I never get tired of sharing the story of what inspired me to daily ask: “In response to race-based hatred and violence, what is mine to do?”
One morning in the summer of 2015 I reported for jury duty. Sitting in the courtroom, waiting to be called, I had plenty of time to consider this question:
What if I were selected to serve on the jury of the young white man who shot and killed black people in a prayer meeting just because of the color of their skin?
There was an empty chair between me and the middle aged white man to my left so I was slightly surprised when I felt his hand touch my arm as he whispered,
“Are you okay? Is there anything I can do?”
I hadn’t realized I was crying until that moment. I wiped my face, took a breath, then turned to him and said,
“Thanks for asking. And yes. What you can do is tell everyone you know that you, as a white man, think it’s time for white people to stop killing black people just because of the color of their skin.”
Luckily, he didn’t run screaming from the room. And he didn’t think I was completely crazy. We had a thoughtful conversation about the difference between feeling bad about what has happened to strangers and speaking up about what is unacceptable for anyone and everyone. We talked about the distinction between taking action and being an activist.
We agreed that we all need to ask the question,
“What is mine to do?”
And then take some positive action. Every one of us can take a positive action with the people we come in contact with. We all touch dozens (if not hundreds or thousands) of lives every week. We all have our own individual sphere of influence.
It is no surprise that black people speak up and speak out when hatred, racism and violence result in death of innocent African Americans. But when black people speak out it is often characterized as whining, self-serving or complaining. It is still ridiculously rare for white people in America to take a personal stand on these issues beyond an expression of sorrow or pity for the families of those people far away in that other community where something unfortunate happened.
But the reality is this. White people are the ones who have to say to other white people that the hatred, violence and killing must stop.
- White police offers have to say to other white officers that it is not okay to hide behind the excuse that they feared for their lives when they are the ones who are armed and trained to handle any conflict that arises.
- White executives must be the ones to say to white managers that it is no longer acceptable to claim a white candidate is a better “fit” for the job simply because they have more in common with the white candidate or are less comfortable with the equally or better qualified African American candidate.
- White coworkers must be the ones to say to their white colleagues that the racially based joke wasn’t funny or that reference to the noose was offensive.
- White journalists have to be the ones to put a stop to their colleagues labeling similar behavior and circumstances differently depending on the race of the people being described.
Speaking up and taking a stand does not require you to go to a protest rally or get on national TV or quit your job and become a full-time advocate for peace and justice. Speaking up and taking a stand simply requires you to choose fairness and equity in every way possible in your own sphere of influence.
If we don’t stop this now, what kind of world and workplace will we leave for the generations coming behind us? Hatred is carefully taught and cowardly tolerated. Our future is hopeless if we fail to do what is ours to do now to end this pattern.
As a black woman I will keep speaking up when I see us failing to live up to the values and principles described in our nation’s founding documents. As an expert on diversity and inclusion in the workplace it is my responsibility to continue educating and encouraging equity, respect and curiosity. As a baby boomer, it is important for me to take action now to help the world evolve into a place that is safe for my 20-year old God-daughter, her friends and the generations coming behind her.
As far as the stranger I met that morning, I hope, when he returned to his workplace, his family, his church and his neighborhood, that he kept his promise to let it be known he is no longer willing to be silent about dangerous and disrespectful treatment of people of color.
What about you? What is yours to do to help shift us away from tolerating the effects of racism that lead to violence, death or inequity? Post what you are willing to do in the comments below, or anywhere in social media, and use the hashtag #minetodo. Join the Facebook Group: What is Mine to Do. Together, let’s create some momentum for meaningful change.