brushing off bias, whether blatant or undercover, when meeting a potential prospect and I’m tired of feeling like I have to be diplomatic in explaining why a comment may have offended me in order to not make others uncomfortable in a corporate setting.
While I’m an introvert (there are many of us in PR) and prefer to run things behind the scenes, I feel compelled to be seen and heard clearly right now. I am sad, hurt, angry, frustrated, disappointed and scared and I haven't just felt that way this week. I feel this way quite often and more so recently as I straddle two worlds. One where I'm worried about or grieving family members due to COVID-19; and I’m terrified that my essential worker husband will get shot going to work the midnight shift, or get the virus himself; the one where I worry about my diabetic mother and potentially infecting her unknowingly. And then, there’s the world where I'm keeping it going joining every call, counseling my clients, soldiering on and being a strong communicator and leader at work. So, I'm calling on my fellow communicators of all races, particularly our white colleagues, to speak out against racism and the economic disparities that black and brown people endure daily. But don't just talk about it, be about it. Make sure you are hiring and cultivating diverse talent, donating to causes that aim to rectify social injustice and giving back by spending time and using your skills to help marginalized communities thrive. It’s only then that we will begin to see real change.
The last few days have felt off. Time seems to be moving slower than normal. I’m having trouble focusing, and I feel much more anxious than usual as if my mind is trying to prepare me for something that’s about to happen. I’m feeling both contentious and helpless. And as the days go on and I see numerous injustices against African Americans, engage in dialogues with my peers about the state of race in America, and see my people expressing their pain and frustration yet again, I struggle to internalize what it means to be a black man at this current moment. For those who are struggling to cope, and for those who are trying to understand, I wanted to share what I’ve been coping with over these past few days:
- Envisioning myself in many of the scenarios making headlines today and feeling disheartened about what similar outcomes would mean for my life, family and friends.
- Realizing that every day will be a fight as I attempt to fit into a system that wasn’t designed for me. And that I will constantly need to prove that I am deserving of X, or that I am not a threat to Y, or that I’m compliant with Z, in order to be accepted and receive my fair share.
- Convincing myself that I’m “OK” and trying to suppress my feelings in an attempt to fit in with those who seem to carry on with life as usual and wondering if it’s the public insensitivity towards these situations that makes me unable to fully dive into my own emotions about what’s happening.
- Trying to remain motivated to stay on my path, while existentially questioning what level of success it will take for me to ascend this identity of “just another black man,” that I’ve been given by society. And reluctantly recalling adages from childhood that I’d need to “work twice as hard, and be twice as good,” in order to have the same opportunities.
I share these in hope to better cope with all that’s currently happening, and so that those who care may have a better understanding of how your black friends and colleagues might be feeling right now. Don’t be afraid to check on them, they’ll appreciate hearing from you. Speak on what’s right and educate yourself, and those in your network, so that they too may have a better understanding of the systemic issues that need to be addressed.
For black people, we must continue to do what we’ve always done: honor the unbreakable spirits of our forefathers by continuing to battle on and progress towards the world we know we deserve.
In London, watching the current race riots unfold from afar, I’m reminded of 2016 when similar race riots were happening across the United States of America. I was living in Dubai at that time but was contemplating a move back home to New York City as I wanted a change and to be with my family. Those riots, however, jolted me back to a reality that I had almost forgotten in my five years of living away from home. America wasn’t built for me. Even though I wanted to be back with my family, I was torn over going back to the country that birthed me. Thoughts swirled through my head – Will I be able to get a job as a black man in America? If Trump becomes president, will even more of my “freedom” be taken away? Would I be doing myself a disservice by moving back to a place where it was obvious that people like me were not appreciated?
I made the decision anyway, because ultimately, I’ve had to make that decision all my life. To boldly be me. To boldly be black. To boldly be gay. To boldly stand for justice by the mere fact of just BEING. And THAT’S my power. So, I packed my bags that year and moved back to New York City in November. I landed in America on November 7 full of hope and optimism. On November 8, Trump was elected president. My heart sank and I almost contemplated heading straight back to Dubai. But then, I realized that Trump being elected didn’t really change much. America was still the America it’s always been, a country where I would feel marginalized. But, it was also my home. It was also where my parents and the people I loved the most were. So, I stayed. And I’m glad I did because I was able to find out a bit more about myself by coming back. I found more community, a great career, friends and reconnection with family.
Now, I am in London and see the same scenario playing over again. Race riots all over the country. I want to tune it out to spare my mental health but it’s impossible. It’s impossible to just BE when you’re black and especially when you’re black and gay. I’m constantly reminded of the fact that people like me are not favored in some places and I’ve had to build up my confidence over many years to be able to face the world with pride anyway.
But if I’m being honest with you, I’m so tired. I think about being a black gay man every day of my life and possibly every hour. I think about how people perceive me in every situation, in every room I step in, in every meeting I attend. It tires me sometimes, and then things like this happen, forcing me to have to think even harder. I’m tired. So tired. I’m tired of seeing black and brown bodies being brutalized for simply being. I’m tired of constantly being reminded that things are not as they should be. It sucks!
At the same time, I want to be that representation of how things could be when black people are given a chance to survive and even thrive. I want to be what I didn’t see growing up. A black, gay, successful man. I want to be that representation of what it could be, and incidents like this light that fire even brighter for me. That’s what drives me.
So, this most recent incident has been a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I’m reminded of the deep work we still have to do as a society, and on the other, I’m pushed to represent black and brown people more than ever because it’s important to even have a seat at the table and I want to keep this seat warm for others like me to come and thrive.
While we are three different people with three different upbringings, we have similar experiences as black people in America and it’s our hope that a peek into our lives can help bring some understanding that this outrage you’re seeing isn’t about riots and looting; it’s about life and death.