In the days following George Floyd’s death and the subsequent protests, a lot of my friends have reached out to me – each in their own unique style – to check on how I feel about the situation, to extend solidarity, and to express that they understand that racism is morally wrong. These gestures have helped me to recognize how fortunate I am to have chosen as friends, people whose character and moral values I have the utmost respect for. So, within this context, I have been struggling to reconcile the macro sentiment of hate and racism vs. the intimate sentiment of love and support from my personal experiences with the white people I have come to know, become close with, and consider allies, friends and family. My thoughts continue to evolve, but here’s a rough framework of where I am coming out:
- Private alliances: In many instances where the trajectory of my life has lifted meaningfully, the sponsor has been white. My college counselor, who helped me navigate the process of applying to college in the US is white. When I first landed at Logan airport, my white host family was eagerly waiting to shower me and still shower me with all good things America. The family that supported me to bring three of my siblings to the US for better education and career opportunities is also white. The gentleman who introduced me to Wall Street, invited me to shadow him for a week at his trading desk, and eventually became my sponsor at Credit Suisse is white. The Managing Director who wrote an aggressive endorsement of a recommendation for me for business school is white. And, when I finished business school and wanted to enter private equity without any experience whatsoever, my sponsor was also white. Now, I understand that the probability of having a black sponsor given my geography (New England) and industry (Finance) is very low given the low representation of people of color in positions I needed help. Nonetheless, it is important to acknowledge that the people who helped me were not obligated and certainly could have found others like them to help. Whatever their motives were, something compelled them to reach out to someone completely different to lend a hand. Additionally, there is ample evidence today of private allies, marching alongside people of color to protest racism. However, therein also lies the problem – underrepresented people like me everywhere need help to access the system, but private alliances are not a scalable solution.
- Platform alliances: In his book explaining the samurai culture, Inazo Nitobe describes courage as a virtue that was worthless unless it was exercised in the cause of righteousness. When defining courage from the perspective of a samurai, this expression stood out the most: “…it is true courage to live when right to live and to die when it is right to die.” I read this to mean that there is a threshold above which (i) a warrior, a person with power and ability to effectuate an outcome, decides to (ii) give their life / put all that power on the line, for a cause. The individual acts of kindness mentioned above need to be reinforced with acts of courage from stewards of the system. I am not minimizing the worth of my sponsors. Rather, I suspect those in institutional positions of influence to have decided that racism is not (at least not yet) a cause, righteous enough to die “metaphorically” for. They choose, every day, to self-preserve by ignoring the many acts of police brutality, systemic underdevelopment in marginalized communities, and other related inequality. That is why I was both shocked and encouraged when I read Andrew Cuomo’s post on Twitter. To my knowledge, he is the first mainstream politician – a potential presidential candidate with a lot to lose – to courageously elaborate the issue and to name all the recent publicly documented victims of police brutality by name. In taking this action, I think Cuomo sensed that a threshold had been crossed and it was now worth risking the death of all he has worked for, what he still aspires to be politically, and to stand up for what is right. It is unfortunate that it required such a seismic sequence of events – the death of another man (R.I.P. George Floyd), nationwide protests, and escalated conflict in the backdrop of a ravaging pandemic – to stir up his sense of rectitude. The petrichor of major crises is often good women and men, rising with new boldness to lead change. In the last few days, I have seen some courageous examples and I am optimistic that we will see more leaders follow Cuomo’s lead.
As I continue to reflect on this topic, I remember Cleo Wade’s thoughtful advice on how to stay connected to the soul: “When something happens in the world that is wrong, don’t try to move on with your life like it is right. The voice within you that says, “this is not okay” is a direct call from the basic goodness of your spirit. Pick it up. Every time. Pick it up. And stay on the line until you figure out how to help.” I believe many people’s consciences report to them that racism is wrong, and they are looking for strong leadership, guidance, and education to determine how to help effectively. I also believe that acts of kindness by private allies represent the basic goodness of most people translated into action. However, these alliances are happening on a small scale, perhaps as clandestine events, maybe with a feeling of cheating and rebellion against the system. Additionally, while gestures of solidarity such as #blackouttuesday on Instagram or “giving out 50 free conference tickets to black founders” create awareness for potential allies, to me they mostly smell like a knee-jerk, feel-good charitable donation – a convenient acknowledgment, and maybe amelioration of a problem in some ephemeral, detached fashion. Low-effort fixes are addictive, create high churn, and there is risk that it may require continuation of the very underlying problem for those allies to remain engaged. The goal is to eliminate dependency.
Those that oversee the system – Prominent CEOs, business leaders, religious leaders, policy makers etc. must muster courage, decide that racism is a righteous cause worth the death of their careers/platforms and condemn it explicitly. They must champion bold and measurable programs such as hiring, equal pay etc. to transform their organizations into allies. This will serve to amplify all uncoordinated acts of goodness, give them moral legitimacy, and result in the eventual institutionalization of diversity and inclusion in ways that are based on fundamental acceptance and not just compromise.