Over the course of our lives there are many moments that stick out to us, and others that simply fade into the back of our minds. I vividly recall the moment I had “the talk” with my family about race and the role it plays in America. Before that moment I had been a carefree child but suddenly that seemed to be stripped away from me because of something I had no control over—the color of my skin.
It was a hot summer day in Texas. I, like many children, enjoyed going to the playground after eating lunch. Every day I would scarf down my food as quickly as possible and run to meet my friends on the playground. One day, I walked up to a friend who was sitting under a tree. We would meet there to watch the clouds go by and discuss what we thought they looked like. “That one looks like Scooby-Doo” we would say from time to time, but this day when I went to sit next to my friend, she handed me a note and walked away. The note read “I can’t be your friend anymore,” which is traumatic for any second or third grader to hear, but what it said at the bottom is what I will never forget. My friend went on to write, “not because I don’t want to, but my parents said I can’t have any Black friends.”
To be honest, I was confused, until then my family had shielded me from racial experiences. I took that note home and told my family about how upset I was, their response was not one of shock, but a sense of disappointment for not getting ahead of this. That evening we sat down and had the talk that far too many parents of African American children have to have. Until that moment I saw every opportunity as an equal one for me in life, but the shock of someone not liking me because of the color of my skin stung in ways no child should have to experience. Racism was not something I could wrap my head around at such a young age. My family raised me to respect everyone equally and believe that even people who you may not like deserve respect and dignity.
I wish I could say that was the first and last time I experienced racism, but it was not. As I have gotten older, I realized that racism is still baked into the systems that exist in our country. Do I believe everything, and everyone is a racist? Absolutely not, but as an African American man who grew up in the south, I know that it has not completely been eradicated from our ecosystem.
Just last year, six days after I celebrated my 25th birthday, I watched in horror as George Floyd was murdered. I was mortified, angry, disappointed and in shock along with the rest of the world, rightfully so. However, there is a unique trauma I think men of color share, it is almost as if no matter how hard we try to overcome systemic barriers or stereotypes they always remain persistent. To walk into a room and know that people have already formed a perception about who you are and what you represent based on the color of your skin is a burden, one I have often struggled with.
The best approach we can take now to advance this idea of a social reckoning surrounding the role of race in our society is through education. Following the death of Mr. Floyd last year, companies began to listen to communities about the importance of applying historical context to the way we operate today, so that we can continue to do better. These conversations spurred the importance of recognizing days that were not considered important enough, or were not well-known enough, to be company or national holidays in some cases, like Juneteenth.
On June 19, 1865, word finally made it to the last of the enslaved in the United States that they had been set free, almost two and half years after the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation. Let that sink in for a moment: even after the enslaved had been set free, those in Texas were not informed until years later.
Growing up in Texas, Juneteenth was always a celebration—my family would gather at my grandmother’s house to celebrate with food, music, and prayer. If we want to work together to build a better future, we must understand the historical importance of days such as June 19. Those who can observe this holiday going forward should take it as an opportunity to learn and listen. But we also must acknowledge that the increased recognition and celebration of this holiday is in response to the death of an African American man. Mr. Floyd’s life spurred a movement, but we should not have needed him to lose his life to have these critical conversations.
As June 19, 2021, approaches, let us reflect on all of the progress we have made, but let’s not forget what we still need to accomplish 156 years later. My first encounter with racism was nearly 20 years ago, but the pain of it is still fresh today.
How can we work together to turn a year of social justice protest into action? I am not sure I have the answer to that yet, but I know if we continue to use our voices, we can help build a better world, one where systemic racism becomes obsolete, and systems are reimagined to serve everyone equally.