WAITING TO EXHALE
If one of us can’t breathe none of us can breathe …
An open letter from one of the Centre for Inclusive Leadership co-founders Paul Anderson-Walsh, who is the former CEO of The Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust. This thought piece has been written as a contribution to the Black Lives Matter conversation.
I’d just finished a Zoom call with our son, a beautiful young Black man. He lives with his wife in Rio de Janeiro. His mood – sombre. He is overwhelmed by a sense of disillusionment. In another room in the house, my wife, had put down the phone to her elder sister, a beautiful Black woman. She lives in London. Her mood – sombre. She is overwhelmed by a sense of disillusionment.
Our son and my sister-in-law have been sent reeling from the aftershock of the killing of George Floyd. It wasn’t that policemen killing us is a new thing. No, it is the visceral impact of the latest in a long line of brutal killings filmed and photographed on smartphones demonstrating how far we are apart at a time when we are [apparently] all in it together. It is the photons of those images that made this a moment of quantum entanglement. These events are now connected so that actions performed on one affect the other, even when separated by great distances.
The Covid virus and the deadly virus that is racism, both pandemics, have become entwined in my mind. The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres was right when he said “The COVID-19 pandemic is a public health emergency — but it is far more. It is an economic crisis, a social crisis, and a human crisis that is fast becoming a human rights crisis.” Indeed, they are…
In that moment as pictures emerged and in the growing tumult that continues to ferment the response to law enforcement displaying not so much as a scintilla of compassion for a fellow human-being as he cried “Please I can’t breathe” left all that is human breathless. What you’re seeing now is not I believe the gesture politics of people taking the knee, it is a global act of genuflection. Floyd, like Covid is an attack on the human respiratory system. The whole world is now holding its breath. Floyd was in my view a gruesome epiphany. The genuflection must give way to genuine reflection. I don’t want the conversation that ensues to be an appeal to the White majority’s conscience. That would be demeaning – White guilt might get us some marginal gains among the pragmatic and the paranoid but what we want is to have the kind of dialogue that will bring society to a level of soul consciousness. What I want is the kind of awareness that can make the leap from unconscious bias to conscious inclusion. I thank you for your sympathy but if we are going to make George Floyd’s death a tectonic shift, we need White people’s empathy. When we get there, we will be in it together.
We don’t have a shared experience of what it is to be Black not only in America but anywhere in the world where being Black makes you part of the demographic known as minority ethnic. When I was the CEO of the Stephen Lawrence Trust around the 18th anniversary of his murder I sought to broaden the agenda from criminal justice to address social injustice. The blunt truth being that had Stephen evaded his murderers that fateful night, he still would have faced the deadening social impact of the structural injustices that are deeply embedded into our society which are hardwired into the psyche by unconscious bias and stereotyping. As Matthew Syed put it with such typical elegance Black people in this country face “an invisible headwind that Whites do not face.” [Sunday Times Comment 7th June]. Those headwinds to mix the metaphor are high frequency micro-discriminations that White People simply can’t hear.
Our son wanted to know if this will ever change…? We have been fighting this for so long… It was a Davidic cry – “How long O Lord?”
I sense there is something different – I was born in a Rachman House in 1960, those were the only ones available to an Irish woman with a half-caste child (as we were known back then). It was a time when the signs on the windows read, “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish.” By the time I was 45 days old my mother had had enough, and I was in the care of The Crusade of Rescue for Destitute Children which had become a warehouse for unwanted mixed-race children. We were sent there to be patched-up, matched-up and hopefully dispatched to foster families.
