Uncomfortable Conversations

How Local Activism Evoked My Personal Awakening
Black Lives Matter Posters

Our country is at a turning point. I never thought I’d see, in my lifetime, a civil rights movement for racial equality. Images of people marching down city streets and protesting outside city halls and police stations harken back to a seemingly bygone time. But it wasn’t that long ago, was it? My parents were children during peak of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. My father even saw Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak in South Carolina. The Black Lives Matter movement transformed from a simple hashtag, created by Alicia Garza following the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012, to a modern-day civil rights movement spearheaded by a new generation.

Millions of people watched the nearly nine-minute-long video of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on George Floyd’s neck to the point of his suffocation. Compiled with the recent murders of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, Floyd’s death was the spark that lit the fuse of what we’re seeing today.

I had hit my breaking point that week. Feeling overwhelmed and emotional, I took to my Instagram account, which is typically reserved for food pictures, and poured my heart out. As a black woman, I felt that I could no longer be silent.

At 26 years old, I’ve been fortunate—I guess you could say—to have rarely experienced overt, interpersonal racism. What I’m most familiar with are racial microagressions. These have come in the form of comments on my “wild” hair when I don’t straighten it, how I don’t “sound black” because of the way I speak or how my interests and hobbies make me “less black.” In the past, I’ve let these remarks roll off back and even laughed them off. I cringe at the thought of that now.

I’ve been in predominantly white environments my whole life. Most of my friends are white and, with the exception of one job I’ve had, a majority of my coworkers have been white. Because of this, I rarely discuss race with my friends and colleagues, as to not make them uncomfortable. I thought that avoiding the “tough discussions” would keep things easy and copacetic. I realize now that not having these conversations about systemic racism, police brutality, oppression and injustice are not only doing a disservice to them but to myself as well. I see now that many people around me truly thought that racism was some how eradicated following the Civil Rights Movement.

June 2, 2020 on social media became #BlackoutTuesday—a time for people to mourn, listen and learn. My entire Instagram feed was filled with black boxes. Many people, of all races, shared information about racism and injustice, along with resources to support the black community. Whenever I saw one of my friends post a black box, I reached out to them directly and said, “I saw you posted the black box on IG. I am going to challenge you to take it a step further and read an article on allyship, make a donation, etc.”

I was sweating and anxious about sending these texts. I have never had these conversations with my white friends. What if they aren’t responsive? What if they think I’m coming at them? I quickly realized that I have excellent taste in friends. They all had either already risen to my challenge or asked me for suggestions on sources that could teach them more. I have been so touched not just by the actions of my friends, but what we’re seeing across this country and even the world.

Locally, hundreds, and even thousands, of people have come out for protests and peace rallies across Coastal Virginia. On Friday, June 5, 2020, I attended the I Am Not a Statistic Peace Rally and Memorial, hosted by Black Lives Matter 757. The event, held at historic Fort Monroe, invited everyone from citizens to elected officials, police chiefs and more to show solidarity and mourn many of the lives lost to police brutality, gun violence and other forms of racial injustice. While much of the event had a somber tone, there were moments of positivity and hope for the future.

I took a second to look around at the crowd and admire the diversity. Tears filled my eyes as I saw people of different races, backgrounds and sexual orientations all coming together. Fort Monroe was the site of the first arrival of enslaved Africans in English North America in 1619. Four hundred years later, black people stood side by side with allies ready to create a change in our community, country and the world.

We’ve seen protests and movements before, but something about what we’re experiencing now feels different. So far, these protests have begun to enact real change, but there’s still more work to be done. Take the time to have these “uncomfortable” conversations with your family and friends about race and injustice. The only way we can do better is if we are better. Question your personal privilege and find out how you can use that to be a better ally. Call out microagressions. Sign petitions, make calls to local officials and demand change in your community. Support black-owned businesses, many of which were shut out of COVID federal relief funding. Above all else, let’s take care of each other.

Arielle Patterson

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