I’m black. I’m a peacebuilder. I want your help.

by | Jun 21, 2020


This article is part of our Freedom and Justice Week series – as Global Dashboard provides a platform for a diversity of voices to explore how we respond to the wave of protests that followed the murder of George Floyd. Read all the articles in the series here.

This article was originally posted on Medium on 3 June. Check out Jessica’s work to pick up the broken pieces of this world and build a better one through stories and dialogue.

I am black. And I am grieving.

I thought the days of public lynchings were over. Yet here I was, in the digital crowd, watching a black man being suffocated in broad daylight by the people sworn to protect him.

It happened because of a broken system and lethal assumptions related to black skin. A brokenness that has long been ignored.

I feel stripped raw. Despair and rage both threaten to swallow me whole.

But here’s the thing: I’m also a peacebuilder.

I have dedicated my life to stopping human suffering. I specialize in social change communication — how to communicate across dividing lines to shift attitudes and behaviors. I’ve trained young activists and peacebuilders on nearly every continent on the planet.

Well, now it’s come to my doorstep.

I don’t feel very peaceful. Right now I just feel pain. But as my 82-year-old grandma, who’s been through evolutions of racism, told me today: “A beautiful newborn comes after the mother’s agonizing labor.”

I wholeheartedly believe in the principles I’ve touted all over the world. I’ve seen them work. I believe the only way to build a better world is together. We must support and protect each other.

Ok, how do we do that?

I have so many non-black friends who want to help. “I don’t know what to do,” they confess.

First, thank you. Thank you for wanting to help. I see you. I appreciate you.

Now here are some things you can do.


1. Acknowledge the pain.

Reconciliation begins with an acknowledgment of suffering and wrong-doing. We have a population who is experiencing the stages of grief. George Floyd could have been any one of our family members. For many, this has triggered racial trauma that goes back generations.

You cannot take away the pain, but you can be there. When we feel understood and validated, we feel less alone. I’m not talking about some hollow gesture or post. This is not a scroll-by “like”. It’s sitting in it with us — being present in the moment and having our backs even after the news storm has settled.

Telling someone how they should feel or what they should be doing, without addressing the pain they’re in, is bound to make the situation worse. Instead, just start by acknowledging their pain. It seems simple, but it’s how healing begins.

Band-Aids and platitudes are not enough; we must address the trauma.

2. Listen and Lean-in

Many people empathize from a place of personal experience. But it’s impossible to imagine what it’s like to have black skin unless you live it. Being black in America means more than discrimination — it’s dangerous. People may see you as a threat.

You may not be able to have this experience from the outside, but you can try to understand. Just listen. Don’t excuse, explain, or justify — just listen.

For a long time, the black community has been trying to tell fellow Americans about the black experience. But many people did not listen. So listen now. Dig into why things are happening instead of accepting what you’ve been fed.

Go the extra step: educate yourself. The murder of George Floyd is not a one-time incident but part of a long history of violence that started AFTER the abolition of slavery. There are so many books, documentaries, and studies about race in America. Take the time to learn.

The most effective leaders that I know are doing just that. They believe people have a right to be heard, and they are the first to listen.

3. Confront your own bias

Black skin is associated with aggression and criminality.

Not just by white supremacists and “racists.” It’s a subconscious bias that many well-meaning, even woke Americans carry. And it’s lethal.

This bias is the reason that black children are four times more likely to get in trouble for the same behavior as their white counterparts. It’s why black adults are six times more likely to be incarcerated for the same actions as their white counterparts.

In some U.S. states, if someone feels threatened, they have the right to use lethal force. But what if the threat is skin tone?

This kind of self-reflection — about your own biases — can be very uncomfortable. Most likely, as you’re reading this, you are experiencing race-based stress. People of color experience race-based stress daily. We are always aware of our skin color and how people perceive us. We have to think twice about the words we use, the tone of our voice, and even how our presence will affect the room. Being aware of your color all the time is stressful.

When you are in the majority, your color is not always on your mind. So when you’re reminded of it, the feeling is not pleasant. Many react to race-based stress with shame, guilt, denial, defensiveness, or aggression.

Try this instead: when you’re feeling something like fear or suspicion, explore that feeling. Recognize the bias and work to fix it.

And remember — having biases does not make you a bad, hateful person. It makes you human.

4. Rethink peace and justice.

Let’s clear up one misconception: There is no true peace without justice.

Peace is not passive.

Stopping unrest is not peace — it’s suppression. We need what is called “positive peace”: not the absence of voices, grievances, or conflict, but the presence of justice and equality for all.

Justice is not vengeance.

You might be tempted to support violence masquerading as justice. You might say that oppressed communities have every right to enact retribution for the centuries of unaddressed violence they have faced. That violence is the only way “they” will pay attention.

I’m not going to debate whether or not violence is a language America understands. But I will ask you a question: Whose children will pay the price of that violence? Who will be called aggressive and scary?

Black kids.

Who will be arrested and have to face a broken system?

Black kids.

Justice is not only the acknowledgment of unfairness, or the punishment that follows. Justice is the replacement of systems that have caused disparities with systems that uphold human dignity for everyone, especially historically marginalized groups.

Speak up, take action, and push for change — but be careful of perpetuating narratives that distract from the issue and harm communities of color.

5. Use your power to champion your neighbor.

Sometimes, having privilege means hogging the conversation. So just be conscious of that. Elevate the voices of black activists and community leaders. Make space for the black people in your life to share their experiences without adding your own judgment. They know their community best. Make room for their solutions and leadership.

But don’t be silent. We need your voice. Step in and be a vocal advocate — especially in your own community. We black people have had mixed results when it comes to being heard by powerful white people. You hold the power. As a consumer, your dollar is worth more. As a voter, your ballot holds more weight. As a friend, you can call out when someone makes a racist joke or scoffs at our pain. White people don’t always listen to us — but they will listen to your reaction.

Actively use that power to champion your neighbors of every color. Use it to build a better system.


This is what my non-black allies are doing for me.

I live in Southern Oregon, a predominantly white, conservative area. We are one of the only black families at my church. The only black family in our friend group. I know I don’t owe it to anyone to speak up — since no one should have that burden — but I’ve chosen to share my pain with my community and told them what I need.

The response gets me choked up just thinking about it. My community has come out in force. I have so many stories, but I’ll leave you with one.

Recently, my pastor called me up and asked if all of us — the whole church staff — could go to the solidarity gathering in our town. I won’t lie: I was nervous.

When we arrived, I was shocked to see how many white people had gathered and honked their horns in support as they drove by. The highlight was when a white biker guy pulled up on a motorcycle wearing a Kaepernick jersey and started revving his engine. The crowd went wild.

After, my pastor wrote me and asked how the church can give me a platform and use any community influence to find solutions: “We aren’t asking you to help us find quick fixes. We need consistent, ongoing leadership alongside us. Whatever that looks like.”

I want to see this everywhere. Which is why I’m sharing this with you.

We’re living in a painful time in America’s story. It sucks. That being said, we also have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to finish the chapter. To write history. To shape the future in a momentous way. To build a world where my now three-year-old son can walk the streets safely and confidently with your son.

We can get there. I’ll protect you; you protect me. We’ll get there together.

A woman sits in the street during protests Photo: Lorie Shaull, Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Author

  • Jessica Murrey is a social change communication expert with Search for Common Ground. She’s the Co-founder/CEO of W!CKED SAiNTS Studios. Currently living in Southern Oregon with her husband, two kids, and oversized dog.


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