The murder of Trayvon Martin as the initial catalyst for the Black Lives Matter movement and the death of George Floyd now have brought critical attention to racial injustice. As tragic as these events are, it is important to remember that these are only the ones we see. The deaths of members of the Black community are painful, they are inexcusable. And despite the attention of the world trained on this situation, there have been several more deaths in the weeks even just since Mr. Floyd – that is while we are all watching.
But how many daily interactions with law-enforcement and institutions of power get swept under the rug, unnoticed by those of us who have not been subject to overt racism in the same way? Racism does not only manifest itself as hate and violence. It is embedded in our institutions and coded in our language. It is deeply rooted in our collective conscience. These daily acts of abuse and micro-aggressions are just as egregious. Today is perhaps when we are going from ‘woke’ to ‘awake’, but what makes this moment different? We have been sleeping on our obligation to confront the systematic oppression the Black community has been living under for hundreds of years and the very real implications it continues to have. We need to challenge ourselves to move past opportunistic activism to have the uncomfortable conversations and lend our voices for change. None of us are exempt from the work that must be done.
Let’s start by being intentional with our words and our actions. A comfortable response to racial injustice is to say, “It’s not me – I don’t see color.” The reality is, however, that painting a picture of a post-racial society devoid of color can only happen when you are operating from a place of privilege.
The idea that color isn’t something to be acknowledged – or better yet, celebrated – is to invalidate the sense of self of millions of people. We hear so many pundits, brands and politicians now saying – we’re here, we’re listening. It must mean that we all, in earnest, hear the complex stories of what it means to be every color and to not paper over it.
As an immigrant and a person of color myself, I am familiar with the reality that melanin comes with a tax. It really is a universal truth. Growing up in India, it was ingrained early that society was a spectrum – dark to light – with the sun shining more favorably upon the latter. I attended an affluent international school that provided me incredible opportunity to expand my worldview and dream of the great odyssey my future would hold – later to become Odessa. My education was one of open-mindedness and inclusion. But there was also the dichotomy that it was a privileged bubble inaccessible to families in my small town – and only accessible to mine because of a generous scholarship.
When navigating social constructs like that of my youth, life becomes a balancing act for people in the Black and brown communities – a negotiation to understand how to navigate a world knowing that you do not conform to someone else’s idea of who belongs. The weight of not being the right color adds to the complexity of everyday activities and in turn, has a compounding impact on the distance between people.
When I came to the United States 25 years ago it was a paradigm shift. The spectrum of color was still evident but layered on that was a palpable presence of an oppressive human experience for those in the Black community. The legacy of slavery, and of Jim Crow, and of Civil Rights – these things are not that distant in the rear-view mirror. While large pockets of our society wake up every day to a promise of new opportunity, the Black community suits up for a battle that they have been enduring for more than 400 years – one that they did not invite. It requires tolerance and patience to live in a society that doesn’t fundamentally address the challenges inherent to how that society itself was built.
As you listen to my story or that of so many others, you may be thinking, “I can’t relate to any of this.” That’s ok, and really that is the point. It takes as much courage to listen to others as it does to speak. And now, in 2020, perhaps hindsight does come more clearly into focus. It is a time to grow, to be vulnerable, and to engage in self-examination. Together we must re-examine the institutions that systematically oppress our friends, our colleagues, and our fellow citizens.
As we move forward and consider what we can do to effect change, here are some initial steps I am taking at Odessa:
- Donating $10,000 to the Equal Justice Initiative
- Donating $5,000 to Campaign Zero
- Donating $5,000 to NAACP
- Working with my leadership team to consider how we can transform our existing commitment to diversity and inclusion to be more embedded in company practices and our daily behavior.
- Taking time to educate myself and listen, and encouraging our teams do the same.
This is not enough, but it is a start.