I remember the tears like they were shed yesterday. I was in a Zoom call, amongst my then-colleagues, when the subject of anti-racism bubbled to the surface. It had been mere days since George Floyd was senselessly killed – the knee of now-convicted former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin having dug into Floyd’s neck as he lay on the ground in front of a local bodega convenience store and ending his precious life within minutes – and the world erupted with fury. Footage of the crime scene had been disseminated quickly and far, and scores of people were trying to respond to this moment – and the hundreds of accounts of police brutality against unarmed Black people throughout US history.
I had never been emotional at work. Expressions of grief had always been reserved for empty conference rooms or bathroom stalls; there was a tacit agreement that business was never personal. But at this moment, how could it not be? We were months into an international pandemic that had taken thousands of lives and we were all living out our days under a stringent shelter-in-place mandate. Our homes were now our office spaces; our careers and personal lives had bled into one another, and I could no longer pretend that my life hadn’t been impacted by the times. I couldn’t pretend that this Zoom call was not compounded with grief and racial trauma. I was a Black woman trying to make it through the work day and I had simply hit a wall. I was sick of the performative allyship.
In a blur, I muted myself, logged off from that Zoom call and clocked out from work. My boss at the time gave me two weeks off and I sat in my Brooklyn apartment, isolated from a world that appeared to be on fire. In the face of a deadly virus, millions of people took to the streets across the world to condemn Floyd’s murder; join the Black Lives Matter movement, which had initially been spurred in the wake of the police shooting Michael Brown dead in 2014; and decry the historical disavowal of Black life. It wasn’t that Black folks were finally telling the stories of systemic oppression that we’ve endured for centuries, it was just that the rest of the world was finally willing to listen. With all our lives literally on hold in lockdown and nothing else to distract, the world began to reckon with bigotry and anti-Blackness that was baked into the fabric of our society, and “do the work”.
Public pledges to create racial equity within the ranks of global corporations were announced, as gatekeepers accused of enacting racist-hiring praxis and contributing to a culture of exclusion were removed. Founders, CEOs, editors and influencers alike were ousted from positions of power; apologies were made, black squares abounded on the timeline, and curtains fell on the careers of many power players. And in that same breath, there was a noted shift in focus on Black business owners and creatives, myself included, who before had to always work twice as hard as our white counterparts for half as much.
The anti-racism work that so many pledged to undertake didn’t feel like a sustainable model – not because it was impossible, but because it is an ongoing pursuit of learning and unlearning”
A wealth of opportunities swelled to the surface for many of us who had been historically overlooked, and my peers and I began mitigating this weird space in culture, where we were both wildly in demand and fearful for our own lives. It was inspiring to see images of our Black cultural heroines splashed across the media in monumental and history-making spreads but disorienting to know that the world had to literally come to a standstill and so many people had to lose their lives in order to see such progress. I remember at the time being deeply creative and making some of the biggest leaps and bounds in my career, while also feeling disastrously depleted.
Saddling the sizable trauma of seeing other Black people being killed with impunity on our timelines, mitigating microaggressions and, because of Covid-19, feeling disconnected from my community, I couldn’t stop moving, but I had to slow down before I burned out. In retrospect, I believe my drive to work was as much about seeing writing as my political intervention, as it was not quite trusting the moment to last. The anti-racism work that so many pledged to undertake didn’t feel like a sustainable model – not because it was impossible, but because it is an ongoing pursuit of learning and unlearning. It’s not just about representation or removing toxic people from a workplace in one fell swoop, but it’s a paradigm shift that realigns the balance of power and our priorities for years to come. It’s about creating environments that are safe for generations of Black folks, and that is not always comfortable, profitable or popular.
A year later, I can feel this energy lagging, though. In my industry alone, I have noticed that those who were previously “canceled” last summer are back and working. Sheepishly but rather lucratively, they have rejoined the rank and file that they once flourished in, and this kind of regression worries me. It cheats industries out of a wealth of contributions, maintains a status quo that serves no one and further tokenizes Black people, signaling to us that support is only cursory and conditional.
What has been empowering, though, is that I have learned to vouch for myself in ways I’ve never done before. If the system refuses to protect me or create space for me, I will do it for myself and for others who look like me. I will take up as much room as I need. I will ask for more money, more time to rest, more pleasure, more joy. I know fully my worth. My friends and I speak about this self-awareness a lot and, without this reckoning, I don’t think we would have reconciled that for ourselves. And that is a kind of progress that actually feels sustainable.