Sharing All Stories - A Reflection on DE&I by Andrew Roberts
I have been meaning to write this DEI reflection for a while now. A while back, I opened our monthly agency newsletter and read a reflection by a colleague that moved me deeply. At that time, I reached out to her to thank her for sharing her experience so honestly and vulnerably and promised I would do the same. This reflection fulfills that promise. It is mostly focused on race as one element of diversity, equity and inclusion and there are of course many others. But this is what I wanted to share.
For those of you who do not know, I am Andrew Roberts (he, him, his) and I have the honor as serving as the COO of this wonderfully diverse and impactful agency. I am middle-aged, cis, white and a product of the advantages and privileges that have accrued to me over my lifetime. Looking back through the lens of privilege, the wind has been at my back a long time, mostly because I am a white male with access to institutions where power resides.
That is not say that I have not faced adversities in my life, I grew up in troubled home rife with relationship violence, mental health challenges in both of my parents and active addiction. My Dad died from his addiction when I was 14. I developed my own substance abuse disorder soon after. Due to the beneficence of a loving God and an amazing support system, I was able to enter recovery before I turned 21. I like to joke I never took a legal drink! I was able to attend college and graduate school and have enjoyed the benefits and joys of long-term sobriety.
Like many of us at VOA, due to my own experiences and desire to both pay it forward and back, I have been in the helping professions for most of my career. I met my wife Mimi (she is a nurse practitioner) when I was working as a Resident Monitor at an HIV/AIDS hospice for recovering residents who had also experienced homelessness. I used to go to work at my 8-5 job and then go work the overnight shift at the residence. If someone was dying, I would stay up with them and keep them company and comfortable. It was one of the best jobs I ever had. It was authentic and real. It was also incredibly sad, but people also found peace and connected with God before they left this earthly realm. Sometimes it was beautiful to behold when a family forgave each other, or someone made their peace with God.
After Mimi and I started our family, we found out we were at risk for genetic complications for any future biological children. We had 2 children at the time and decided that if we wanted more, we would adopt. Due to a series of events that are too long to list here, we ended up adopting a child with mild medical complications from Ethiopia. Thus, we became a trans-racial family. Now, I thought before this that I was a good man and did not really have any biases. I did not consider myself racist or biased. I did not really understand the difference between being “not a racist” and being an antiracist person. Now I had a black son. I thought I was prepared for what would come, what issues we may face, but in truth, I was often shocked to see the world in which I had been living.
Our first experience with microaggressions came at the grocery store with my 18lb almost 3-year-old child. No matter what store we went to as white people with a black child in tow, smiling white women (mostly baby boomers) felt entitled to touch our child and usually his hair. No stranger had ever touched one of my other children at the store. It got to the point where we kindly but firmly had to ask people not to touch our child when we saw them “making the move.” More than one wrist was firmly caught before contact. It bothered my wife more than me, which I thought was because of my penchant to assume good intent. But alas, it had more to do with my not understanding what was occurring.
Then there were the years that we received platitudes and sainthood anointed to us for our adoption and child we “saved.” There were rude questions about his traumatic start to life and the fate of his birth parents or his “real parents.” This is where we truly started to fully comprehend the idea that intent was less important than impact. Good intent is not an excuse for hurting someone else.
Our son was home about two years when Trayvon Martin was murdered in his hoodie 70 yards from his house. Now, I could experience the fear my child could be harmed because he is black, a shared horror of many parents, for myself, on behalf of my child. Two years after that and having moved to Ohio, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed in Cleveland with a toy gun. This led to all manner of speeches in our house about not playing with toy guns or running through yards with them in our neighborhood. Around that time, a black child in our neighborhood was taken off a porch at gunpoint for the crime of delivering homework to a friend who was sick. An elderly neighbor had called the police reporting "suspicious" activity.
After that experience we left the city to a place in the suburbs that we thought would be safer and had more diversity. And yet still, I cannot tell you how many times the tenor of parent/teacher meetings changed when the teacher realized the black child’s parents were white. They sat up a little straighter, took his academic progress more seriously. It was understated, but it was real. More recently came the athletic fetishization of our son. This phenomenon is particularly prevalent in suburban communities. Next came dating white girls and some of those not-so-subtle reactions. Last month, he told me a story about being followed in a store. The privilege and protection of his white family does not follow him into the world. In another year, he will have his license. By then he will not be 18lbs anymore, he will be over 6 feet tall and weigh 165lbs.
And then I will be really scared.
I tell you all these stories to help spread the word. Racism is real. For my well-meaning colleagues who “don’t see color;” I fear you miss the point entirely. I share my story with hope that my vulnerability may lead other white people to reflect on how we can be better listeners and validate the very real experiences of our black colleagues, friends and family members. One way to think about it is this: race is not the issue, racism is. It can be overt and deadly, but it is also systemic and subtle and of course seems, ever present. I can never truly understand why black people feel exhausted making their way in our society, but I can try to empathize and “walk a mile” in their shoes. I can continue to learn, improve and become the person worthy of parenting my child and helping lead our agency.
Finally, I preach to no one. I have so much more to learn. I make mistakes all the time. Try as I might to be vigilant, unconscious bias can occur at any time – in any of us as part of any affinity group. Knowing what microaggressions are helps me to avoid them but I am still a work in progress. When confronted by a person who says I have hurt them in this way, I try to stay open and learn. It is the only way I can grow as a leader, as a man and as a person of faith.
This is what I believe: If we all endeavor to be this best version of ourselves and see the strengths in our differences, there is no end to the good we can accomplish together.