When it comes to advancing racial justice, how deep are your roots?

How deep are your roots?

I’ve been thinking about this question as I consider the waning support for Black Lives Matter and the noisy opposition to policies that bring about social equality.

A year and a half ago, I witnessed the biggest racial justice movement I’ve seen in my lifetime. In response to the heinous murder of George Floyd at the hands of police officer Derek Chauvin, between 15 and 26 million Black, white, and brown people joined in demonstrations across the U.S. demanding racial justice and change, with the movement extending to cities around the globe.

Though our country was in the throes of the Covid pandemic, our family put on masks and marched, too. We wanted our children to remember being part of this moment.

And what a moment it was. The excitement was electric. On social media, it seemed everyone had acknowledged that Black Lives Matter after years of choking on the words. I received emails from box stores, clothing companies, and beauty brands all declaring their intentions to diversify their boards and executive teams, hire more diverse employees, and donate to causes benefiting racial justice.

In neighborhoods, Black Lives Matter signs proliferated, and white people sent texts to Black friends and acquaintances asking, sometimes awkwardly, how they were doing. Many of us grew more active in supporting Black-owned businesses and shared our favorites in Facebook groups and blog posts.

Typically, I’m a cynic when it comes to racial change. I know the road to progress is long and frustrating. But last year, I marveled that those advocating for change extended beyond the Black people affected by the lack of it. I wondered if some progress might actually come from the increased awareness.

As time trickled on, though, my cynicism seemed justified. Lately, I’ve been reflecting on why our collective enthusiasm has declined, and what has made some entities more successful in their commitment. I’ve also been doing some soul searching about where my own commitment has been successful, how it has faltered, and how my anti-racist journey has challenged me to confront my internalized biases.

In other words, I’ve been thinking about how we can grow deeper roots as we commit to racial justice. The key to deep roots? Getting honest and making a plan.

Why we need deeper roots

When it comes to staying committed to racial justice, we as a country sometimes have trouble staying the course. Perhaps that’s because change is hard and bringing about racial justice means getting honest about the systems that have exploited Black people and that have reinforced political, educational, and financial inequalities.

Three months after the June 2020 demonstrations, support for Black Lives Matter dropped 12% from its summer peak according to Pew Research. This decline was seen among all racial demographics except Blacks, whose support for Black Lives Matter increased by 1%. The drop in support was most significant among whites (15% drop) and Republicans (21% drop); according to a New York Times study, both groups support Black Lives Matter at lower levels than before George Floyd’s murder. The only good news in this data is that these numbers have not seen significant drops since then.

Look around. You’ve probably noticed the decline, too. In neighborhoods, you might observe fewer Black Lives Matter signs. On social media, you may see fewer commitments to the cause among non-Black friends and acquaintances. You may notice, on the contrary, more posts that both deny Critical Race Theory and denigrate policies that look to eradicate structural inequality. You may also see fewer posts asking us to examine how our personal and corporate actions contribute to inequality. If you examine yourself, you may notice that it’s been a while since you’ve attended a demonstration, wrote a letter to an elected official, or made meaningful steps toward advancing equality. I know it’s been a while for me.

I keep thinking of the Parable of the Sower, a Biblical parable which cautions against shallow commitment. In the story, a person goes out to plant seeds. He scatters seeds on rocky ground with shallow soil. When the sun rises and burns hot, the plants are easily burned and wither quickly because their shallow soil prevents them from growing deep roots. The Sower scatters other seeds in rich soil. These seeds grow plants that develop deep roots and that multiply into other flourishing plants.

We are the soil, the parable goes. When we lack deep roots, our faith and our commitments can’t flourish. If we have no depth to draw from – even if we are excited and believe strongly in something – we wither away when the sun burns hot and the going gets tough.

So, how do we grow deeper roots when it comes to advancing equality?

Confronting internalized anti-Black messages

For me, growing deeper roots starts with honesty. And let me tell you, it isn’t pretty.

Though I am a proud Black woman raised by proud Black parents, I have internalized anti-Black messaging. This is a reality I have long understood, but I still get caught off guard when I discover these messages lurking beneath the surface.

I’ve noticed this over the past year as I’ve remained committed to supporting businesses owned by individuals who are Black, indigenous, or people of color (BIPOC). I’ve had to confront the anti-Black and anti-Brown messages I’ve internalized.

For example, I acknowledged the beneath-the-surface fear I felt when I began seeing a Black dentist this year. Though I was excited to start seeing this dentist, and though my intellectual brain knew she was a gifted dentist, I still felt fear that I was somehow risking my dental health – a fear I never held when going to a new white dentist. Years ago, I may have felt shame at discovering such a fear, especially after my parents’ efforts to instill messages of Black pride and excellence, and my personal efforts to examine my internalized racism.

