Sitting on the sidelines won’t change the narrative around black men.
By: Johnathan Hill and Maurice Wilkins
Momma always said “everything ain’t for everybody.”
As children, we could remember our mothers speaking on the importance of not sharing the happenings of our household with our broader communities. We can recall instances where our mothers had to masterly navigate making ends meet, while ensuring that there was always food on the table. While these were difficult times, we quickly learned how to master the art of crafting the perfect story. Growing up in a space where storytelling and truth telling are not always able to align, one is forced to navigate the complexities of creating one’s own narrative. Often times it is difficult to grapple with being honest with oneself and the overwhelming burden of shared experiences. As African American men, we find ourselves stuck in a performance, wearing a mask (sometimes a suit) that overshadows the creation of an authentically crafted narrative.
As African American men who came of age in Washington, DC, a city once plagued by a low performing school system, many boys were labeled as low performers, troublemakers and class clowns who habitually disturbed the learning environment. As early as we remember, being “well mannered”, perceived as possessing academic prowess and confidence, were strong indicators that one would receive special treatment from teachers and administrators. Not possessing these characteristics unintentionally marginalized students; it sent the message that not everyone is ‘worth saving’ nor is every story created equally.
Throughout many of our experiences, our narrative has been built around the ideals of exceptionalism, that we are somehow “exceptions” to the notion that black men are seen as inadequate. On the one hand, we know we have benefited from performing in such a way that supports this sense of exceptionalism. On the other, we are battling the notion that we are not any different from many of our peers, which proves to be a daily struggle. But, when revisiting the accounts from the past few weeks, we realize that not even exceptionalism can save us. Our Morehouse education, career trajectory, or financial outlook is often relegated in America and projected simply as a black man with no reverence.
We were led to believe that there is a sense of protection that exists based upon an individual’s performance or contribution to society. Unfortunately, we have learned that building a narrative around being educated, well mannered, well spoken and well dressed cannot save you from an ugly truth.
The trauma that is associated with witnessing the robbing of black bodies, is daunting. Being black in Silicon Valley is difficult in and of itself. As we take an honest inventory of our surroundings, there aren’t many of us. The network of support here is very small, and you’re left to seek comfort elsewhere. Our story didn’t pop into slack or any other communication platform we use daily in the professional world. We naturally expected that our colleagues would say something or at least try to reach out to understand what we’re experiencing. Instead, we were met with silence and coldness; unintentional though it may be, it hurts. We found ourselves looking for something that colleagues simply did not provide. In retrospect, a simple “how are you feeling” would have sufficed. As we have seen countless times before, silence not only does nothing, but it makes you too a part of the problem. Apathy proves to hurt more than blatant rejection.
So, where do we go from here?
Working for a tech startup that believes in the power of storytelling, it’s important to encourage people to embrace their own narratives and feel confident in the value it provides. In a world where these tragedies are commonplace, one thing has become very clear, we still have work to do. This must serve as motive to improve and educate those in the environment around us. We must work to create spaces that fully value the authenticity that comes from stories that are ugly and/or hard to tell. Both as a company and as individuals, it is our responsibility to wrestle with the question of how we capture the stories of folk that do not fit neatly into the narrative.
True narrative building begins with dialogue, even when you simply do not know what to say. Silence is complicity. As black men who are navigating majority white spaces, we cannot remain silent. It is our responsibility to move the story beyond the singular focus of exceptionalism. People must be vulnerable enough to ask questions and strong enough to provide honest responses. We must also ensure that multiple voices are present for the conversation, using our platform to diversify the narrative. We all have a role to play; we cannot afford to be spectators. Allies must speak up. Marginalized people must speak up. We must make it clear that every story matters, even the “ugly” ones.
When sharing your story,we must get away from the notion that “everything ain’t for everybody,” there is power in truth telling. Embracing your narrative is only the first step. Finding the platform where you feel comfortable to share it is another. No single story holds more value than another. And there’s danger when there’s only one story told.
This message was to be written for those who felt like they didn’t have a role to play in the fight! Stand up and speak out. Chant and echo in the rooms that are silent.