The Burden of (Finally) Being Seen

So here we are again. When I wrote about Philando Castile four years ago I knew it wasn’t over, and when our sitting president got elected, I knew it definitely wasn’t over. When nothing changed I knew it wasn’t over and here we are, again.

But this time is different and we can all feel it. Something has changed in the tenor of the conversation, and the racial composition of parties supporting, and the level of discomfort finally being felt in the mainstream and not just relegated to the communities of color continually affected by violence targeted at us for how we look. Good.

There are so many tangents I could take for this piece, but I’ll pick a few threads that have come up over the past week. Partially this is to educate, but in large part, this is to lessen the burden I and some of my fellow black Americans are feeling through this. Note the “some”. I don’t profess to speak for an entire community, and in fact, I can’t. We’re a group tied together by color of skin and a shared experience, but we’re all different. There is no ambassador, no Black Spokesperson, just millions of individuals across this country who are (and have been) fed up with how we’ve been treated since we were dragged here in chains hundreds of years ago. We’re fed up with the assumption that one can speak for all. We’re fed up with the targeting as if all represent one. That we all see each other at “The Barbeque”. We’re all brothers and sisters, but we are not all one singular entity. That’s important, and the societal idea that we are is the crux of why we’re here today, at least in part.

(L) George Floyd mural on Broad Street | (R) J.E.B. Stuart monument | Ace Callwood, Richmond, Virginia

A few thoughts and excerpts from recent conversations I’ve had that folks might benefit from reading:

1) Let’s talk about burden. It’s exhausting to not be seen. When our communities are dying at the hands of those sworn to protect us, it’s exhausting to have to protest. A free human should never have to protest their right to life. We should not have to lobby or plead or make a plea to your emotions to be afforded freedom, or a fair trial, or the commutation of an arbitrary, illegal death sentence. We should not. Yet we do, regularly. We do it on top of our jobs and responsibilities and desire to laugh and enjoy our freedoms. We shouldn’t have to fight for that.

Similarly and counterintuitively, however, it’s exhausting TO be seen. To have our melanin deprived friends, colleagues, and partners reach out with some expectation that we engage. There’s always the fear that if we don’t present correctly or respond appropriately that we’ll alienate a potential ally or confidant. You get the Catch-22. We’re tired, we’re fighting for our lives, and now we’re being inundated by well-intentioned people reaching out to “check in” to “see how you’re doing” to “understand how to help”. Inadvertently, and again, usually well-intentioned, you create more work for us.

Instead, I’d love the note to say “I see you, I love you, and I don’t need you to respond. I just want you to know.”

Remove the burden of me and others having to decide how to engage. Remove the conflict of wanting to say thank you, but not having the energy or space to say more while also not seeming dismissive or rude. While I, personally, wrap my head around the fact that it’s not my responsibility to make white folks feel heard or comfortable around me, or happy that they did their part, I ask that you help me not have to. I cannot absolve you of any guilt, nor do I want to give you a gold star. Seeing me, seeing us, was your job from the very beginning. I appreciate that some of you are finally doing so, but don’t obligate me into your conversation about it. I’ll engage as I see fit, and I’ll educate as I have the energy, but I will not continue to thank you for seeing.

2) If you want to help, sit with your discomfort for a minute. I want to note that this is counter to my entire being. I literally make a living sharing hard or complicated topics like Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion with people who don’t want to hear. And it’s my job to do it in a way that will drive real comprehension. It’s who I am and it’s what I’m good at — making hard conversations comfortable.

But right now, I just need you to be uncomfortable. I need you to not know how to change things and be torn up at that. I need you to know what sitting on your own couch, or birdwatching in Central Park, or jogging in your neighborhood, or standing in your grandmothers back yard with cell in hand, or leaning against your car, or driving with your partner and child, or playing in the park feels like for us every day. I know it’s uncomfortable; I live it. I want you to be uncomfortable while you research where all of those references come from, and how to better engage.

I want you to know what it feels like to have your head on a swivel constantly and still have to find space to live. I want you to be uncomfortable and know that your discomfort will still never compare, because the threat of losing your life is minimal at best for you. This is the closest you’ll get and I need you to sit with that for as long as it takes to feel like you have to do something about it. Then, I need you to go do something.

Flowers and historical context at the foot of the Robert E. Lee monument | Ace Callwood, Richmond, Virginia

3) For those against “violent” protesting: Perhaps check your privilege and reexamine your terminology. “Violence” is what happens to us in the streets daily. “Terrorism” might even be a more appropriate term. When you get stopped by the cops, you’re probably frustrated or inconvenienced. When I get stopped by the cops, I immediately turn on my voice recorder or camera. I grip my steering wheel with white knuckles lest an office think I’m “reaching for” something. I tell the officer where my wallet is before I move. I tell him I’m going to be opening my glove compartment to get my registration. This isn’t being polite, or well-behaved; it’s survival.

