Heartbroken. Gut-Wrenching. Angry. Resolved.
When Dr. Elmore asked me to write down some of my thoughts, these are the first words that came to mind. I’m not alone. There are millions of people who are brokenhearted at the senseless murder of yet another unarmed, African American, George Floyd, at the hands of police officers. And there are many, many more who are now waking up to the realities that millions have experienced for far too long: racism is alive and well in America.
I am bi-racial. My father is black and grew up in rural Georgia. My mother, who was white, was adopted by first-generation immigrants and raised in Michigan. The events of the past week have left me flooded with memories of my own difficult encounters with racism growing up. My experiences are benign compared to so many over the past decades, but they still leave a stinging reminder that righting the wrongs of social injustice takes work. Though, I know we are up to the task.
I am also a passionate believer in the next generation. While I’ve spent much time in thought and prayer this week, I’m also reminded that most movements that made an impact on the world began with young people. Today is no different. Students: use your voice! George Floyd, with his dying breath, tried to use his voice to save his own life. May we use ours to save others.
Stop. Look. Listen.
Growing up, I walked to school every day. As kids, we learned this simple principle to help us arrive at our destination safely. How do you cross an intersection when there could be potential dangers? Stop. Look. Listen. Sounds simple enough.
When it comes to “where do we go from here?”, I don’t even come close to having the answers, but I think these are three simple ideas that could go a long way to helping us navigate the uncertain, and potentially dangerous, road ahead.
Life is busy. Sometimes the very thing we need is to just…stop. Due to a global pandemic, life had pretty much stopped for the last two and a half months. Thanks to neuroscience, we understand the human brain needs boredom. In fact, it is in these times creativity grows and empathy is developed.
But we must not just stop activity, we must also stop complicity and inaction. One of the most stomach-churning aspects of George Floyd’s murder was seeing the inaction of the other officers as he cried out for help. These former officers violated their protocols and forgot their training. As my friend, Dr. Tim Elmore stated this week, “it is not enough to be quietly non-racist. Now is the time to be vocally anti-racist.”
First, look in the mirror. Whatever the color of your skin, you have a bias. I do. You do. It is something that affects all of us. Acknowledge whatever biases you secretly carry, or openly struggle with. If you are white, realize that you have experienced privilege, which this video masterfully illustrates. Understand that you don’t know what it is like to walk down the street and fear being stopped just because you are walking, or assaulted because you are jogging. If you are black or brown – look your white friends in the eye and let them grieve with you. Receive their love and support. We are all in this together, and it will take all of us to get to where we need to go.
Secondly, look at what is going on. Look harder than a glance at the phone. Look deeper than the headlines and tweets. That is why I am so encouraged to see acts of solidarity between police and protesters going on all around the country. That’s why I’m thankful for how the chief of police for the city I live in has spent the last two and a half years meeting monthly with community leaders to hear them out and address community concerns together. And that is why I’m thankful for the University of Texas men’s basketball coach, Shaka Smart highlighting groups working nationally that need our support. Support them.
George Floyd’s life was extinguished because those sworn to serve and protect, failed at this one basic skill: listening. Crying out, “I can’t breathe,” while officers pinned him down – a full three minutes after he went silent, demonstrates a sociopathic lack of empathy and a deafening inability to hear. This happens when leaders lose sight of one of the most fundamental of human needs: to be heard.
To my friends in education, to fellow parents, coaches, and those entrusted with influence, we have an incredible opportunity! In a day where empathy is at an all-time low, we need leaders who model listening with empathy and action with compassion. And we need tools to help facilitate difficult conversations across cultures, races, and generations.
Start with the Native American tradition of the Talking Stick. It’s one of my favorite Habitudes images and is an ancient practice whereby conflicting tribes could ease tensions and resolve their differences peacefully. If leaders could learn to “seek first to understand; then to be understood,” what we could discover is more common ground, emotional connection, and compassion. After all, it is hard to hate up close.