It's been another week everybody. It's incredible how news of the pandemic has been knocked down below the fold, and yet provides a specific context for what we Americans are experiencing as a nation through this latest iteration of fighting for civil rights and against police brutality.
At the start of the pandemic, every single company I have ever bought a product or service from sent me an email because they wanted me to know what their response was to COVID-19. The large majority of these missives were not relevant to me, just signal and noise, and really jammed up my inbox. And I couldn't help but take note that the company that holds my mortgage did not make a peep. And now, in the wake of massive nationwide protest over police brutality against Black Americans, every company I've ever bought a product or service from is emailing me their anti-racist statement. I even received a statement and recommended reading list from Madewell, a clothing company owned by J. Crew.
I read these statements because they are an interesting cultural byproduct that do actually reflect company values and their progress at dismantling white supremacy within their business culture. And these proclamations can inadvertently reveal exactly how far behind the curve they are. It's apparent from some of the statements I've read that many companies are skilled at mouthing the words "diversity" and "inclusion" while perhaps not as adept at recognizing that a serious and committed action plan is necessary to fulfill a vision of a diverse workplace culture where black and brown people feel valued, safe, and respected. I encourage you to take a look at some of these emails that you are also likely receiving and do some compare and contrast.
I am scanning for a few specific things when I read these company dispatches: a strong statement of anti-racism and anti-bias values, an accounting of action, if any, taken within that company to support these values, an acknowledgement of where they have fallen short (because they have-- yes, always-- they have fallen short), a pledge to do better followed by a list of further action they plan to take along with a policy of transparency and accountability. Very few check all of these boxes.
I'm on the email list of many small creative-based suppliers and companies and their statements will often include links to Black artists and creatives to support and follow. This is well-intentioned, but it speaks further to a lack of reflection in the rush to make a statement in this very hot moment. Jen Hewett, a Black Bay Area artist in the world of textiles and surface design, said this in her latest newsletter about her and her Black colleague's discomfort with this form of online "activism":
It really comes down to that idea of “discovery.” For many of us, the language of discovery smacks of colonialism – the colonialism that has enriched much of the Western world over the last few centuries, and always to the detriment of the colonized. Black artists have always been here. We may not always have the opportunities or capital that our white counterparts do, but there are a lot of us, many of us have strong communities, and a good number of us are thriving. We didn’t need to be “discovered” — especially not in this form. Many of us are seeing our work being co-opted and appropriated for other people’s benefit – maybe not always for profit, but so that non-Black people and brands who hadn't done anything to highlight or work with Black makers until this week can now feel good about themselves for “helping” Black folks, and signal their own wokeness to themselves, their followers, and their customers. It is crushing to work so hard to build something, only to watch what you’ve built become a tool for someone else’s gain without your permission. (You can read the entirety of her newsletter here, and gratitude to Jen for allowing me to extensively quote her to make my point.)
Some of you know that my degree is in anthropology, not ceramics, and my special area of study was colonialism and the colonial mind, especially in Africa, and I have never stopped thinking about these issues. Jen's words finely and powerfully articulated for me the relevance of the colonial pattern in the American way of thinking, the often well-intentioned impulse to "help" rather than be a partner to Black people. In "helping", we still position ourselves as superior and holding the power to help-- or not help. True partnership requires ceding power in order to be equal. I think we are afraid to relinquish any power, because we live in a culture that abuses power as a matter of course. And we are afraid to be on the receiving end. That fear of losing power is embedded into the structure of capitalism. It's almost invisible, and when that power serves you, it's easy to believe that it is being used for good.
It seems a critical mass of white people are realizing the "race problem" is a problem of white oppression and systemic racism. But making a public stance about our anti-racism is a tiny baby step in the long road of doing the work of actually dismantling the system. Americans have a tendency to get very excited about something, and then move on. That is human nature to some degree, but I find it especially pronounced in this country where the search for the next diversion is baked into the culture. Rushing to let everyone know that we are on the anti-racist bandwagon makes it seem more like a fad than a code of ethics. We would all do well to slow down and take a full accounting of ourselves, our communities, our companies and corporations, and hold ourselves and them to a much higher standard of accountability than we have in the past. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it has showed us the beauty and value of pausing and taking the time to quietly focus on what is important to us. We don't need signals, we want true and sustainable solidarity.
So so so much to say and think about in this moment. But what do you think? What are you pausing to reflect on when it comes to systemic racism?
Earlier in the week, I was feeling flat-out shitty: distracted, hyped-up, depressed. The demonstrations against police brutality that seemingly provoked the police to more brutality in my town was an ugly feedback loop in my head as well as in the streets. I was looking for someone to blame, someone to scream at. Then, I went to a demonstration, and then another. It reminded me how group protest can help channel those feelings, and it grounded me to be with like-minded people. Mass demonstrations in these pandemic times is no small thing, it carries risk and possible heavy penalties. I saw many older people there, keeping to the sidelines to maintain distance and waving signs. I encourage you to participate if you are able, in whatever way that you can. Some can no longer prioritize personal safety from the coronavirus over the importance of marching in the streets with a crowd.
I have been considering the word "optimism" and "hope" in the context of the protests during these last couple of weeks. I was scrolling through my podcast feed when I noticed one titled "Ta-Nehisi Coates is Hopeful". And I was like, if Ta-Nehisi Coates has something to say about hope I am listening to that right now. Right after that in my feed was another podcast I listen to, Truth be Told, and an interview with Carvell Wallace and Dr. Eddie S. Glaude Jr. which gave a different spin on optimism that was perhaps more nuanced and difficult to listen to. And I recommend both.