I was sent to a White family in Surrey and after they had died I found myself in an Orphanage in North London I was left traumatised by the revelation that having explained to the Nun who ran the Home that I wouldn’t fit-in and would need to be moved because all the children were “coloured” to discover that I was in fact Black. I returned to Ladbroke Grove when I left care in 1977 and remember the running battles with the police on the “Grove” during the carnival. The following year, we marched to Vicky Park all the way from Trafalgar Square to take part in the 1978 for the ‘Rock Against Racism’ event – we felt that was a turning point – but then, a year (almost to the day later) Blair Peach was killed by police at a protest in Southall; then there was The Scarman Inquiry in 1981 in the wake of the Brixton Riots. I was 33 when Stephen Lawrence was murdered in 1993. I was about my son’s age. When the damning report from William McPherson’s Inquiry was published in 1999 it was heralded as a watershed moment these events provided lessons, we could no longer ignore… apparently. But the structural inequality persisted and then when the “hostile environment” that was The Windrush scandal began to surface in 2017 it was hard not to think that The Leopard’s dictum that “everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same” was true after all.
The Centre for Inclusive Leadership is proud to count the Met. Police as one of our valued clients. We have worked closely with the Met. Police over the years and I can tell you they are not there yet, but neither are they where they used to be or want to be. I’ve worked with the Commissioner Cressida Dick and her top team. They are good people. Really good people. I echo Matthew Syed’s comments, it would be an equal wrong to stereotype all Police as racist just as it is wrong to stereotype Black people in the many ways that people do.
But today is different – I’m hopeful. I’m older, less idealistic perhaps but nonetheless the air that I am breathing is the fresh air of change. This is different: this time as events unfold in America, Head teachers of English Public Schools are writing to their pupils promising to be better. One wrote: “I wanted to reassure you that we, as a school community, are all clear that racism is incompatible with our values of inclusivity, tolerance and diversity and we add our voice in solidarity to all those who feel likewise.” These are not platitudes. Chairs of Governing Bodies have written to the membership. Natalie Bailey, (a Black woman) Chair of BACP (The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy is the professional association for members of the counselling professions in the UK) typifies the mood: “My promise to him, and to all those who have walked before us, is that we will take it from here.”
Iconic brands are writing to their customer-bases, some, but by no means all of the communication is virtue signalling driven by the PR depts but for others this moment has forged in their minds the cognitive dissonance between their beliefs and their behaviours. Of course, with knowledge comes responsibility. Our role now is to help White people become response-able or able-to-respond. This will be a do as I do, not do as I say movement. Brands will be punished for vacuous blandishments. This is not time for pretending to be what you are not. My advice is don’t indicate if you are not planning to make the turn.
So why do I think today is different?
White people are listening. Really listening. They are not just listening “to” us, they are listening “as” us. What we need to do now is to create an environment in which they, we, can think freely together about how to bring about lasting change. Make no mistake what we are witnessing on the streets of the world’s great cities are more than paroxysms of white guilt – this my friends is a genuine “WTF”- awakening. Those who want to debate are not just the millennials and the digital natives. The Covid-Floyd entanglement has told us that we are global citizens. People want to talk. People want to be part of the solution but many, don’t know what or how, so we must begin an informed global conversation.
There is another crisis that hasn’t been called-out yet. I believe the answer to it all and the root cause of it all is that there is also a leadership crisis. We are drowning in politicians; we need inclusive leadership – from people who will do what’s right instead of what’s easy or expedient. What we need now is the PPE of inclusive leadership: principles not pragmatism, people before profit and most of all equity not exclusion.
We must understand that when we take the role of the leader we are standing on holy ground. When you take the oath of office (especially that of the President of the United States of America) you must hold as a self-evident truth, that since men are created equal, then all men must be treated equally well. There are no bible verses that provide a warrant for killing black people and driving us away in hearses… On the contrary just a cursory read and suddenly all your hatred will scatter because you will understand that Black lives matter.
I never thought I’d say this, but this crisis has showed me that the Lord does indeed work in mysterious ways his wonders to perform. The fact that we have a sitting US President who is the pantomime villain (I’m sorry America but come on!) is by virtue of being a parody of leadership and the epitome of how not to lead causing people to fill the vacuum by stepping-up to lead the way …
Our responsibility as leaders is to create psychologically safe environments in which White People will be empowered to see-it-through because we as Black people will see-through-it to the good intention when they make what to our ears might be clumsy attempts at expressing solidarity. One of my team members, a beautiful White lady, asked us at this week’s “45” – How do I talk about this stuff? My reply was “just mean it.”
