Following George Floyd’s murder by police in Minneapolis, and the protests that ensued thereafter, some strange emails and texts started showing up on my phone. They went something like this:
Lisa, I just wanted to let you know I’ve been thinking about you. We are all in mourning. I’m wondering how you are and how tired, enraged, saddened you are by the chronic failure of our country and maybe a little hopeful that some modicum of change—though not nearly enough—may be on the horizon. One thing I am doing, in addition to taking actions, is reaching out to our black friends and saying we are here and want to listen and support.
This outreach, that came fast and furious, left me asking my African American husband and friends if I had missed something in the news cycle. It slowly became clear that there was something different going on in response to the death of yet another African American man by white men. White people in the USA, maybe because they were all locked up in their homes thanks to COVID-19, were being forced to experience the truth. The truth that African Americans have lived with since they came to this place called America as slaves, and before that when as Africans, they were colonized. Given that white people seem to be getting intimate with this painful truth, shouldn’t I be reaching out to them to see how they are doing?
Dear white friend: How are you feeling as you recognize that your privilege and power has come at the expense of millions of Black, Brown, and Native people in this country and around the world? That the disparities we are seeing from COVID-19 have always been there, and your ability as privileged white people to get any health care you need while Black, Brown, and Native Peoples can’t get any healthcare is the fruit of that disparity? Forgive me for my uncharacteristic bluntness, but did you know that your African American friends and colleagues design their lives in ways that protect them from well-intentioned, progressive, clueless and dangerous people such as you, as well as the KKK and white supremacists? I would think you might be struggling as you internalize all of this. As your friend I am here for you.
White people keep asking me if I have hope that things are changing. My African American friends don’t ask me this question – not even the most optimistic. As a community we have to have hope, otherwise we wouldn’t get up every day. To quote Cornel West, all of us who have the experience of systemic oppression are “prisoners of hope”:
“Hope and optimism are different. Optimism tends to be based on the notion that there’s enough evidence out there to believe things are gonna be better, much more rational, deeply secular, whereas hope looks at the evidence and says, ‘It doesn’t look good at all. Doesn’t look good at all. Gonna go beyond the evidence to create new possibilities based on visions that become contagious to allow people to engage in heroic actions always against the odds, no guarantee whatsoever.’ That’s hope. I’m a prisoner of hope, though. Gonna die a prisoner of hope.”
But what I don’t yet have is more hope. What would it take for me to have more hope you might ask? It would require white people actively seeking to become deeply intimate with the truth that is their own history and identity – to own their particular role and implicit responsibility for what they are watching on the news and protesting about in the streets. It requires white people to not skip truth and go straight to reconciliation to avoid the pain and discomfort (thank you Malcolm Jenkins of the New Orleans Saints). African Americans are socialized from an early age to be conscious of our truth and history if for no other reason than to survive – literally. If we get confused or try to forget or ignore the truth of our country’s entrenched racism, that intersects with patriarchy and capitalism, we might not survive another day on this earth.
I recently read an interview with John Stewart (formerly of the Daily Show). He made plain the truth white people have to come to terms with and what will be required for change:
“…every advancement toward equality has come with the spilling of blood. Then, when that’s over, a defensiveness from the group that had been doing the oppressing. There’s always this begrudging sense that black people are being granted something, when it’s white people’s lack of being able to live up to the defining words of the birth of the country that is the problem. There’s a lack of recognition of the difference in our system. Chris Rock used to do a great bit: ‘No white person wants to exchange places with me, and I’m rich.’ It’s true. There’s not a white person out there who would want to be treated like even a successful black person in this country. And if we don’t address the why of that treatment, the how is just window dressing.
“Truth Telling” is about listening. It is about coming to terms with the truth that your version of the world is predicated on what is lacking for or has been taken away from someone else. White people in pretty much any country on this planet did not get rich relative to people of color because of “hard work”. White people got rich because they stole land, murdered indigenous people, enslaved other people, defined what wealth is and who could have it, and for generations passed it onto their children who are now wealthy. That is what this is all about. It is not about apologizing. It is not about empathy. It is not about being “woke”. It is about telling the truth, owning responsibility for the truth, and then changing the truth.
Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative has been steadfast in his insistence that the USA come to terms with its history of lynching, injustice, and disenfranchisement.
“We don’t like to talk about our problems. We don’t like to talk about our history. And because of that we really haven’t understood what it’s meant to do the things we’ve done historically. We are unwilling to commit ourselves to a process of truth and reconciliation.”
Until we do this as a country we can not heal and we can not change.
I want to thank the truth tellers like Bryan Stevenson who have been brave and courageous in putting truth in front of white people over and over again in hopes that they will see our humanity as Black people. The list of truth tellers out there is too long, gratefully, to be exhaustive here, but here are a few: Sojourner Truth, Angela Davis, Audre Lorde, Malcolm Jenkins, John Stewart. Alice Walker, Sonya Sanchez, Toni Morrison, Aaron Dorfman, Rodney Foxworth, Derrick Bell, bell hooks, Cornel West, Kimberlé Crenshaw, Roxanne Gay, Layla F. Saad, Brittney Cooper, Howard Zinn, Colson Whitehead, Edgar Villanueva, Anand Giridharadas, Seth Cohen, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Barbara Jordan, Marian Wright Edelman, Jeffrey Canada, Laverne Cox, Jordan Peel, Daryn Dodson, and Solome Lemma.
