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This blog is personal

This blog is personal. Something I never thought I would write – until George Floyd. Until I watched the global response to such a horrific event.

I usually keep quiet about these things. Not because I don’t have an opinion. But because I prefer not to shout it from the rooftops. But I can’t keep quiet about this. Not this time. This time feels different.

Over the years, a lot of our work with clients has touched on Diversity and Inclusion. We talk about what that means for businesses and why every organization should embed it within their DNA. We’ve debated the use of quotas and why it’s so important to have a range of diverse talent. I have never doubted the importance of a diverse organization – one that’s inclusive and welcoming to all.

In fact, in the past, when I’ve read about racial discrimination, I have always reacted with smug indignation. “I would never do something like that! I don’t have a racist bone in my body!” I thought I was different. That I surround myself with friends who feel the same way I do. No racists here!

After all, I grew up in a diverse, multi-cultural city in New Jersey. It was a melting pot – my friends were a mix of Italians, Czechs, Portuguese, Puerto Ricans – and black people. We had a great time and I never thought about the colour of their skin. What I did know was that we all lived in different areas. As a white family, I lived in an area of town called Sunnyside (I kid you not). My black friends literally lived ‘on the other side of the tracks.’ There was a part of town where the Polish immigrants lived, and then there was the area where the Puerto Rican families lived. Did that ever feel strange to me? No. I’m embarrassed to say I never questioned it. It was how things were. I wasn’t racist, so what did it matter?

Then George Floyd was murdered. He’s not the first black man to die in police custody. Or the first time that people have taken to the streets to fight for justice. But the discussion feels different this time. The conversation has shifted. And I’m listening. What has made me react were two very different posts – one from a high school friend and one from someone I worked with briefly.

First, my high school friend Brandon. He is a lovely guy – and a big black man. He was a line-backer on the high school football team and is one of the sweetest people you’d ever meet. He posted a message on Facebook that literally broke my heart. He spoke about ‘the talk’ that his father gave him when he was in high school. Some of the things he was warned about were: ‘Don’t look menacing, don’t touch anything if you’re not going to buy it, don’t drive in the white part of town and don’t look a white woman in the eye.’ I couldn’t believe what I was reading. We were friends when that talk happened at the age of 16. We hung out in and out of school. He wouldn’t hurt a fly. And I never knew what he was going through.

The second post was from a woman I worked with briefly called Cherrelle. She is a freelance producer – and a black woman. She posted her thoughts on LinkedIn and spoke about what it was like to work in a company and sometimes be the only person of colour. I sat back and really thought about that. What would it feel like if I walked into a company and I was the only white person there? Would I feel demoralized? Would I be intimidated? Would I feel defeated? Deflated? Yes - a million times yes.

So I want to say I’m sorry. I hear you Brandon. I see you Cherrelle. I am embarrassed it’s taken me almost 48 years for the penny to drop. I am no longer smug about not being racist. I now truly understand how much work needs to be done – and how everyone needs to participate. What I can do now is make a promise – to continue to listen, to educate myself and teach my children so that we can all do better. I know I will never truly understand what you go through - but I promise to stand next to you.

Jen Northam

Executive Producer, Northam Media

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