At Feyen Zylstra, we exist to have a positive impact on the lives of people. All people. We recognize the role that businesses can play in improving communities and the lives of those that reside in them. We talk about it all the time. We work hard to live into it.
Structural racism and discrimination continues to exist in our country, our communities, and very likely in spite of all of our efforts in many of our businesses. The deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor are the latest gut-wrenching reminders of the work that remains to bring racial justice and equity to the United States.
Each of these situations make me sad, mad, and unsure at times of how to engage in such a charged, volatile, and difficult discussion. Perhaps, I am unique in my uncomfortableness. I readily recognize that my experience as a white male in America makes it particularly challenging for me to understand race and discrimination. I have never experienced it. I am afraid I will say the wrong thing. I want to help but don’t know how. My experience is not that of a person of color. I don’t know what it’s like to be stared at, followed, questioned, feared, or to live in fear as a result of my skin color.
If like me, you have never experienced any of these things yourself, you may be tempted to say that they don’t exist. To argue that racism and discrimination are a problem of the past. That race doesn’t matter. That we all start in the same place. Before long you begin to believe that your experience is the only experience, that your perspective is the only perspective, or is at least the right perspective.
I can’t speak for you, but the passion and complexity around all of this can feel overwhelming to me. If I am not careful when I become overwhelmed, I become defensive. I stop listening. I stop trying to understand. I blame the victim. I work hard to defend actions that are indefensible. I readily admit I don’t have a lot of answers for the current situation and I am not sure exactly what to do. However, I do know that avoiding the issue and not engaging in productive dialog is unlikely to bring us together. Engaging in this discussion can feel uncomfortable. This is the challenge for each of us, particularly those of us who are part of the white majority.
Do we have the courage to engage in the discussion in a meaningful way? Are we willing to honestly assess our own assumptions around race? Are we confident enough to listen to a different perspective? Is it possible that many experience life differently than we do? The tragedies of our past require us to reflect on who we are as a country, as communities, and as companies and assess this against who we desire to be.
I am not sure how you feel reading this. Energized? Disappointed? Defensive? Frustrated? Angry? Regardless of your current emotional state, let me leave you with this simple challenge: Have the courage to listen to a perspective different than your own. Not with the intent to argue but with the intent to listen and learn something new.
If you are not sure where to start, here are a few ideas. Listen to a podcast, read a book, or watch a movie that demonstrates a perspective on structural racism you may not have been exposed to before. Look for ways to experience life for a moment through someone else’s eyes.
We are better together, as a country, as a community, and within our companies. Race does matter. In order to experience the change we all desire, we must engage in meaningful dialog, open ourselves up to different perspectives, and embrace each other’s unique experiences. I recognize that we cannot do everything but that shouldn’t stop us from doing something. Let’s get started.
Still not sure where to start? Listen to Pod Save the People’s “Keep the Fight” episode, read How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, or even easier watch a movie. I'd recommend Selma, Just Mercy, Salute or one of the many other movies around black history and hardships currently available on Netflix or Amazon Prime Video. None of these are likely to solve the problem of structural racism, but everyone must start somewhere.