When does a critical moment become an inflection point?
Up until now, we have heard many stories about racial injustices, and systemic inequality. Yet, despite all the stories, personal and public, all the books, articles, lectures, podcasts, and movies available, there has not been systemic change. Ilene Wasserman reflects on the current critical moments we are all experiencing and wonders if it is enough now.
One significant way we make sense of our worlds is through the structure of stories. And our stories are understood through our frames of reference from family, community, and history. These stories influence what we hear and what we don’t hear, what we tell or don’t tell, and what we chose to edit. Stories are constituted by episodes. And we find grounding in those episodes having a beginning, middle, and end.
We find ourselves now in the middle of a number of powerful episodes that contain critical moments and how we chose to respond is especially consequential to the future we are creating. One of these episodes is the global pandemic and how different geographic regions are dealing with it. Another episode has been ignited by the outrage in response to the murder of George Floyd. How we frame the beginning, middle and end of the episodes that constitute each of these stories continues to shift as the beginnings or roots continue to unfold and the future we are creating is uncertain.
Consider the story of the pandemic. The story telling continues to emerge. We thought we knew the beginning, but then new information continues to emerge that suggests an earlier beginning. Our inconsistent ways of addressing the virus is creating an uncertain ending. We search for stories of pandemics from the past to learn from. We search for stories from the experience of other localities—other countries and now other states in the United States. And yet we, as a culture, are not finding a sense of coherence, a sense of coordination regarding how we behave in relationship with the virus. We think we know the rules of engagement: limited activity and physical distance from anyone not in your pod. And yet the story that is being told by the President of the United States conflicts with the story told by our health care leaders who are basing their guidelines on science, and the lessons learned in other countries.
The story of systemic racism and white supremacy is one that many live every moment of every day. And yet, there has been a new awakening amongst many white people in the weeks after the murder of George Floyd. People from the white community are actively joining protests on the street in the US and around the world. There is an abundance of resources in the form of public media, newspaper and magazine articles, books and podcasts. There are actions being taken from sports organizations taking a stand against racism to statues honoring historical figures who supported slavery and other racists systems being taken down. Amidst the abundance of actions, news, and the newly inspired motivation and curiosity to learn on the part of many white friends, clients and colleagues, I found myself wondering:
Is this an inflection point?
How/When will we know?
Now, I, along with others, are learning about previously unheard, untold, even undiscussable patterns of stories that have shaped our lives. From the perspective of a white person, I am seeing more articles, editorials, books, movies and news programs than I can remember. These resources delve deeply into the historical roots of systemic racist practices. Up until now, white people and Brown and Black people were in different conversations. We lived in different identities and cultural stories. We knew different histories. Up until now, we changed our laws, but we did not change ourselves.
Up until now…
One of my mentors used the sentence stem Up until now to signal and invite an inflection point for change: personal as well as systemic. Up until now, we have been hearing stories in the public discourse about racial injustices, and systemic inequality. And yet, despite all the stories, personal and public, all the books, articles lectures, podcasts, and movies available, the force of response on a collective level has been inadequate to create a systemic change.
Some of us are hearing many of these stories for the first time. Some of us have heard these stories before but did not quite pay attention to how significant they were. Others have been living these stories and experiences every day.
Up until now, there was storytelling.
When/ How will we know this time as an inflection point?
I have been privy to many stories in my work as an organizational development consultant and researcher specializing in inclusive leadership and fostering organization cultures that support diversity equity and inclusion. I heard some of these stories during workshops when people were asked to share incidents of racism they had seen, heard, felt, or been a part of. My colleagues and I would also share stories with each other as we traveled together for days on end. One thing I know from my work is that there are things my colleagues and I would share with each other that might not come up in our everyday cross-race friendships.
One conversation in particular that has stayed with me was when my understanding of the words “safety” and “trust” were challenged by one of my colleagues I worked with day in and day out. Up until that point, I thought I knew him well and that we understood each other deeply. Then he said something to this effect: “As a white woman, you see safety and trust as something you have, and that is sometimes broken. As a Black man in this society I never expect it, never anticipate it, I don’t even believe in it.”
