The Unintended Burden of Change (For Black Leaders and Activists)

By Nkrumah Frazier

Seemingly a new era is here ushering in some sort of change. (I’m not confident that anything will change permanently; only time will tell, that’s another story for another article.) History will remember May 25th, 2020; not because it was Memorial Day but because that is the day that George Floyd, reluctantly and against his will, changed the United States. Unfortunately, he had to lose his life to spark the change but nonetheless his life and untimely death was the catalyst that ushered in this new era.

Ever since the first Africans were stolen from the Motherland and lead off the slave ships onto the North American continent black people living in the United States have been yearning for the day that our oppression would end. The face and degree of oppression have changed but the oppression still exists. We don’t have open slavery but white communities weaponizing law enforcement against black communities is oppression. Discrimination in its many forms is oppression. The list goes on. We are approaching the point where much of society acknowledges that oppression is real and has real-world consequences and thus needs to change. I hesitate to say that we’ve reached that tipping point, even in light of the nationwide protests currently taking place.

Many people are ready to work to make that change happen. This is good… and bad. Unless you’re centered around white supremacy anyone can see why this is good. I’ll try to make my case for why it’s “bad”. When I say it’s bad it’s not to say that the changes shouldn’t happen I wholeheartedly believe that the changes are must take place. What I mean when I say the change is bad is that for me and other people of color the emotional toll that the change brings about with it can be overwhelming. Well-intended “allies” can inflict rather deep wounds unintentionally.

Just know that it taxes and overburdens black activists and community leaders when their allies turn to them for all the answers. Don’t get me wrong. We do want and need to be involved in the process but in the middle of conversations about race don’t turn to the black person in the room asking them to share an example of their experiences with racism and discrimination. Doing so can place them right back in the midst of the negativity of the events they are being asked to recall and retell for the benefits of white privilege.

What works best for me as a black man is not going to be what works best for white individuals. Black activists don’t have the answers for how our “allies” can fight racism. All we know is what’s worked best for us. Well, let me rephrase that… All I know is what works best for me as an individual. I say that because what works for me in Mississippi might not go over well in the Bay Area, Washington, DC, Asheville, NC or Austin, Texas. Fighting racism and prejudice in Silicon Valley is likely going to look different than it does in the Rust Belt and that’s different than Appalachia.

What I’m about to explain did actually happen yet the details may be slightly different than what I recall because in the moment I mentally checked out. I volunteer with a national environmental organization through which I attended a training that was to focus on how to invite more diverse individuals and communities into the ranks of the organization and intentionally make space for them. The way the training was set up diversifying the organization was not the main learning objective but instead would end up being a “byproduct” of being more open, transparent, and less transactional when interacting with individuals and communities.

During a scheduled break at the training, we were being led in an exercise to reduce stress and calm the mind and body by a fellow attendee of the training. She began by leading us through a series of stretches that she was taught by her trainer. Then all hell should have broken loose but unfortunately, it didn’t. In one of the exercises that she leads us through, she instructed the room to imagine that you were being strung up on a meat hook through the back of your neck and imagine your body suspended and being allowed to be completely limp. This exercise evoked recollections of black people being hanged/lynched and I had no desire to envision myself as the “Strange Fruit” that Billie Holiday sang out. I’m not confident with the actual words that were used because I was immediately triggered and stopped listening to the woman leading the exercise but began to look around the room to see if I was the only person being triggered in that moment.

I’ll suffice it to say that I was not but no one said anything including me. Normally I’m mentally prepared to deal with something like this because I’ve learned that in the United States this can happen anytime, anywhere. However, in this space and with these individuals I had let me guard down. I was caught off guard and couldn’t recover my wits. So I stood there triggered wishing and hoping that someone would do or say something. As you can probably imagine no one intervened. I remember feeling confused, frustrated, and somewhat betrayed that neither the facilitators nor anyone else did or said anything. We simply just awkwardly let the moment pass and continued with the training.

If there is one thing that you take away from this article I hope it is that you come to understand that black people have shouldered America’s emotional burden when it comes to racial injustices. It’s high time that White America begins the work of dismantling the system that was built by their ancestors to relegate minorities to an existence of inferiority and shoulder the burdens of doing so. I and other minorities owe nothing to that effort. We’ve had to do it by default because no one else would.

This post was originally published on Medium. It is reposted here with the permission of the author.

Nkrumah Frazier is a Sustainability Officer for the City of Hattiesburg, MS and the Founder of Hikes Across America!

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