I’ve Googled the 1960’s race riots in America at least two dozen times since May 25. Unable to find a historical frame-of-reference from my lifetime that compares to the domestic angst of late-Spring 2020, I’ve reached back to the experiences of my parents’ generation in search of context, commentary, and clarity about a path forward. While my search yields countless articles and opinion pieces about the turbulence of the Vietnam era, it fails to offer up what I really crave right now… Understanding. Understanding of the currents that led to the brutal death of George Floyd; understanding of the pain carried by those engaged in protests and those tasked with public safety; understanding of the impulses that move people to violence; understanding of the systems that perpetuate racism; understanding of what I can do as a privileged white woman working in corporate leadership.
Growing up in small town Western Canada, I had little formative experience with the beauty of diversity, because there was little of it in my town. While I developed friendships with a few black peers, connections forged around class discussions and athletic contests, and stole a few hallway kisses with a black classmate, the connections were not especially deep. I never had a meal in a black home, never visited a black church on a Sunday morning, never had a conversation with a black classmate about race. It wasn’t until years later, moving to Toronto – a richly diverse city, that I had these experiences – that I met one of my best friends – a fiercely strong black woman, adopting her mother as my own and we now call one another “sis”. While I can’t reclaim these missed opportunities in my youth, I can act with intention right now, teaching my children to do the same. For me, intention begins with listening; listening to the painful stories told by my black sisters and brothers and engaging history with fresh eyes. Hopefully, listening will deepen my understanding, and my understanding can then lead to action—informed action.
My inclination is to act, to do something. And those of you who know me especially well recognize that I tend to be vocal when people are wronged by institutions and individuals – I am a staunch advocate of “doing the right thing”. Just listening, however, feels passive and inconsequential. But we should not underestimate the power of compassionate listening. Listening is the starting line in our combat again racism, not our destination. Yes, “good white people” want to “fix” the wrongs of racism right now; our privilege gives the power to implement the fixes. But who are we to decide what needs to be fixed in the first place? We must listen. Listen to stories of police brutality. Listen to the “names” the privileged affix to the oppressed. Listen to depictions of what life is like for those always forced to live on the margins.
I want my children to thrive in a post-discrimination world that affords everyone a fair shot at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That world doesn’t exist yet, so I am ready to unleash my voice and my power to make things right. This heavy moment, however, is a time to listen to my black and brown brothers and sisters name their grief and articulate their hope. Then we get to work.