CARING IS AN ACTION
By Asante Haughton
Asante Haughton is a TEDx Speaker, Human Rights Activist, Change-Maker, Dream Chaser, Visionary.
Link to his TEDx talk here.
Watch him speak on the importance of being an ally in turbulent times on The Morning Show here.
Image: Nechirwank Kavian @nechirwank
It has been roughly a year since George Floyd was gruesomely murdered by Derek Chauvin, a police officer. Of course, many Black men had been assaulted and killed by police before, but what made this incident different was the clear video footage of what transpired. Every moment was captured, unimpeded, from multiple angles. The world was provided with incontrovertible evidence to a narrative that was already well-known among Black folks — that law enforcement abuses their power more frequently with Black folks than they do with other groups, that these abuses of power more frequently lead to injury or death with Black folks than they do with other groups, and that these abuses of power more frequently result in officers being exonerated from wrongdoing when Black folks are the victims of institutional impropriety.
Yeah, this one was different.
The presence of cameras, and the start-to-finish brutality of the footage, worked not only to properly illustrate the sheer magnitude of the injustice involved in the murder of George Floyd, but also called back the memories of other Black folks who had been killed by police. The ghosts of Breonna Taylor, Philando Castille, Freddie Gray, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown—to name a few from a long list—were summoned back to public consciousness to be posthumously vindicated, if not by unjust courts then by the justice provided via the court of public opinion. George Floyd’s murder signaled to the world that police brutality toward Black people was out of control and nobody deserved to be treated like this.
After the videos depicting George Floyd’s murder went viral, there was a worldwide eruption of grief and a collective disbelief as if the entire non-Black world were asking, “oh my goodness, is this really happening?” And the exasperated answer from Black folks, “yes…yes it is. And we’ve been trying to tell y’all for centuries.”
So while Black folks were trying to process the trauma of the George Floyd video footage, saying to each other, “another one,” and, “here we go again,” the rest of the world, white folks in particular, were left aghast at the discovery that George Floyd was merely one example of a longstanding widespread reality for Black folks the world over. Eyes were forced open and the illusory dream that we lived in a colour-blind, post-racial society was over.
Overnight the world became woke.
Or so it would seem.
As Black Lives Matter demonstrations erupted across the world, my white friends began flooding all of my inboxes with messages of appreciation. That was cool, albeit a little weird. What also hit my inbox, courtesy of my well-meaning white friends, was a tsunami of apologies. Some were genuinely repentant while others were looking for forgiveness. With respect to the latter, as I read each apology, I struggled to find words to respond, thinking to myself, ‘how could I satisfy your need for forgiveness when what I am looking for is justice and change?’
Many of those apology texts, I confess, were left unread.
I couldn’t figure it out. For what and why were they offering these apologies? I can scarcely pretend to know. Heck, I’m not even sure the apology makers knew either. I guess they felt an apology was needed for something, for anything—perhaps, for everything.
Maybe this tidal wave of white contrition that crashed against the shores of my iMessage and Gmail accounts was motivated by the sudden acknowledgement that anti-Black racism and white supremacy were real. And with this, maybe there arrived an equally sudden awareness of how irrationally malevolent these forces were, and consequently, a burgeoning understanding of just how much collective and individual pain these forces inflicted upon the minds, bodies and souls of Black folks.
Worldwide it appeared that white folks (and others, let’s be fair) came to the realization that they had been complicit in upholding white supremacist systems and that, contrary to what some believed, that since the era of European colonization, these systems had always existed.
"At the root of my outrage was this — why did it take George Floyd’s murder for everybody to pay attention? Why did it take George Floyd’s murder for you, for anybody, to care?"
Until the George Floyd moment, for many, white supremacy operated like a virus hidden in an internet browser window, minimized and left running in the background, a nefarious program willfully ignored, slowly corrupting the central processing unit of our society. There was a discovery that whiteness, as we had been taught to conceptualize it, needed to subjugate and supplant itself on the backs of other ethnic groups in order to survive.
So, I guess what motivated the apologies was white guilt. Heaping mounds of it.
