Guest Blog: My Brother’s Keeper
Several weeks ago, on the heels of some of the most ugly violence we’ve seen on video, we committed to do something. Whatever we could.
We decided our best path was to be quiet and listen…
…to reach out and offer our platform to friends and clients of color to share their thoughts, hopes and experiences most cannot feel as we walk robed in a different colored cloth.
We began with Crystal Littlejohn who offered us an opportunity to see what life looks like through a different lens than most of us.
Our commitment to everyone here and, frankly, ourselves, is not a “one and done” exercise in opening eyes, hearts and heads to improve the human condition, specifically for people of color.
So today, our long-time client, Dr. Karen Wilson-Starks, is our Guest Blogger. Please read and appreciate her experience and consider her suggested remedies to create a more kind and understanding humanity.
Am I My Brother’s Keeper?
When Cain killed his brother Abel in the Garden of Eden, God asked Cain, “Where is your brother?”. Cain said, “I do not know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”. To which God said, “The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” (Genesis 4:9-10) Such is the situation in the United States today.
This country has just celebrated Independence Day…the day when we hear the words from the Declaration of Independence: “…All men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” So many Black or African descent people in the US have been denied life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The blood of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown and so many more cries out to us.
How did we get here? And more importantly, where do we go from here?
There are some who would like to think that what brought us here is something that happened a long time ago, something that belongs only to the distant past. My family experience shows that this is not the case. My father grew up on a slave plantation in a small town in Virginia. His grandparents, my great-grandparents were enslaved on that plantation. His mother served as cook and housekeeper to the plantation owners. My father’s siblings worked the fields. My father’s mother never made a living wage and was always too poor to leave the plantation, so this was a new form of slavery.
My father was the only one of his siblings to finish high school and to get off the plantation before adulthood. The year he was to go to High School is when a high school for Black children was opened and a bus provided for him to attend.
Fast forward to my own experience. When I arrived at my clinical psychology PhD graduate program at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, the department chair told me that although I had a good academic record, this program was going to be difficult. He didn’t convey much confidence that I’d make it. This was code for “sink or swim on your own”. Several other African-American students had attended the graduate program; however, only one other graduated before me and that was ten years earlier.
African-Americans daily face many insults and injustices including the recent wrongful deaths in the police incidents, so these issues are not just in the past or a time long ago.
Even today, in Colorado Springs where I have lived for the last thirty years, when my husband and I travel separately to the grocery store or department store, we are often followed as though we are criminals even though neither of us has ever stolen anything in our lives. Meanwhile, the true criminals are perpetrating crimes, and no one is following them.
Back to the question of “How did we get here?” When one group of people treats another group of people in a way that denies that group’s humanity and dignity, both groups are harmed. You cannot harm one group without also harming yourself. The harm inflicted creates two groups at war with one another. In addition, the perpetrating group damages their own character.
Now that we are here, in this moment, we are presented with both challenge and opportunity. Do we continue the history and practices that brought us here or do we work together to craft a different future?
Many people may be tempted to look for easy answers, but these deep wounds and established patterns of oppression require more complicated solutions. As business and community leaders, we must make long-term commitments to effect lasting change.
What are some deeper remedies?
Tell the Truth About the Past and Present
A people cannot grow or move to a new place if they don’t admit the truth about their history and current circumstances. You can’t fix what you won’t admit and face. The alcoholic who remains in denial about his alcoholism, doesn’t seek or receive treatment.
Some want to pretend that slavery was not so bad and maybe was even helpful to the enslaved. Some want to pretend that slavery was another form of indentured servitude. These denials are like those who would pretend that the holocaust didn’t really happen. The accounts of my family members are too fresh for this fiction to sway me just like for many Jewish people, the holocaust is too close and real to be denied.
Monuments and museums remind us about the truth of history so that we don’t continue to repeat the same injustices. Some people have maintained and cultivated the mentality of the past slave holders. The rest of society has to say no, to this perpetuation. For this reason, I think the removal of the confederate flag is a good symbolic gesture to signal a move in a new direction of a truly United States and “one nation under God.”
There are many decent people of all races in this country and that group must now speak up and create a better society for today and tomorrow.
Get to Know One Another
Prejudices and in and out groups are maintained through separation. It’s easy to label a group the enemy if they are kept further than an arm’s distance away, with fingers pointed, and labels hurled and attached.
The antidote is establishing true friendships across racial divides. Take time to hear others’ stories and develop true empathy, understanding, and appreciation for one another. Don’t assume that your experience and understanding of the world is universal. Different groups have different stories, experiences, and histories. Have the respect to learn from different others.
I have traveled to many countries across the globe and have found many points and places of connection with diverse others.
Talk to one another about difficult subjects. Thirty years ago, when I was working with a global US company, they sent many white South Africans (Afrikaners) to a leadership course where I was one of the facilitators. Apartheid was still in effect. For many of these leaders, I was the first Black person they had seen in this type of role. We had many open and honest conversations that shed light in both directions. Rather than to shy away from this circumstance, it was important for me to share a different perspective with them.
Co-Create the Future Together
We have many collective strengths, talents, and gifts that can be offered to create the best future. When one group attempts to create the future for everyone, that’s when problems arise.
For both nations and companies, there is greater power in creating together. When all voices are represented at the table, you get more buy-in and a product that works better for all. In addition, you get more talent invested to create the best.
Enslaved people put in a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to build this country and it’s time to have a true voice at the table. Not all this input was manual labor, a lot of it was in the form of inventions, innovation, artistry, and design that defines the face of this country today.
So “Am I my brother’s keeper?” When we stop keeping our brother and instead choose to senselessly kill our brother on the streets or in the corporate board rooms, our brother’s blood cries out to God, and there will be negative societal and other consequences even if they don’t happen immediately.
So, take the high road, lift your brother and yourself up to a higher plane. We can do this together when we decide it’s time.
Dr. Karen Y. Wilson-Starks
Thank you, Karen, for your wisdom and willingness to share.