November 24th, 2014 was a turning point for me. I was driving when the news came that the Grand Jury in Ferguson Missouri announced no indictment of Officer Darren Wilson for killing 18 year-old Michael Brown.
I was stunned that the violent end of Michael Brown’s life was unworthy of a trial. I had to pull over to collect my thoughts.
I thought about Michael Brown’s family and friends and all the people who had protested by their side. All the young Black men and women who I mentor and how this announcement would make them feel. All the young People of Color in our country and their parents and how their parents would explain what happened to their kids. How to explain what happened to my kids. Later I was deeply moved reading Ta-Nehisi Coates and my friend Carvell Wallace describe how they handled November 24th as fathers.
I thought of the irony of celebrating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington in 2014. What Doctor King would think if he saw the mess we are in. On November 22nd, 2014 twelve year-old Tamir Rice was shot dead by two police officers in Cleveland Ohio. On November 23rd, 2012, 17 year-old Jordan Daviswas shot dead by Michael Dunn in Jacksonville Florida because he was playing music too loudly. Last night gunmen opened fire on Black Lives Matter protestors in Minneapolis, who are demonstrating against the police shooting of 24 year-old Jamar Clark on November 22nd, 2015.
As the days went by, I thought about my responsibility and voice and how to use it. As a White American, I am part of and a beneficiary of the culture of systemic racism in our country. I grew up in one of the least diverse parts of the country. As an adult, I have lived in Texas, New York City, and California and made a career of reaching out to People of Color, first as an immigrant community organizer, later to encourage young adults to enroll in job training.
Over the course of my career I have built relationships with hundreds of People of Color. They have been my friends, colleagues, supervisors, mentors, and mentees. They have taught me what it is like to be a Person of Color in our country. To face each day as a battle to preserve your self-worth against a continuous onslaught. To feel like you have to be twice as good for half as much and yet still vulnerable at any moment to aggressions small and large. The comment from a colleague about how you were hired because of your race not your qualifications. The rejection on a dating site because “I don’t date n-words.” The feeling of terror during any interaction with law enforcement that could turn violent or even fatal. I cannot imagine how it must feel to not feel protected by- in fact, to be scared of attacks by – the officers whose sworn duty it is to protect you.
I realized on November 24th 2014 that I needed to change direction. Up until then, I had dedicated myself to helping People of Color change- to attain employment authorization, or become US citizens, or attain corporate careers.
From that evening on, I shifted focus- to helping White people change. To learn how to listen to People of Color. To develop authentic relationships with People of Color.
To understand our role in perpetuating systemic racism and to stop.
I began monthly posts about race on LinkedIn a few days later. The post I wrote after Charleston went viral and Huffington Post invited me to blog on there. Through LinkedIn I met Dr. Verenice Gutierrez and Dr. Dionne Wright Poultonwho are both experienced racial equity trainers and we launched trispectives, a diversity and inclusion training consulting group. We did a successful panel and workshop at General Assembly in San Francisco this fall and are getting booked into 2016.
Meanwhile it feels like each day we hit a new low in race relations in my lifetime. As I look around I see many well-intentioned White people who are as sad as I am about this but don’t know how to get started making it better.
I want to write a guidebook for us, well-intentioned White people. The process of becoming an ally and advocate for racial equity is long and does not happen after reading one post or attending a workshop.I have an outline for a book I have been working on for some time. I will also crowdsource recommendations from people of color and weave them into the book, asking “What do you most wish White people would do differently?”
Today I launched a Kickstarter campaign that will allow me to focus in 2016 on researching and writing the book, getting it published, and speaking about it.
Thanks for reading my post, I hope you find it inspiring.
How did the non-indictment of Darren Wilson affect you?
Karen Fleshman is a Bay Area-based diversity and inclusion strategist, race educator, and connector. With her trispectives partners she consults with companies to help them achieve their business goals by becoming more inclusive. She is also a writer and public speaker. Karen developed cultural competency skills as a community organizer, public official, attorney, and non-profit professional. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, the University of Texas, and New York Law School, Karen is admitted to practice law in New York.