But thank goodness I remembered a story Desmond Tutu, the famed Black South African racial justice activist, told a few years ago. He spoke about the swell of pride he felt when boarding on a plane and seeing two Black pilots in the cockpit. After the plane took off, however, this feeling changed to worry when the plane hit turbulence. “Hey, there’s no white men in that cockpit,” he thought to himself. “Are those blacks going to be able to make it?” He realized, then, how anti-Black, white supremacist messaging had burrowed deep in his psyche only to rear its head when he was afraid.

We, too, confront these messages the more we interact with BIPOC individuals, communities, and businesses and the more we engage with anti-racist efforts. While it’s tempting to pretend we don’t notice these messages, I find that it’s better to tease them out, unfurl them, and examine them head on.

Where I once felt shame, now I feel the urge for honesty. I can look at these messages, refute them, and burn them up until only ashes remain. I can recognize how difficult – impossible? – it is for these racist ideas to completely disappear from my brain because of the constant onslaught of supremacist messaging I have seen and heard. I understand that there are more such messages residing in the recesses of my mind, and I understand that if I commit myself to confronting each one, I can reduce their number and influence over time.

Make a plan and follow through

Making a plan is another key component of growing deeper roots. Too often, we lack a clear plan in our anti-racist journey. We simply blaze forward with good intentions and hearts of gold. But these are not enough. We need a plan to return to when we feel rudderless or devoid of inspiration. We need accountability, either from ourselves or externally, when we’ve forgotten our goals. We need direction.

For instance, my church – which my white husband pastors and which is a historically white church that is gradually becoming more diverse – has a plan for owning its past and staying committed to an anti-racist future. This includes actively seeking opportunities to engage in racial conversations, educate our members, and commit to policy changes at the church, municipal, state, and national levels.

Businesses that see advances in equity start with long-term plans that have measurable goals. Though they may stumble, these businesses have a plan on which they can rely, that they can adjust as needed, and that employees and stakeholders can evaluate. (For more on how corporations have fared in their post-June 2020 racial justice commitments, check out this Harvard Law School article).

Ideally, a plan isn’t thrown together, but carefully considered. It also has measurable action steps (as opposed to only focusing on the heart and mind) and some aspect of accountability.

What a plan doesn’t have to be is perfect.

Personally, any changes I’ve stayed committed to have been because of a plan – even a loose one. For example, this year, my goal has been to support more business owners of color and businesses that have anti-racist policies. This has meant that when we needed a new dentist and insurance agent, we sought Black-owned enterprises. This has meant driving past Starbucks when I want a matcha and supporting a BIPOC-owned business, like Black Coffee or Leaves Book & Tea Shop.

When I needed a new suit, instead of going to J.Crew or Ann Taylor, I got a bespoke suit from Franklin & Anthony, a black-owned business here in Fort Worth. When I needed a beautiful card, cozy socks, and thoughtfully curated gifts, I headed to Gifted, a Korean-American-owned store that sells and ships products that are ethically and sustainably made, and that actively supports anti-racist efforts.

When our family considers causes to support financially, we give to anti-racist organizations that work to change the systems, laws, and practices that disadvantage Black and brown people and that actively engage in providing resources for BIPOC communities.

Professionally, my goal has been to look for opportunities to address equity in the projects I participate in. This means bringing in team members that can evaluate the socioeconomic impact of a project or working on projects that advance sustainability (BIPOC communities are disproportionately affected by climate change).

Even these loosely structured goals have given me a plan to return to when I need direction for what I purchase, which causes I support, and how I operate at work.

My plan for staying committed

Still, I see that I need a more defined plan. This means being honest about what I can commit to. I have learned that I am not a community organizer, I probably won’t attend many evening meetings about pressing causes, and I do not have bandwidth to stay up-to-date on all the latest causes and proposed legislation. I live in Texas, after all, and the assaults to marginalized communities and identities come fast and furious here. So for the coming year, I’ve made a plan to which I can realistically commit:

  1. Write at least 12 letters (an average of one a month) to an elected official to advocate for a cause I believe in. To know what to write about and what to say, I’ll be looking to activists and researchers in the trenches – the ones advancing educational goals, voting rights for Blacks and other historically and currently marginalized communities, and human rights for LGBTQIA+ people – particularly since BIPOC LGBTQIA+ people see the highest levels of discrimination and violence.
  2. Watch at least five movies, television series, plays, or events with our kids that will advance their understanding of racial equality and what is needed to achieve it.
  3. Continue to seek out BIPOC-owned businesses for major and minor purchases and services. When we support non-BIPOC businesses, we’ll do our best to opt for those that align with our values on race and equality.
  4. Personally and professionally, work with individuals, projects, and efforts that advance racial justice and equity at least once a month.

As you can see, my plan is simple and not particularly heroic. But it is achievable while still leaving room to do more as the Spirit moves me. I hope this plan, however simple, will help me develop even deeper roots that will, like the seeds in the Parable of the Sower, bear fruit for years to come.

Now, what about you – how will you deepen your roots?

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