I have said before that Covid and Floyd are entangled. Allow me to contrast them:
- In order to combat Covid the advice is to wear a mask; when it comes to having a paradigm-shifting conversation about race we need to take-off our metaphorical masks.
- To stop the spread of Covid we need to cover-up – to kill the virus of racism we need to stop covering and face the uncomfortable truths of our social conditioning.
- With Covid the advice is to limit contact with other people; when it comes to having a meaningful dialogue about race, we need to increase our connection with people who are other.
- For Covid read stay at home as much as possible. For social integration we must find ways to come together.
- In the war against Covid the advice is keep your distance; for inclusion we must reduce the psychological distance between us.
- With Covid if you or anyone in your household has symptoms, you all need to self-isolate; if we are to make real progress on this agenda then we need to end seeing ourselves in isolation. We are one.
- To prevent Covid wash your hands regularly – If we are to halt racism then nobody can wash their hands of it. We are in Edmund Burke territory – to paraphrase, from here on out – “Nobody can make a greater mistake than he who does nothing because he could do only a little.”
The scientists tell us that the Covid-R rate is going down. You don’t need to be a social scientist to know that the other R rate is going up. As long as we are two (separate) The R rate will climb – the only hope is that we realise the greatest truth of them all – we are One. Inclusion happens when them becomes us…
For me this is a moment when with clairvoyant insight I can see what we are in the world for. So, permit me to set an agenda item for the global conversation. There will no doubt be a scramble for more diversity metrics. But let me say, that it is one thing to measure how “diverse” an organisation is, it is quite another to measure the true extent to which those people who we might characterise as “other” feel valued for their diversity, and enabled to make their difference make a difference. What might, at first blush, be seen as diversity gains can easily succumb to the organisational milieu.
The conversation we must have is not simply about numerical diversity, but evidence-based and measurable inclusion. An inclusive society is by definition one that has structures and a culture that works for all and not just some. Because inclusion and its opposite, exclusion, are emotions, the way we gauge the extent to which we feel we “fit” and can belong is assessed at a subconscious, intuitive level. We need to understand the lived experience at both an explicit and implicit level to identify any organisational cognitive dissonance (the difference between what people are prepared to say and how they really feel). When we know the extent to which, Black people feel included and be able to draw the comparison with the lived experience to their majority ethnic (White) counterparts. Then we will have something to talk about.
I don’t want my beautiful light-skinned granddaughter to grow up with a White father that thinks he is doing a service by advising her to tell people she is White as it will make life easier for her. Fortunately, our beautiful Black daughter showed her another way … “But Granddad” Sienna protested “I love that I am mixed-race. Why would I want to pretend to be White?”
I’m reminded of the words of Shakespeare’s tragic hero Brutus, “There is a tide in the affairs of men. Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” This is such a moment – I can feel it in my bones. We as a people have a momentous choice to make. We must decide what sort of people we want to be as we emerge from these crises. We must once and for all put to death the idea of separation. It is because of this rising tide of white consciousness that I sense we have reached the seminal moment where the good people who have been silent are ready to plunge the knife into the heart of racism and not flinch when it cries out “Et tu, Brute?” Do we beg you – we’re holding our breath. We are waiting to exhale.
Remember will you that As the Blind Boys of Alabama sang all those years ago:
“None of us are free
None of us are free
None of us are free
If one of us are chained
None of us are free
It’s a simple truth we all need
just to hear and to see
None of us are free
If one of us is chained None of us are free.”
… If one of us can’t breathe none of us can breathe.
© Paul Anderson-Walsh for The Centre for Inclusive Leadership 08/06/20