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Supporting Black Lives Beyond February

Cultural Affinity months are amazing. They give our larger society opportunities to amplify the voices of various groups of people who are systematically under-resourced and historically marginalized. They also create spaces for the magnification of cultural issues and the expansion of our collective imaginations. By and large Black folx in the U.S are directly impacted by the celebration of Black History Month. Its important to recognize that the history of BHM is deeply tied to chattel slavery. BHM serves as an epitaph for the individual and collective heroism that arose within and outside of the Black community in response to the violence of anti-Blackness and racism forged by the enslavement of Africans. Therefore, February serves as a sacred time of remembrance of the collective trauma and triumphs of our community. Furthermore, various people groups have similar stories of collective celebration and upheaval.

Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (also known as AAPI Month) is a dedicated observance that takes place in May. The month-long event recognizes the collective lived experiences of the U.S ’s 22.2 million Asians and 1.6 million Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders. Yet, the history of the occasion is deeply tied to Jeanie Jew, a former Capitol Hill staffer. Jew was committed to honor the legacy of her great grandfather who immigrated to the U.S to help build the transcontinental railroad and was later targeted during a rise in anti-immigrant hate crimes like the Chinese Massacre of 1871. For many of us, the ability to share the stories of our ancestral past and contemporary challenges is part of the unique magic of affinity months. Yet, these months can also inadvertently create harm. Especially when folks outside of communal experiences trivialize and/or minimize historical and contemporary cultural experiences.

There are a few distinct negative impacts associated with cultural affinity groups that are worth naming. Cultural appropriation is often defined as the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the customs, practices, ideas, etc. of a community by members of another and typically more socially dominant community. Additionally, one could argue appropriation occurs when outside groups minimize the lived experiences of groups they do not hold membership in. For example, throughout the month of February I have seen several non-Black people given license to share experiences of Blackness. In some instances, non-Black people have even been able to profit from being hired to speak at BHM events. These types of engagements, while well intended, cause direct and negative impacts. Disregarding the role of lived experience within any community is both demoralizing and dehumanizing. Moreover, these charged omissions lend themselves to continuing cycles of inequity and lack of inclusion.

As we get ready to end Black History Month this year, it’s important we recommit ourselves to the values that motivate cultural affinity months. We need to be able to hold both the shared tension of historical disenfranchisement and cultural celebration. We also need to commit ourselves to identifying and amplifying the issues directly impacting communities throughout the year.

At the national level, Black people’s access to voting must and should be protected. During this month, Brennan Center for Justice reported that 96 proposed bills would make it harder to vote in 12 states as of January 2022. Legislation like the John Lewis Voting Rights Act will secure the legacy of enfranchisement that my ancestors fought for. The CROWN Act, which stands for “Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair,” was legislation introduced in California in January 2019 that prohibits race-based hair discrimination. This legislative action provides protections for thousands of BIack people. While many states have passed similar acts, as well as the House voting to support its passage, we have yet to see a federal mandate manifest. These protective measures work to create sustainable equity for people within the Black community.

Within our workspaces we must recognize the emotional tax that Black people regularly pay to coexist in society, as well as to professionally advance. The emotional tax refers to the heightened experience of being different from peers at work because of your gender and/or race/ethnicity and the associated detrimental effects on health, well-being, and the ability to thrive at work. Karlyn Percil battled chronic insomnia when she worked as a senior project manager in the financial industry. At the time, she thought, "There's something wrong with me," but never made the connection between her sleep issues and the stresses she was experiencing at work. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black people get less sleep than any other group. This emotional tax has historically been referred to as the “Black Tax,” because of its impact on Black people. Moving forward, we all need to recognize the ways multiple systems work to further alienate and dehumanize the Black community.

This year, we should advocate for JEDI (Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) at our places of work. Companies and organizations need to discontinue practices that rely on internal team members offering free labor in order to combat racism, colorism, xenophobia and anti-Blackness. Outside of workspaces, non-Black people can intentionally connect to national, local, and regional organizations such as: Jack and Jill of America, YWCA USA, and Race Forward as a great first step. Diversifying your friendship circles and sphere of influence increases our likelihood to regularly contribute to equitable actions. Therefore, it can be very difficult to articulate the needs of any given community we don’t have membership in and/or proximity to. Scheduling time to attend local school board meetings and events creates another real opportunity to see the challenges facing Black communities and communities of color.

While we bid adieu to Black History Month and prepare to celebrate Women’s History Month it’s important that both events provide tremendous opportunities to create collective care and action around the ways we intentionally build futures. Let’s make sure we access our abilities to respond to cultural communities, let’s have honest conversations about the collective impacts of erasure that groups may face even during affinity months, and be attentive to the real time material needs of the communities we are attempting to wholeheartedly embrace.

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