Current events have forced my hand, mandating I launch a family conversation I never wanted to have. I am, of course, talking about *the* talk that has taken place in many African American households throughout our country.
I had to explain to my two boys, who are biracial, why the protests are taking place and why there is so much pain. As best I could, I needed to describe why society is tearing itself apart.
I sat and listened as my wife, who is white, told our boys that in the eyes of some they are not equal. Despite the truthfulness of her words, my heart broke. Our boys are young and still mapping their path forward into manhood. This sad truth will now be part of their story, as it was a part of my story and my father’s story.
I had hoped to spare them from the lessons ingrained in me as young man in Chicago, a part of a community with a tenuous relationship with local law enforcement. It was one of the reasons we chose to raise our family elsewhere. Still, I’m not so far removed that I can’t remember how powerless it felt to have a gun pointed at me. At the time, I chalked it up to the way of life on the Southside, but now I know different and I never wanted my children to experience it. The internet, the headlines and the computers in their pockets make protecting them from this ugly underbelly impossible.
And, even today, when I walk into professional situations with my well-earned title and hard-fought academic background, there are some who don’t consider me worthy. They don’t believe I am smart enough or that I have the acumen of my white counterparts. These sentiments seethe off some people in ways that are difficult to describe, but black executives often discuss the same experience. It is something we grapple with day in and day out.
This isn’t the first time, of course, our family has had discussions about race, but this time feels different. I’ve challenged myself to strike a positive, hopeful tone when I speak with them about these things. This time that personal challenge felt insurmountable, given the amount of pain and urgency surrounding us all.
The reality we are grappling with is inequality, of being deemed not worthy by virtue of our skin tone. People who look like me, people who look like my sons are not afforded the same opportunities. For us there is no level playing field. And, in order to navigate through life, we first have to admit this to ourselves. I thought I’d mastered this part of the process, bitter as it was, but I’ll admit experiencing it from the perspective of a father is far more unpalatable.
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It’s difficult to come to terms with this not really being a fair and just society, and more difficult to acknowledge how that realization has already negatively impacted the lives and prospects of those you love. And yet all any of us need to do is pick up a book or read an article to understand how systems were developed to keep a certain segment of society disenfranchised.
This isn’t about politics or any particular political affiliation, but about who we are and who we want to be. This is about directly targeting the issues we know to be at the root of this struggle: disproportionality in education and criminal justice, unfair housing and lending practices and more. This is about courage, about stepping out of our silos and actively choosing to care for others. We allowed these systems to fester, and we have the power to end them.
Let’s begin by trying to understand each other. Don’t just watch the protests on the television and make uninformed guesses about the people participating. Ask someone who doesn’t look like you what they think and why they think that way. Expand your mind by considering that person’s perspective. Don’t be afraid to show vulnerability and have a tough conversation. Not only will you learn more about how systems of oppression have impacted so many, but you will learn more about yourself.
Be open and honest. Be unafraid to say enough is enough. Address inequality head on with courage and conviction. Know that things can and must change, and that we’ll all be better because of it.
None of this will be easy, but it is necessary. Our beautiful children as well as our children’s beautiful children deserve better than knowing we knew what was wrong and didn’t change it. Collective action can move mountains. We just need to care enough to fight for each other.
Okpara Rice is the CEO of Tanager Place.