Rapidly, that guilt begat change.
The term anti-Black racism, which was once mocked by colour-blind post-racialists, became a widely accepted descriptor of the Black person’s experience of discrimination in predominantly non-Black society. Similarly, commitments to ‘do better’ were made by virtually every business in existence, and the terms equity, diversity and inclusion quickly became so entrenched in workplace vernacular that they have been conveniently amalgamated into a neat little acronym—EDI.
It seemed like everyone around me started reading, How to Be an Anti-Racist, by Ibram X. Kendi and every white person was reading Robin DiAngelo’s, White Fragility, a book which has quickly become vilified for its ironic abdication of responsibility for white supremacy, its author charged as a disingenuous profiteer.
Suddenly every media outlet was pumping all Black everything all the time. Spotify had several essential Black playlists for every genre of music you can think of. Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and the like created specialized categories for the viewing of Black TV shows and movies. Here in Canada, Cineplex made available dozens of movies featuring Black leads and telling Black stories, free of charge.
Just like that, we Black folks became trendy — Blackness was hashtag in. Insert fire and red ‘100’ emojis.
This, by the way, was all very mind-bending, reminiscent of Neo from the Matrix contorting a spoon with his mind.
One day I was invisible and abused, and the next, I was #BlackExcellence. The world, it seemed, spun more rapidly than usual, and as it did, I grew more fascinated yet appalled by the global response.
At the root of my outrage was this—why did it take George Floyd’s murder for everybody to pay attention? Why did it take George Floyd’s murder for you, for anybody, to care? Was I not worthy of respect and empathy before? Was this yet another instance where Black folks were only able to be humanized through our pain? Why is this what it took for you, for the world, to give a sh*t?
I was saddened. I was hurt. I was pissed off.
So, I did what any millennial does when confronted with the Herculean task of navigating complex internal feelings—I hitched a flight on a blue bird into the echo chambers of cyberspace!
I started tweeting.
Prior to the George Floyd moment, my tweets about racism and Black liberation would struggle to hit double digits ‘likes’. Now, they were hitting triple digits with regularity. All I had to do was write the word ‘Black’ in a tweet and boom!—trending. My timeline and feed exploded. My followers grew exponentially. I didn’t even know it yet, but what I was tweeting was getting noticed.
That’s when the news stations started calling.
"I had not yet conceived the extent to which racism, white supremacy and the institutionalized invisibilization of Black folks existed and impacted my life. I was not aware of just how much I wasn’t
Over the next several months I was on local, national and international news—TV and radio—talking about racism and what white people could do about it. As I made my rounds on my media tour I felt a sense of empowerment—finally people, white people, were listening. Maybe just maybe something might finally change. #Progress.
However, that veneer of hope and optimism quickly disintegrated, leaving behind a heaping mound of cynicism as debris.
I became angry again.
But why? My career was exploding! All of a sudden I was a public figure. Now everybody, from news media to government, seemed to want to hear what I had to say. Politicians and CEOs knew me on a first named basis. I became friends with celebrities and reporters. Cool!
Yet, I was still angry. I still am angry.
Here’s the thing, nothing I was saying was revelatory in a general sense, and I wasn’t saying things I hadn’t said many times before, to the same people who were now lauding and applauding me for the things I had to say. Had they not been paying attention? What this meant was that all of the things I was saying, that were intelligent enough to get me on national and international media many times over, had been wholly ignored until George Floyd’s murder prompted what many would describe as a global reckoning of the realities of racial injustice. Indeed, George Floyd’s murder did spark a reckoning and recognition of my story, my history, my triumphs and my traumas, my existence, my wholeness as a person—a Black person.
In many ways, George Floyd’s murder is the event that led to me being recognized as a full human.
And as that notion coalesced in my psyche, logic forced me to swallow a pill larger than my fist. I had to reconcile that up until George Floyd’s murder I was not being viewed as a whole person, as a human being.
Talk about a tough pill.
