Black Lives Matter: My story, and how you can make a difference from where you’re at

Off the top, I want to say that I am not qualified to talk about any of what I’m going to talk about today. As these recent events — and their aftermath — have unfolded, the need to speak out has become necessary, so I’m going to share some of my story today and go from there. I hope you hear the heart behind it.

I grew up in the Irish countryside and went to a small countryside school. There were no black people in my class or in the school for that matter. I guess my first exposure to someone of a different skin colour would’ve been sports, footballers for the most part, whether it was through real life or in video games. Players like Michael Essien, Claude Makelele, Ronaldinho. As a kid, the different colour of their skin didn’t bother me or strike me as odd. They were just people, people who could also do incredible things with a ball.

Honestly, as a kid, I thought black people were the coolest. They had the best hairstyles, they had the cool music, they could wear the cool clothes, they spoke in a cool way, they were the fastest, the most athletically gifted — these were the things I thought as a kid.

Playing Grand Theft Auto San Andreas (admittedly, a little too young), the main protagonist you played as was Carl Johnson, a black man. CJ was the shit. He was awesome. Plus, I could give him the cool hairstyles, the cool clothes that I had conceived in my young imagination.

In short, I thought black people were so much cooler than white people as a kid. Still do, really.

It wasn’t until I started secondary school with a large populous where I saw the diversity in a place I would be attending frequently. The only black guy in our year happened to be in my class. His name was Samuel, and he was one the nicest kids I knew. I really liked him and we got on pretty well. He was a day student (I was a boarder) so our interactions were only in and around class, but I thought he was great.

I met a lot more black people of all ages as I started going to church when I was about 15 (2009 heading into 2010). People of all countries, all colours. I initially struggled to fit in with people, and people my age, but got to know a few people my age who happened to be black. We became really good friends, and I can say with ease that I spent more time with them than anyone else (other than the people in school, as in, when were actually in the school). Outside of school, I never really spent time with the people in school, nothing even came close to the time I spent with my friends from church. The hours we spent together had to be in the hundreds — we stayed at various houses, went on various adventures etc. Endless memories.

As we progressed through our later teens, we became brothers by bond.

I was often the only white guy in the group, the only white guy when we met friends of friends. But I never felt uncomfortable or out of place when I was with them: they are my brothers, they are family, and those friends of friends we’d occasionally see were always accepting of me — they didn’t say anything about my skin colour, or the fact I was very much out of place compared to everyone else. My friends helped me to understand the different things they did that I wouldn’t have known about otherwise (such as African dishes and traditions and the such), corrected me if I said something wrong, because there was a lot I didn’t know or understand about their background or upbringing.

I probably wanted to be black at some point in my teenage years (not that I knew what that meant at the time, of course). Their influence in my life was incredibly strong, in an extremely positive way.

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A Facebook profile picture from 2011

It’s 2020 now, and I still have my brothers: Matt and Ronn. Life may have taken us in all sorts of different directions over the years and while contact was sometimes lost on my end, the bonds we made were never lost.

We make time to see each other whenever possible in our busy lives, and they’re great times that I treasure as new memories are made and the bond further strengthened. They’re my brothers, and I love them.

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From 2015

I am incredibly lucky to know them, and incredibly lucky to have known and befriended many other black people as well.

It pains me that they, and people like them, have to live through this oppression, simply for the colour of their skin. It pains me they (generally speaking) don’t feel the same acceptance as I did when I was the only white guy in the group

This George Floyd situation hit me differently, and I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s a maturity on my end, but one that should’ve taken place sooner.

I also think part of it is because I’m so much more plugged into things that happen in America these days because the majority of my Twitter timeline (which I use for work) is of people from the States, and I work with people in the States and I write for an American website.

I think that’s definitely part of it, because even though these horrible things were happening throughout my teenage years and early adulthood, I didn’t really know about police brutality to black people (that, seemingly, only happens in America) only but a few years ago.

The situation bothered me, I struggled to sleep thinking about it and it was on my mind every day.

Meanwhile, people from all across the world made their stand, whether it was on social media or taking part in protests. Initially, I sat on the fence. I knew my silence for those first few days was wrong, but I didn’t believe I wasn’t qualified to talk about it. What am I going to say? I just didn’t know how to go about it.

This is what I eventually said to break silence.

But I didn’t know what else to do after this.

My fellow writer at Peachtree Hoops, Glen Willis, wrote about his ‘exhaustion and the challenge in confronting his own ego’, which goes into many aspects but also his place in all of this as a white man. There were parts that really spoke to me, questions to ask, and these were general things I had felt too.

