As I sat at my computer over the last four days trying to come up with something relevant to say, to offer some sense of hope to the campus community and others that doesn’t sound hollow and wordsmithed to death, but speaks unambiguously to the heaviness of the moment, I kept coming up empty because my soul hurts. My soul is heavy. Heavy from, what is up until now, only understood by those of us afflicted by the daily fear of living in a society that has difficulty seeing Black and Brown people as complete, full human beings. For my White brothers and sisters, many will never understand what it feels like to be targeted because of your skin color, yet it is you who must stand up and speak out about the injustices that Black and Brown people in this country have faced for far too long.
The reality is there’s nothing you or I could say that would truly comfort and genuinely acknowledge the pain I’m feeling, let alone an entire community. In times like these, words mean nothing without conviction to act – especially when we see human life being taken so callously, so consistently, and so uniquely within the Black community. I remember when saying Black Lives Matter was mocked in certain circles, because “all lives matter,” and yes, they do; death by any means prompts reflection on our mortality. Regardless of whether the specter is an insidious virus, or the suppressed injuries of injustice rubbed raw by the growing list of unarmed Black people dying at the hands of police, we must deal with the unavoidable fact that Black and Brown people are literally dying, not because they’ve committed some major heinous act, but for no reason other than the color of their skin which translates instantly into a perceived threat.
I’m struggling! What should I tell my 11-year-old son about coping strategies he needs to understand in order to survive in America as a Black man? I was hoping against hope that the survival techniques that worked for me were likely the result of divine intervention than an actual strategy which proved effective in allowing my humanity as Black man to be fully seen. That fallacy was shattered in no uncertain terms when I saw George Floyd’s lifeless body being lifted off the concrete on to a stretcher to give the semblance of care for what many already knew was a dead man. To watch Mr. Floyd being treated like a rabid dog held down only to establish one thing – that his life did not matter.
My eyes well with tears and my chest tightens because his death, Ahmaud Arbery, Atatiana Jefferson, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Botham Jean, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, LaQuan McDonald, Tony Robinson, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile are piled so high that a deadly pattern can’t be denied. I didn’t personally know them. Yet in the core of my being, I knew them all because they could’ve been me or my loved ones.
The issues we’re facing, unfortunately, are not new and can’t be specifically blamed on any one generation, group or administration. They’re the result of a long-term accumulation of human failure to recognize, respect and embrace our mutual humanity. There is so much to unpack, and the baggage doesn’t exclude or excuse anyone. For a much longer time I’ve ask myself why should the color of anyone’s skin be the determining factor in their right to breathe, prosper, or have the means to protect themselves and those they love from illness and death? Why should race correlate so heavily with pre-existing conditions, risk and other statistical disadvantages? These are questions I can’t answer alone. As a community, we all have to engage in this work in order to find the solutions. People want to know what steps to take in order to be supportive allies. Now is not the time for polite platitudes or empty expressions of empathy – not in the face of such universal sadness, anger and pain.
We need action.
We need policy change.
We need to go beyond discussions and committees to a place of finding solutions and commit to meaningful, systemic and substantive change. It’s not about whether you consider yourself a good person or have an array of skin hues in your friendship circle. It hasn’t gotten us to where we need to be.
We need to educate ourselves and really work to challenge assumptions about what we can and can’t do.
We need to set expectations and hold fast to them when they’re not met.
We need personal commitments to create sustainable change that removes people of color from the odd situation of being the only ones advocating for their humanity.
Without people of every race, creed, age and station in life who believe in doing the right thing from the heart, soul, mind and purse – yes, purse – the simultaneous systemic and behavioral work needed to dismantle institutional injustice and reverse its impact will not occur.
It’s impossible – and perhaps unhealthy – to disassociate my role as an administrator in diversity, equity and inclusion from my existence as a Black man. It is a dichotomy that has and will continue to confound, inform and impact my life every day and my effort to seek light and positivity in everything that I do. I just pray the complexities and expectations of me to do this work, which happens to be my job as much as it is how I make meaning of the world, also touch every member of our community because it’s going to take everyone’s light to help illuminate the best path forward.
Patrick J. Sims
Deputy Vice Chancellor for Diversity & Inclusion
Elzie Higginbottom Vice Provost & Chief Diversity Officer
Division of Diversity, Equity & Educational Achievement
University of Wisconsin–Madison