The problem we are facing in this moment is not that the truth has not been spoken before. It has been there in plain sight for all who choose to see. But until we were all locked in our homes and forced to see, many denied the truth in front of them. As Seth Cohen said in his recent Forbes article supporting reparations for African Americans: “While the marching on the streets has made Americans’ awareness of the impacts of systemic racism more acute, the truth is that the country knew what it was responsible for – it just refused the moral courage to make the necessary reparations.”
Now, I work in philanthropy. I am able to do that as an African American woman (and not be regularly tripped up by the cognitive dissonance that comes with the job), in part because I am clear about the truth of philanthropy. Many in philanthropy like to make themselves feel good about using the dictionary definition for philanthropy – the desire to promote the welfare of others, expressed especially by the generous donation of money to good causes; the love of humankind. However, as Dr. Martin Luther King so poignantly said, “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”
Instead of being defensive in the face of this truth, or doing nothing and ignoring this point, philanthropy has an opportunity right now to be the change it claims it wants to see in the world. Phil Buchanan of the Center for Effective Philanthropy urges philanthropy to call out and confront the truth:
“But what does this mean in the setting of, say, a staffed foundation? It means challenging racism and bias when you see it. It means speaking up and speaking out. And it means pushing for the kinds of processes that actually have been shown to reduce bias.”
Philanthropic organizations can also take a page from the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. I so appreciate their clear call:
“Philanthropy must do more than just recognize that we are a nation built on stolen land and labor. It must spend its own social capital and resources to make this better world possible. This is a time for action, not more platitudes. We must act now. Not tomorrow. Not after the proposal has gone through multiple drafts. Not after leadership is more seasoned or have mastered the art of code switching to wealthy donors. Not after coalitions have achieved the capacity to take models to scale.
The only acceptable ROI is justice.”
Foundations including the Ford Foundation, W.K. Kellogg, MacArthur are going to do what they should have been doing all along – give more money away. We will see if they can do it in ways that make it easier, not harder, for nonprofits and social change leaders to do what they do best in the way of problem solving. But I wonder if all the staff at these large well-endowed foundations are doing the work of truth telling? Are they listening and changing not just how much money they give away, but who they give it to, and how? Or are they hiding behind creative financial instruments as a way to avoid this work because they can be seen giving more money away, while simultaneously changing nothing? Time will tell.
At the Imago Dei Fund, we regularly ask ourselves, “What is ours to do?” It is our way of engaging in a discernment process around whether and how to engage in the multitude of opportunities and challenges in the world. It is our intentional way of checking our decision-making against our core values. There are some issues that we have wrestled to the ground and that we now claim clearly as ours to do – walking alongside social change leaders and organizations that are addressing gender equity, gender balance, gender norm change; lifting up and supporting faith-inspired leaders; centering community driven development and community led organizations in our grantmaking. We are on a journey with you, our partners, and we have a long way to go.
Our team has recently asked to engage intentionally on the issue of race, racism and white supremacy. We read the book, “Me and White Supremacy” by Layla Saad and are discussing it together. Team members want us to interrogate our processes and practices using a racial equity lens, and an intersectional lens dissecting the role of race, gender, and economics in restoring humanity where it is broken. As an African American woman in a predominately white organization, while I have known since joining IDF in 2018 that one day we would have to dive in on this topic, frankly I have been in no rush to do so. I am immensely grateful that it has been my colleagues and trustees who have raised the issue rather than leaving it to me to carry that burden. That said, as we carefully enter these waters, I am acutely aware that once we do, we can never go back. Once you know the truth, you can’t unknow it. Once you’ve engaged in difficult conversations, you will be required to have them again and again. As we step off this cliff and hang on to the faith that we will learn how to fly as we do it, I know we will fall, crash, and burn repeatedly. We will all say the “wrong thing”, hurt each other’s feelings unintentionally, and from time to time make a real mess. But as my mother used to tell me, it is better to be part of the solution than be part of the problem. And as I always say, it is always better to do something. Period.
I leave all of us with these words of Audre Lorde’s that I hope will make us brave and courageous in this moment as we collectively face and own the truth. The urgency of now requires no less. It never has.
“I was going to die, sooner or later, whether or not I had even spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silences will not protect you…. What are the words you do not yet have? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? We have been socialized to respect fear more than our own need for language.
I began to ask each time: ‘What’s the worst that could happen to me if I tell this truth?’ Unlike women in other countries, our breaking silence is unlikely to have us jailed, ‘disappeared’ or run off the road at night. Our speaking out will irritate some people, get us called bitchy or hypersensitive and disrupt some dinner parties. And then our speaking out will permit other women to speak, until laws are changed and lives are saved and the world is altered forever.
Next time, ask: ‘What’s the worst that will happen?’ Then push yourself a little further than you dare. Once you start to speak, people will yell at you. They will interrupt you, put you down and suggest it’s personal. And the world won’t end.
And the speaking will get easier and easier. And you will find you have fallen in love with your own vision, which you may never have realized you had. And you will lose some friends and lovers, and realize you don’t miss them. And new ones will find you and cherish you. And you will still flirt and paint your nails, dress up and party, because, as I think Emma Goldman said, ‘If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.’ And at last you’ll know with surpassing certainty that only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.” ~ Audre Lorde
As I sign off, I want to appreciate all of you who are putting in the effort to see and acknowledge the truth and to act on it. And for those trying to decide if this work is yours to do, we need you to commit and join the journey. Change for all of us, a better world for all of us, starts with the truth.