How much speaking up is too little? How much is too much? How do I know if I am taking up space in the conversation that’s not mine to consume? Am I amplifying the right people and messages? Or am I taking over a part of the dialogue?

What does constructively showing up look like? How do I know if I am stepping into a place that is not mine to occupy?

Does it mean anything if my intent was to help? Because I know that I still have so much to learn, I know that I still function with a ton of ignorance. Does that prevent me from being able to join in the fight?

These are really good questions to ask, as a white man. It’s a difficult balance: you want to be part of it, as a white man, to acknowledge that, collectively, we have to be better, but at what point is it not about you? At what point do you, as a white person, back out and let others have their voice and their say?

How do I go about it? What can I do, as a white man living in Ireland living in a town near the countryside? 

There’s a great pressure to do and say something on social media, because if you don’t ‘you’re part of the problem’ and other such comments might be made. Silences are being noted during this time. People will remember. How do you let that challenge you but at the same time not be pressured into saying something for the sake of saying something? Because in this situation, that’s the wrong reason to say something: for the sake of saying something.

I love my brothers, I had to say something to show support. But what else is there that I can do after that?

I’m a white man living in Ireland, a place where, yes, racism happens (it exists everywhere across the world) but it’s certainly not a racist country by any means.

I asked my closest friends, Matt and Ronn (two of the wisest people I know), about the whole thing to try expand my horizons on the whole topic and seek their viewpoint as black men living in Ireland, and it was a really meaningful discussion. It was a critical learning experience to further my understanding of the whole conversation.

There was a Black Lives Matter protest in Dublin on June Bank Holiday Monday. Under normal circumstances, I would’ve liked to attend. But travel restrictions still exist (and I don’t drive), and I’m here in Carlow.

What can I do as a white man in all of this, what’s my role? How can I make a difference?

I posed this question to Ronn and one of the things he mentioned was understanding the limitations.

“For people to understand the struggles different people face. Understand that some of us don’t have certain privileges and have to work harder for things that a group of people can have way easier than most.”

I hadn’t actually thought about how there might be prejudices or preference when it comes to, say, job interviews or promotions, so this was really eye opening from that perspective. Not exclusive to employment of course, but it just helped me see things from another perspective.

We got further into the conversation and Matt chimed in, I want to share some of these and talk about some of them.

“I think when you see injustice and don’t speak out against it that can be deemed as siding with the injustice. But if you’re sitting in your flat in Carlow and someone unjustly kills a black man in Minnesota, it’s not necessarily on you to change America.

“Showing support is good but living out that support is better…”

“I think correcting discrimination whenever it comes up in my circle of influence, and raising my family to treat everyone as equals is the biggest thing. Circle of influence is key.”

After a follow up question I had about silence, Matt added, “I think there’s a difference between silence and the presence of injustice, and about silence about injustice in general. If silence about injustice in general was an issue, we’d all be guilty since we live in a greatly unjust world and most of us speak out about it very rarely.”

So much wisdom in those.

I’m a big advocate of the phrase “control what you can control.”

I can’t control when a black man is unnecessarily killed in America, I can’t control that I cannot attend a protest…there’s a lot I cannot control from where I am in all of this.

But, at the same time, there is plenty I can control/do.

I can control how I react when I hear racism — casual or otherwise. To correct them, to let them that this isn’t acceptable and that it’s absolutely not necessary. To correct people in my circle of influence if there is an understanding that is incorrect.

I can’t control that I can’t attend a protest happening further away than I can travel, but I can donate so that others are empowered to do so.

I can use my talents when it comes to forming and writing words, I can use my platform to share my story, my thoughts.

We all have a voice. Some of us are better at using it than others. I’m not a man who speaks a ton of words, by which I mean I’m not great at formulating words in person compared to what I can do when I type them out. I don’t have a great ability to convert those thoughts on paper into in-person speeches/public speaking, but I’m good at writing my thoughts down on ‘paper’ and posting them. That’s a talent I can use to make my voice heard.

If, like me, you don’t have the means to attend a protest, you can help others who do have the means by donating, that’s one thing you can do.

I felt helpless at first because I didn’t know how to help, but there’s a bunch you can do. You can donate, you can sign petitions, if you have black friends ask questions. Read. Learn. Listen.

One of the things I’m being challenged with is that ‘you have more of a reach than you may believe.’ Tap into that.

You can make a difference from where you’re at right now. You have a larger reach than you think…

 

 

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