With respect to violence, don’t tell me how to say “stop killing us”. With respect to protesting, don’t tell me how to do it right. We’ve kneeled, we’ve marched, we’ve cried, we’ve talked. None of it has been good enough. With respect to destruction, don’t tell me it’s irrational. Destruction of your property is the only thing you care about — at least, it’s gotten your attention faster than marching ever has. If this is a wake up call, good. If this is the first time you see a tangible effect on your community, that’s the goal. Don’t tell me you don’t like it. That’s precisely the point. It’s not FOR you to like. It’s for you to see, to hear, to acknowledge, to change. Don’t tell me emotion and tact are mutually exclusive. Perhaps emotion IS the tactic. Perhaps getting angry and breaking shit is the only way to be seen. Perhaps the country that took us captive and then showed us that dumping tea into the harbor (read: damaging property for the collective greater good) or winning a revolution against your oppressors taught us that it actually works. Perhaps harnessing that emotion in insurrection will finally afford us some change. With respect to violence — I submit humbly — that we learned it from you.

(L) Robert E. Lee Statue with historical context added by the community | (R) “5/30 COPS RAN US OVER” written on the Jefferson Davis monument | Ace Callwood, Richmond, Virginia

This violence is our experience. Even the threat of violence even takes its toll on our psyche, our mental health, and our bodies over time. Holding, internalizing all of this by ourselves is excruciating and it’s killing us slowly, assuming the cops don’t expedite the process. So, seeing this violence coming from us now in response to our very existence in this country shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Sure we destroyed a bus, and police cruisers, and buildings around Richmond. Sure some of those buildings belong to black business owners or allies. I’ve heard it referred to as collateral damage, but perhaps it’s not. Perhaps the damage is a natural product of knowing that tax dollars from white and black businesses alike fund the very institutions who exacerbate our experience. Consider that Kehinde Wiley’s ‘Rumors of War’ statue was untouched through all of the unrest in Richmond this weekend while the Daughters of the Confederacy museum next to it was torched. We’re at war in our own communities and this is the result, but don’t conflate “mindless” with “destructive” when you talk about the revolution.

(L) Retailers on Broad Street | (R) ‘Rumors of War’, Kehinde Wiley | Ace Callwood, Richmond, Virginia

4) Lastly, if you’re looking for someone to blame, don’t look at the black community. We’re responding to decades of terrorism. Don’t look at the instigators joining our real cause to further their desire for destruction. If there were no need for us to be in the streets, there’d be no cover for bad actors. Look at the police state in America with its origins firmly rooted in keeping black communities from becoming too uppity or stepping out of line.

Look squarely and clearly at America, whose very foundation was built by free black labor, which turned into freed blacks with no land subjugated again into sharecropping for white folks with property, which turned into being lynched while onlookers drinking lemonade turned out in droves to watch, which turned into burning the communities that were thriving, which turned into being “separate but equal” and then into our neighborhoods being cut in half by interstates designed to bring white people to work without having to drive through the black communities that had the gall to survive, which turned into financial institutions designed to exclude us while trying to rebuild everything taken from or not afforded to us. Hang tight while we just pull ourselves up by our bootstraps like your ancestors did. It should only take a few more centuries if you let us.

Don’t tell me about remodeling the house when it’s the very foundation that is firmly intact and was designed for this to be our experience. Remodeling won’t fix the problem. Tell me how you’re going to rebuild the house better this time, starting with a brand new foundation. If you need someone, something to blame, I hope you have your answer.

Foreground: Flowers at the foot of Kehinde Wiley’s ‘Rumors of War’ | Background: Police protecting the Daughters of the Confederacy building | Ace Callwood, Richmond, Virginia

Black folks and advocates in our communities, this piece isn’t for us inasmuch as we know what’s happening. We’ve seen it, we’ve lived it, and we don’t need to be convinced of our experience. If sharing this in response to the deluge of notes is helpful, feel free. Maybe it’ll lessen your burden.

For white folks, it’s your prerogative to take this piece as you feel is most appropriate. I’d love if you shared it — even just point #1 — with others. I’d love if you continued to work to truly understand rather than simply standing with us. Help us change the system or get out of the way while we do it ourselves, just don’t ask us to wait for you. Waiting is a death sentence. It’s on you to keep up.

This piece originally appeared on Medium, and we published here with permission.

Ace Callwood

Ace Callwood

Ace Callwood is a speaker, educator, and facilitator who has built globally recognized companies in media and fintech over the course of his career. He currently helps clients build products and tell stories at Equal Sons, guides health related innovation at the Healthcare Innovation Consortium, and facilitates diversity conversations at TMI Consulting. Ace does his work globally, but calls Richmond, Virginia, the former Capital of the Confederacy, his home.

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