Immediately after seeing George Floyd’s death, I was overcome by a wave of nihilism. Being stuck inside due to a pandemic that was killing people who looked like me while simultaneously being reminded that to many my life did not matter as much as theirs was, to put mildly, disheartening. It is hard to overstate the difficulty of being the wrong gender and wrong color in Western culture. Being a black woman means having to constantly juggle the innate desire to be true to your cultural upbringing and heritage while self-editing to suppress or amplify certain personality traits you are taught will allow you to succeed socially and professionally, in a world built for white men.
From a young age, many black people are told, by their own relatives, that they need to work twice as hard as their non-black counterparts to go half as far. The truth of this saying is reflected in labor statistics, where black women are one of the most underpaid demographics and the most underrepresented in senior positions. In the United States, black women working full-time earn 62 cents for every dollar white, non-Hispanic men earn. Additionally, despite representing 13.7% percent of the country’s female population, African American women only occupy four percent of C-suite positions. In American higher education, black women constitute 3% of full-time faculty . In the United Kingdom, in 2019, there were only 25 black female professors in the entire country.
Even at the highest levels of their vocations, black people pay an “emotional tax” which is:
The heightened experience of being different from peers at work because of your gender and/or race/ethnicity and the associated detrimental effects on health, well-being, and the ability to thrive at work.
The disparity continues when receiving healthcare, as 25 % of black women are uninsured and black women are four times more likely than any other racial group to die from complications in childbirth.
In the past 10 years, living in the US and the UK, I often found myself uneasy and uncomfortable being the only black person in a space, personally paying an emotional tax while navigating predominantly white spaces. During the last few weeks and months, however, in the wake of COVID-19, a pandemic which, as previously mentioned, is disproportionately affecting black communities, coupled with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, 2020 has been a particularly difficult time for African Americans and the wider black diaspora.
On just another day quarantined in New York, having lost count of the number of days in lockdown, the video of George Floyd being murdered by Derek Chauvin, a police officer, went viral. On Memorial Day, when some protested for their right to go out and get haircuts, and patronize bars and restaurants, Floyd’s life was snuffed out by someone who had taken an oath to protect and serve him. It was not the first video of this nature to make headlines since COVID-19 relegated us to the confines of our homes, and not the first video of a black man being murdered to make the rounds on social media. Timelines were flooded with black voices expressing their exhaustion that yet another black man had been murdered in broad daylight.
In another such instance, until the video of Ahmaud Arbery being shot was leaked, his murderers roamed free for two months until public pressure forced the authorities in Georgia to take action. I watched Ahmaud Arbery be slain on MSNBC on an otherwise innocuous Saturday morning as part of the news, while my seven year-old cousin played in the living room. While he is none the wiser and doesn’t grasp the gravity of what that video meant and the underlying societal issues at the root of the lynching, I can’t help but wonder how seeing that death unconsciously affects him. I have, in darker moments, shed tears thinking about how the world will not be kind to him and that there is the real possibility that, in a few years, his name could be added to the dozens of names of black people whose lives were unjustly taken from them.
In the weeks following George Floyd’s murder, the world has used his name as a rallying cry to bring renewed vigor and scope to the BLM movement. I confess myself to be a cynic and skeptic about the outcomes of this moment. I desperately want this to be a sustained moment of outrage that forces real change, but we have been here before, yet blacks are still overly policed, disproportionately incarcerated, and systematically denied opportunity in America and around the world. Social media platitudes, mass demonstrations, and countless think pieces reiterate what I already know: that America was built by and for white men, everyone else is just trying to get by with what they can. For black people, that’s their life.
The outpouring of activism in the past few weeks has indicated that the social contract between citizens and the institutions that are meant to serve them needs to change. A byproduct of the increased awareness surrounding the BLM movement has been a call to educate oneself by reading books from black authors and watching movies and documentaries chronicling the black experience. In my small circle alone, my white peers have expressed outrage at the efficiency of the carceral state and industrial prison system. They are confused as to how they managed to graduate from the American education system, from kindergarten through university, without knowing the gruesome history behind these systems built on racism, and designed to perpetuate the subjugation of the descendants of slaves. While their anger is justified, they have the luxury of being surprised by these realities, while black people live in and navigate institutions that are primed to punish them for failure.
What the world needs is for their outrage to be used to spread their knowledge and become motivated to get involved in activities that can overhaul the current iteration of methodical oppression.
There is a term in academia, punctuated equilibrium, that could adequately characterize the moment that we are living through, depending on what the outcomes are at the other end of this uprising. Punctuated equilibrium theory describes the trend in policy making that sees long periods of policy stability and stagnation, punctuated by profound change in a short period of time due to some externality that completely alters the course of policy making. If this international moment of solidarity for African Americans is able to permeate Congressional chambers, this moment may be pivotal in history that dismantles a criminal justice system that lines the pockets of corporations. Legislators can ride the outrage of the public to pass laws that retrains police officers and diverts funds from inflated police department budgets into schools, health care and other social programs designed to rehabilitate communities. These can be the first steps in the arduous work of repairing the relationship between Americans and their law enforcement.
Politically, the easiest way to bring about this change is voting for representatives in local, state and federal levels who’s beliefs and platforms align with the changes that should be made. On a more personal level, it’s recognizing and denouncing microaggressions and overt racism in your social circle and workplace. Over the years, I have experienced microaggressions in many forms. It is the people who are surprised by my eloquence; the peers who assume Trinidad and Tobago must be a part of Africa because I’m black; the individuals who express their awe at the ways in which my hair can twist and coil and ask permission to touch it, while their hands are already outstretched in my direction, consent only being a formality. Actions such as these chip away at one’s resolve and feelings of worth, and amplify the natural discomfort felt when you’re the minority in the room.
The urge to correct such behavior is quelled by not wanting to be branded abrasive, aggressive, shrill, or any other choice adjective weaponized to ensure the continued conformity of black women.
Even in a news age that profits off sensationalized events and hyperbole, this moment feels palpable. In days that seem to bleed together, the only thing that truly lifts my spirits is the visceral and collective public indignation that has spilled out into the streets in every state in the US and in major cities around the world. I hope that my cynicism is unfounded, and the work of education, activism, and political awareness continues past the breaking news cycle and fleeting nature of social media performance, and brings about the societal reckoning that we so desperately need. I know that systemic discrimination cannot change with a few laws passed to appease the electorate and reading a few books, but will for all of us, be a lifelong crusade. Until then, we must continue to rally around George Floyd’s name so that he and countless names that we do not know, can rest in power.