So while you pat yourself on the back for your newly-discovered wokeness, I agonizingly wrestle with the fact that though I had already known that racism existed and that it precluded me from having fair access to opportunity, I had not yet conceived the extent to which racism, white supremacy and the institutionalized invisibilization of Black folks existed and impacted my life. I was not aware of just how much I wasn’t being seen.
More thoughts flooded in—all of them challenging.
It became apparent to me that until George Floyd’s murder, I was just an idea—an example of what all Black boys from rough neighbourhoods and split families could accomplish if they simply tried hard enough. Prior to George Floyd’s murder, I was the rod on which hung the opaque curtain of ignorance, draped heavily in front of the mirror of truth—a reflection many white folks have historically been terrified to cast eyes upon.
Mirror Mirror on the wall, who’s the most accountable of them all?
Perhaps it is time to reflect.
As I continue to engage in my own reflections, I think not just about the previous year following the George Floyd moment, I am brought back to earlier years in my life. As I maneuver my way back through time and the realizations mount, accumulate, and feed into each other like rivers into the ocean, I am still left feeling overwhelmed, hurt, ashamed and angry.
These feelings emerge as I reflect on a decade of telling my life story of mental health challenges and trauma to audiences across the world. Every week I’d get several emails in my inbox requesting me to speak at a school, university class, conference, or boardroom to tell my story of trauma. Grateful that my story might mean anything to anybody—that I might mean something to anybody—I eagerly always accepted these opportunities. Literally every single one.
So I’d get on stage and tell my story to folks. I had entrance music, I littered my storytelling with poetry and rap, and I made people laugh and cry as I would entertain, teach and inspire, sometimes even garnering standing ovations. It was a whole production and I was good at it. Really good. And I was proud of that.
"And then thinking about the millions upon millions of other Black people who, like me, prior to George Floyd’s murder, were also being unseen and not provided enough space to share their gifts with the public, what have you and I and the world missed out on?"
So much. Ever so much.
But in recent years, leading up to 2020, I started to feel less excited and motivated to get on stage, despite how much I loved the adrenaline rush of performing, and I just couldn’t place a finger on why, since, after all, I adored telling my story on stage.
Since George Floyd’s murder, I think I am closer to an answer.
The schools, universities, conferences and boardrooms that were booking me to tell them my story of trauma, are now entirely uninterested in my story and are instead booking me to hear what I think, about real issues. In the past year I’ve gone from doing 5-minute segments on TV news to being personally invited to roundtable discussions with Canada’s Federal Minister of Health, almost landing a consulting gig within the NBA and was handpicked for an interview with Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, the wife of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Until George Floyd’s murder, nobody had ever approached me for anything like this before.
But now? Whooo, everything was changing. I have watched my career, which was quickly approaching a plateau, take off like an Apollo rocket. I am finally more than my trauma. To the world, I am a full human being, a smart one at that. All this is a result of finally being seen.
And that realization is exactly why I harbor inside of me a storm of turbulent feelings, trying to balance my gratefulness against my resentment. But I can’t shake the question — if I have gotten this far in one year of being seen, how far ahead could I be right now if the world had been seeing me as a whole person from day one?
What have I missed out on?
And then thinking about the millions upon millions of other Black people who, like me, prior to George Floyd’s murder, were also being unseen and not provided enough space to share their gifts with the public, what have you and I and the world missed out on?
So much. Ever so much.
What a shame. What a disservice to humanity that has been committed by racism. What an abject tragedy.
On this, I reflect.
So, now that I have had the opportunity to share my reflections, and you have read them, what will you reflect upon? Have you paid enough attention to the mirror? Have you seen what you need to see? And what will you do with what you have seen?
Do you care?
I sincerely hope you do.
I, nor the world can continue to afford an uncaring lack of reflection. So please do not just care in your head, in your words and on social media. Show your caring with your deeds. Though the hashtags are gone, the news cycle has moved on and nobody is posting black squares on Instagram anymore, don’t let the reverberations of change brought on by George Floyd’s murder continue to fade. Instead, fight to keep the momentum alive, for you, for me, for change. You can do this by embracing one very simple fact—caring isn’t a feeling, caring is an action.
So please care — with everything you got.
Change depends on it.