We are responsible for the world we want

No doubt you, like me, were horrified by the killing of George Floyd. And maybe also by the killing of Trayvon Martin. And also Stephen Lawrence, and many others I can’t name, but others can. And maybe you, like me, have felt almost paralysed by the enormity of the injustice these deaths expose—especially when compared to the power that each of us has.

But we must do something. The world becomes one thing or another as a result of our actions and our omissions, and if the world becomes something we don’t like, we have to ask ourselves what we did to stop that.

I have started to understand that despite the little power that many of us feel we have, we can make some difference. Let’s start at the bottom…

We can speak to others about things we think are important. We don’t need to make grand statements, or even be entirely sure about everything. Just letting others know how we feel tells them that we care about the matter, and it makes it easier to discuss again. This week I was very impressed when a senior person at my workplace spoke to her department about how shocked she was about George Floyd’s death and the pattern of racial oppression of which it was a part. Her words legitimised the conversation about racial equality and made it clear that open tolerance of racial inequality and racism was unacceptable in that workplace. If anyone was ever considering making an inflammatory comment, even in a low-key way, they will be much less likely to now.

Moving up the scale, some people are protesting in the street. Every extra person makes the crowd bigger and ensures the protest gets a higher profile. Even a smaller, local, protest raises awareness among those who see it. People walk away and can talk about it to others: “This is what I saw…”. It keeps the issue alive, and shows people care.

Many places where I work have “company values”, and sometimes they are actually a good description of what makes that company’s culture distinct from others’. Are your company values an accurate reflection of a good place to work, or not? It’s entirely reasonable to debate company values in a constructive manner—having the conversation legitimises it. Most CEOs I know care deeply about whether they’ve got that right, and raising the matter helps improve it. Are the actions that are celebrated, tolerated and condemned in your organisation reflective of the world you want to live in? Say so. Maybe you can make it better, or help a good culture grow even more.

Moving up the scale again, some CEOs run multi-billion dollar companies; their actions have much greater influence. So when Amazon put a “Black Lives Matter” banner on its shopping site, that made the world a slightly better place, and made racism a bit less acceptable, and it was on the screens of millions of people. When Amazon’s CEO, Jeff Bezos, went public about his support for that in response to an angry customer repeating alt-right slogans, that helped repress racism further. When Twitter hides a post by Donald Trump they’re helping reduce the racial injustice in the world—they’re making a positive difference. When Facebook allows the same incendiary comments by the same man, they are legitimising that view. It’s no good saying the posts don’t violate Facebook’s policy—it’s Facebook that wrote the policy. If their policy allows content that is racist or threatens violence, then that is the world Facebook is happy to allow.

For those of us who are not CEOs of global companies, smaller actions can still help. Elections are sometimes won on small majorities. Future leaders are inspired by things they see in others. Even immediate losses aren’t always total losses; good actions can be remembered, and can encourage others at later times. Around the world thousands are protesting against racist violence today, and many will have been emboldened by the millions who protested in the days, years, and decades before them.

Of course this blog post is a tiny, tiny contribution to readdressing racial injustice. But it is something. By our actions and inaction we are each responsible for the way the world turns out.

Photo by Geoff Livingston