Posted on June 8, 2020 by Andrea Field
Saying nothing about racial injustice should never have been an option. And it is not an option now. Saying I lack the right words should never have been a reason not to try to find those words. And it is not a reason now. Fearing I, a white woman, will say the wrong words and make myself vulnerable to criticism should never have been – and is not now – an option.
What finally pushed me past such concerns and fears was the willingness of a colleague of mine, Wendell Taylor, to make himself vulnerable. Wendell – a black man – is my office managing partner. In a recent virtual meeting with over 100 lawyers and non-lawyers in our office, he talked directly and personally about the unrest in the nation. Pointing out the lack of basic human empathy in the officers involved in the killing of George Floyd, Wendell chose to promote more open discussions and empathy by sharing examples of his own negative encounters with law enforcement. He said he’d always “had the mindset that the adversity you face might shape you but you can’t let it define you. I’m not defined by these stories but they certainly helped shape me. So when I’m asked to talk with groups – particularly about leadership – I usually focus on how overcoming adversity has helped me to become an effective leader. Inevitably, I turn to my negative encounters with law enforcement for examples.” And then Wendell told of instances when he was in middle school, college and law school – instances when he was doing nothing wrong (indeed, when he was being exceptionally careful not to do anything wrong) – which led to threatening encounters with police officers.
The stories Wendell shared are his and I will not repeat them here. But his stories are not unique. Indeed, immediately after he spoke, colleagues of color shared some of their own stories. And all of you have certainly heard (or experienced) similar things. You’ve seen similar things in the news. You’ve read (or, if you have not, you should read) Brenda Mallory’s blog post from August 7, 2019.
After sharing his stories, Wendell chose to say something more. He chose to respond to his white colleagues, who have asked what they can do in their daily lives to make a difference in the fight to address such longstanding injustices. Believing that his response helped me and others, I have summarized it below, adding a few thoughts of my own. I am confident you will be able to figure out which thoughts were added by the white woman.
- Resist the urge to turn away. If you resisted watching the 9-minute recording of George Floyd being slowly murdered, watch it. It is difficult to watch. It is gut-wrenching. But seeing the recording helps foster the empathy that is needed in these times. Empathy is what others feel. Allow yourselves to feel the pain. Make it your pain. Empathy is not a cure for the structural racism that exists in this country, but it’s a start.
- Don’t make the mistake that a conviction of those who killed George Floyd ends the fight against structural racism. Find ways to keep fighting against injustice. Contribute your time and/or money to worthy causes. You’re good researchers: you can find the cause(s) worthy of your support.
- Challenge divisive views from people in your circles. Challenge people to think critically about the issues. Silence is no longer an option. Silence is complicity.
- Don’t get discouraged if black people or other people of color are critical of your attempts to lend a hand or otherwise resist your efforts to get from them a comprehensive game plan for what you should do next to show your support. It’s been a rough time for us all, and it doesn’t have to be the job of black people to help you understand what they’ve lived with all their lives. Want to read a book? Try “White Fragility” by Robin Diangelo. Parts of it are a slog, but after reading it, you will (I hope) never again blithely claim to be “color blind.” Nor will you resort to “white women’s tears” (or the male equivalent) if your longstanding views on racial justice are challenged. Instead, perhaps, you will be able to open your heart to feeling the pain of those who’ve felt the brunt of racism their entire lives and be able to open your mind to constructive ways to doing the next right thing to help address that pain. That’s empathy, and as Wendell pointed out, even if that’s not a cure-all, it’s a start.
Note: Andrea Field is the current President of the American College of Environmental Lawyers. The views expressed in this articles are her own. She encourages other Fellows to express their views in whatever ways they feel are appropriate.