Another time, I was walking with a Black male colleague when there was some commotion stirring across the street. I turned to him and said: “Let’s go look and see what is going on!” He responded: “Not me! If I cross the street, I will become the guilty one!”
I have learned that when white people respond to stories of racist incidents with “Oh that happened to me too” it is a repetitive injury for Brown and Black people. What makes the difference for them is: frequency, intensity, and duration. Let’s take frequency and apply it to being stopped by a police officer. While this happens to white people too, they do not anticipate it and prepare for it each and every day in the way Black and Brown people do. The intensity of fear and anticipated negative consequences from a traffic stop also carries more intensity for Brown and Black people. Being perceived as someone who is not to be trusted or being accused of criminal activity also happens for white people but occurs perhaps more inevitably or more intensely for Brown and Black people. And yes, while there are moments when the news would shine a light on patterns of injustice, patterns of inequities, and the roots and impact of historical racism, these stories would often fade into the news cycle while the duration of impact would sustain for those inflicted. Name an incident: It is likely to occur with greater frequency, intensity and duration for Black and Brown people than for white people.
Is this an inflection point?
We will only know when we are looking back on this moment.
COVID-19 brought our collective consciousness to a sense of mortality, widespread public health and economic consequences and then George Floyd’s murder. To many white people, racial injustice in America didn’t provoke a reaction until they saw the video of George Floyd being killed by Derek Chauvin. George Floyd was not an isolated incident. For some it was a wake-up call. For others —Brown and Black parents, Brown and Black people—it was their worst fear. Because they had seen it before.
Black Lives Matter lists the names of the most well-known victims of police violence in recent history: Say their names. #BlackLivesMatter
George Floyd’s murder happened in the context of the world being quiet. We were all, for the most part, focused. We were all sheltered in place. Millions of us watched a Black man in Minnesota lie on the ground for nearly nine minutes, begging for his life and calling out to his dead mother, while a white police officer pressed his knee into his neck, killing him, with his hand casually resting in his pocket—all in broad daylight in front of people screaming for the officer to stop.
Maybe the cumulative effect with George Floyd as the exclamation point has finally changed us. We were all looking at the same news. And we could no longer be bystanders. So, we took to the streets.
This pattern of history is not new. Robert F. Kennedy said in 1968 shortly before his assassination:
This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat.
But maybe, just maybe this is a new turn. Maybe the intersection of a virus that has no cultural or national boundaries with a clear visual of a sustained murder that is permitted by a system that justifies force is making us look at ourselves in a different way. When a virus that knows no boundaries is impacting some communities more than others because essential workers are often Black and Brown and their health has been compromised by historically different access to health care. Maybe now that so many people are seeing what they had not seen—hearing stories they had not heard—we are creating an inflection point.
Maybe now that we are starting to institute structural changes such as rethinking the role of police, looking at historical and structural sources of inequality (e.g., access to housing, education, health care), and other every day oppressions such being accused of a crime because you are walking in a park, jogging down a street or sitting in your living room.
Michele Alexander warned that if we do not learn the lessons of history and choose a radically different path forward, we may lose our last chance at creating a truly inclusive, egalitarian democracy. (NYTimes, June 8, 2020). It’s not enough to learn the broad outlines of this history. Only by pausing long enough to study the cycles of oppression and resistance does it become clear that simply being a good person or not wishing Black people any harm is not sufficient.
Up until now, incidents of racism have been moments that some have heard about, and others have experienced, and yet others experience every moment of every day in their lives. It is up to us—especially white people—to MAKE this an inflection point. To look back at this moment in history as a time when the momentum was strong enough; when we could no longer make sense of ourselves as well-meaning while an entire population of people were living a different story. That story is one of not being able to walk outside without being in danger of being accused, of being some category of criminal. It’s a story of having some excuse of not getting that promotion, of not being paid a living wage or a comparable salary. It’s a story of not having access to health care or educational opportunities. Name something that I may take for granted as a white person, but others cannot. It’s that story.
* In earlier drafts of this article, I was inclined to use the term “tipping point” as a way of describing this turning point. I looked up the derivation of this term and learned that tipping point referred to the negative shift in real estate values that occurred when the racial composition of a white dominated neighborhood declined..