Human Parts
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Human Parts

This Is Us

The Burden of (Finally) Being Seen

We’re tired, we’re fighting for our lives, and now we’re inundated by folks who want to ‘check in’

Protesters stand on the base of the General Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue on June 6, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia amid continued protests over the death of George Floyd in police custody. Photo: Vivien Killilea/Getty Images

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. 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 the people supporting, and the level of discomfort finally being felt in the mainstream.

I write this, in part, to educate, but in large part, to lessen the burden I and some of my fellow Black Americans are feeling. 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 fed up with how we’ve been treated since we were dragged here in chains hundreds of years ago.

Here are a few thoughts you might benefit from reading:

Left: George Floyd mural on Broad Street. Right: J.E.B. Stuart monument in Ace Callwood, Richmond, Virginia. Photos courtesy of the author.

Don’t add to our burden

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 live. We should not have to lobby or beg or make a plea to your emotions to be afforded freedom, 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, we’ll alienate a potential ally or confidant. You can appreciate 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’ve created more work for me, 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.”

Seeing me, seeing us, was your job as a human from the very beginning.

Remove the burden on me and others of having to decide how to engage. Remove the conflict of wanting to say thank you but not having the energy or space to say it without 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 need to. I cannot absolve you of any guilt, nor am I inclined to bestow a gold star upon you. Seeing me, seeing us, was your job as a human from the very beginning. I appreciate that some of you are finally doing so and that others already have for some time, 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.

Be uncomfortable

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 make a living sharing hard or nuanced topics like diversity and inclusion with people who find them difficult to accept. And it’s my job to do it in a way that will drive real comprehension, real learning. 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 about it. 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 grandmother’s backyard with cellphone 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 and know that your discomfort will still never compare because the threat of losing your life to the cops is minimal 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. And then, I need you to go do something.

Protest march on Monument Avenue on May 31, 2020, in Richmond, Virginia.
Flowers and historical context at the foot of the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond, Virginia.

Re-examine your language

For those against “violent” protesting, perhaps check your privilege and reexamine your terminology. “Violence” is what happens to us mercilessly on a daily basis. “Terrorism” might even be a more appropriate term. It’s demeaning, brutalizing, murdering terror. Human violence. Violence against property doesn’t compare, and if you think it does — ask yourself about the history of comparing people to property. 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 officer 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 hurting me.” 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 try to change — inevitable missteps included.

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 taught us that dumping tea into a harbor (read: damaging property for the collective greater good) and then winning a Revolutionary War against its oppressors 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.

Don’t tell me how to say, “Stop hurting me.”

This violence is our experience. Even the threat of violence takes its toll on our psyche, our mental health, and our bodies over time. Holding all of this, 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 here in 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 that exacerbate our experience. Consider that Kehinde Wiley’s Rumors of War statue was untouched through all the recent unrest in Richmond while the Daughters of the Confederacy museum next to it was torched. We’re at war in the very communities we love dearly and this is the result, but don’t conflate “mindless” with “destructive” when you talk about the revolution.

Left: Robert E. Lee Statue with historical context added by the community. Right: “5/30 COPS RAN US OVER” written on the Jefferson Davis monument in Richmond, Virginia.

Be *really* honest with yourself

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 Blacks 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 lynching us while onlookers drinking lemonade turned out in droves to watch, which turned into burning down 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.

Left: Retailers on Broad Street. Right: ‘Rumors of War’, Kehinde Wiley in Richmond, Virginia.

Black folks and advocates in our communities, this piece isn’t for us. We know what’s happening. We’ve seen it, we live 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 the first point — 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 while you figure out your role. Waiting is a death sentence. It’s on you to keep up.

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

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Ace Callwood

Ace Callwood

I build brands at Equal Sons, tell stories at Evolve, shape healthcare at the Healthcare Innovation Consortium, and facilitate diversity conversations at TMI.

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