2020 was the year that White America discovered that institutional
racism is a problem permeating society, 2021 must be the year in
which the nation begins in earnest to dismantle white supremacy and
address the systems of oppression, the unjust laws, policies and
practices, and the microaggressions
eating away at the souls of Black people, compromise their health and
claim their lives.
certainly, we will remember the year of the pandemic as an inflection
point, a pivotal time in which the evil triplets of coronavirus,
economic deprivation and racial injustice joined forces to expose the
cruel, coldblooded America that Black people have always known far
too intimately. Many White people participated in Black Lives Matter
protests following the death of George Floyd and experienced a
heightened political consciousness. Some appeared genuinely
gobsmacked over the levels of systemic racism people of color face.
And yet, both as individuals and as a collective, White Americans
have enthusiastically created toxic environments for Black children,
women and men for over 400 years, and continue to foster Black trauma
in all facets of their daily life.
murdered George Floyd with a police officer’s knee to his neck,
just as it killed Breonna Taylor in a hail of police bullets as she
lay in her bed. Racism also claimed the life of Dr.
a Black Indiana physician, who accused her White doctors of racial
mistreatment weeks before she died of COVID-19. These doctors then
accused Dr. Moore of causing
own death and claimed she “intimidated” hospital staff.
And America has been treated to a small taste of the harassment,
insults and indignities Black people face, such as the son of Jazz
who was racially profiled, assaulted and falsely accused by a White
woman of stealing her iPhone in a New York hotel.
show that structural and cultural racism and individual experiences
with discrimination adversely affect the mental and physical health
of Black and Brown people, stresses them out and causes
them to age faster.
In her book, Black Fatigue: How Racism Erodes the Mind, Body, and Spirit, Mary-Frances
Winters referred to Black fatigue as “repeated variations of
stress that result in extreme exhaustion and cause mental, physical
and spiritual maladies that are passed down from generation to
generation. It is a deeply embedded fatigue that take inordinate
amounts of energy to overcome—herculean efforts to sustain an
optimistic outlook and enormous amounts of faith to continue to
believe ‘we shall overcome someday.’”
for years, Black people were finally granted permission to speak
their truth during the pandemic, when America woke up to years of
injustice. Organizations, companies, educational institutions and
houses of worship conducted listening sessions, where Black people
poured their outrage while White leaders claimed they had no idea.
African Americans have personal stories of the racial trauma and
accumulated microaggressions they have endured. These include, but
are not limited to including underhanded compliments such as being
told they are articulate or have “street smarts”;
comments on their hair; being told they are intellectually inferior
or “we can’t find qualified Black employees,” or
White people in authority telling them not to wear a certain
“unprofessional” hairstyle. As a Black man who has
experienced his share of microaggressions and racial harassment since
childhood, I have come to regard these painful traumatic incidents as
life-defining, life-changing moments.
of those transformative experiences came in my teen years, as a
while I attended the 1987 Harvard-Yale football game. After Harvard
scored a touchdown, a white middle-aged alumnus turned to me and
rubbed my head for good luck. He told me about his white, blond
grandson who was held in awe by the Black children at his daycare.
“They had never seen anyone like him before,” he said.
Finally, as if to outdo himself, he asked me, “Do you know what
we call your kind of hair? Ear-to-ear carpet!” In a letter to
me after news spread of the incident, the man urged me to “reconsider
your interpretation of my behavior,” claiming he was “both
shocked and saddened that what was intended as good camaraderie was
interpreted as a racial slur.”
college and throughout my life, I have experienced a constant mix of
microaggressions, harassment, gaslighting, conspiracy and outright
White supremacist guerilla warfare. Once a White executive even told
me, “Don’t use your race as a crutch.” And yet I am
not special. Those experiences haunted me, burned me out and
heightened my self-doubt. At one point, I lost much of my enthusiasm,
self-confidence and sense of direction, along with my hair, and
nearly my mind.
racism causes Black people, particularly young people to experience
depression and low self-worth, they also exhibit resilience
and take action, attend protests and fight for racial justice.
Certainly, through a lifetime of racial trauma, I became a far
stronger person and reinvented myself to help others. I became a
human rights activist and journalist, went to law school, worked in
government and the nonprofit sector, and now teach journalism. Yet, I
wonder how much further I would have soared compared to my white
peers, in the absence of institutional roadblocks and exposure to
racially toxic environments. An overemphasis on Black resilience
ignores the many who perish under the weight of White supremacy, and
plays into the American racialized capitalist narrative that the
victims of oppression deserve their lot, and must pull themselves up
by their bootstraps.
our Black parents and grandparents thought they were making
sacrifices to spare us from the hardships they endured. I question
whether much has changed.
the glow from America’s racial justice reawakening dissipates,
we must resist the call to convene another diversity and inclusion
task force, or hire another point person to handle institutional
racism and white supremacy as a public relations embarrassment. If
America has any hope of liberating itself from racism--and coming to
terms with its original sin and the Civil War it never stopped
waging--the country hold truth, reconciliation and justice
commissions to allow the victims of racism to tell their stories. And
then the country must repair the damage.
rarely face consequences for their harmful actions. But what do we do
when the entire system is at fault?