We Added ‘Black Lives Matter’ to Our Profile Pictures, What Next?

Rememberance of Philando Castile Rally. St. Anthony, MN.

July 6th was the four year anniversary of the killing of Philando Castille.

The day is an important one in the community where I teach. It was an officer working in our police department who killed him. During the year that followed, this little village carved from the northeast corner of Minneapolis became the epicenter of many of the protests and demonstrations.

Through that tragedy, the community has also gained a tremendous asset in the form of youth anti-racist leadership. Students have spent the last four years organizing events, protests, opportunities for learning, and organizations pushing for permanent change.

This July 5th, hundreds gathered for a rally of remembrance in front of City Hall.

Though the event featured speakers from around the Twin Cities; well known activists, artists, and people who were close to Philando, some of the most impactful voices came from the community’s young people who put the event together. Those students, led by a young woman, Semhar, who at 16 years old were organizing not only this event but donation drives throughout the summer for communities impacted by the destruction following the death of George Floyd.

Semhar spoke pointedly to the white people in the audience, letting them know that their attendance accomplished nothing, that if they were there to simply signal their support and do no more, they should leave. She waited about 30 seconds into her speech to make a whole bunch of white people uncomfortable, and it couldn’t have been more needed. Because of course that’s what many of us thought. We came to the thing, right? Isn’t that great of us?

Three of the students I taught in my first year in the district, students who had started a middle school student diversity group and who spent our year together shouting down every last racial aggression they encountered at school, stood just behind the speakers, three years older and every bit as badass as they’ve ever been. One of the other student leaders, a junior, spoke directly to those who were just joining the movement against racism.

“It’s not enough to announce your emotions,” she said.

I’ve been thinking about that ever since.

I am, sadly, very guilty of doing exactly that, of reading or watching or hearing about the most recent racist horror, a fencepost of hatred staked in front of me, of looking down the line at the one before and before and thousands before, and of saying, “I am angry. I am sad. I wish this would end.”

New hands may be driving new posts in that fence as it’s built, constructing it from new materials, but it’s all the same, really, all pieces of the same thing. More posts are coming, trucks full of hammers and wood and barbed wire to wrap tightly in straight lines between them.

“It’s not enough to announce your emotions,” she said.

So, what do we do instead of, in addition to? So many of us, especially white people newer to this work, would love a place to put our energy, something to push, to dig, to build, to bury. We would love to make racism stop, so what do we have to do?

I don’t have that answer. I have suspicions, I guess, of what is true. It’s the best I can do.

I know we need to keep learning, that we never graduate from that step. I’m also pretty sure that our book clubs aren’t enough.

I’m pretty sure our best work is right in front of us, the work we can reach down and pick up right where we are. Our homes, our work, churches, communities, our areas of passion and purpose and expertise. I’m pretty sure if we look right around us and ask how it might be part of the problem and work on fixing that part, we will be doing good work. Better, maybe, than anti-racism field trips that leave the life around us unexamined.

I’m also fairly convinced at this point that we won’t get it done by all doing the same work in the same ways.

I’m pretty sure you’ll get critiqued for what you’re doing. Some of that will be from people you really need to listen to in order to be better, more effective, and maybe even fix some damage you may have caused. Some of it will be people who would rather you stop doing what you’re doing and will use lots of reasons to make you wait or tinker or weaken. Some of it will be from other white people who try to gatekeep anti-racism, will tell you your way is wrong because it doesn’t look or sound or feel like their way, because it’s not perfectly perfect.

I don’t know how to tell you to decide which voices are which.

It seems to me though that it would help to remember that not all this work is public or needs to be. Not all this work is visible and not everyone gets to demand to be included. Not all work is immediate. Not all work feels good. Not all work is rewarded, and no work is perfect.

We can only really answer to ourselves, and those answers may well be wildly different, but I think we can all ask similar questions. Are we doing what we believe to be best, or are we avoiding what we think should be done in order to stay safe and comfortable?

Are we doing the work we can do, we should do, and for the right reasons?

I know that some people are scared to step into the work because they’re scared of misstepping. It can be scary, I know, but I’m sure, I’m positive that the worse thing is to do nothing.

If it was easy it would have been done already. If it was obvious and uncomplicated, it wouldn’t be such a struggle. If there were a simple “how to dismantle racism” checklist, I’d love to see it.

Pick the nearest post. Start digging. If you start to feel lost, look to the young people leading.

(Want to support the particular young people mentioned above? Sign their petition and grab info for donation support here.)

Author of ‘It Won’t Be Easy.’ and ‘Raising Ollie’ 2014 Minnesota Teacher of the Year. @mrtomrad on everything. www.mrtomrad.com