I sat in a staff meeting Monday morning and watched as our small group went through the weekly updates of operations in the midst of a pandemic. At the conclusion of our meeting, I took the opportunity to ask my team a few questions. Eclectic Eye operates on a team-built code of ethics that guides our intentions and decision-making. We call it our EEETHOS, which is an acronym for the values that serve as our backbone. The first “E” stands for Engaged in our Community. Another “E” stands for Empathy. So with the meeting completed, I wanted to check in with the team about how Eclectic Eye can best lean into these specific values as we witness our beloved city struggling to make sense of the demonstrations and protests that are happening.
I don’t want to sweep under the rug the palpable undercurrent of fear, rage, and discomfort running wild through many of us. My team is diverse. We are black, white, gay, straight, married, single, young, middle age, and there are many other labels that define us if you need a box to check. I first clumsily asked them, “Who is uncomfortable with the current unrest in our city, our country, and our world?” There was silence for a bit, and then people raised their hands and affirmed with head nods. Everyone on my team is uncomfortable. OK, I think, that’s helpful to know. Now, the next question will be harder. “What do you think the Eclectic Eye role should be on speaking out about the ongoing oppression in our community?”
One team member, with tears in her eyes, said that she’s tired. She’s worried. Not saying anything isn’t an option. One person said, “Why not publicly stand up like we have done by supporting and participating in the Gay Pride parade?” Another teammate got up, visibly very upset, and left the meeting. My assumption was that he was overcome with emotions, and my question had unleashed the fear, anger, and grief he is carrying and has been carrying. I made a mental note that blindsiding people with this type of question is a problematic approach. I’ll do better. It is strange how we can compartmentalize our lives in such a way that we disassociate from what’s happening outside of work. Just do our job like the world outside doesn’t exist. Someone else offered that she hates that my voice might have more weight. Someone else said that they just feel shame. Another said that they don’t understand the violence. Most offered that they just didn’t know, but they were all scared and uncomfortable. Many on my team are way too used to being scared.
If you had asked me 15 years ago about whether I thought I had advantages opening Eclectic Eye as a white person, I would have laced up my fighting gloves and started swinging. What? Mike and I built this business from the ground up. We bought into the “bootstrap” mentality. We worked ourselves almost to death the first five years to create a livelihood that would provide us the “American Dream” promised to us by doing just that. I am the product of a single mother whose resources were limited, not just financially, but by the generational pain of her family’s dysfunction. Mike comes from a hardworking family of descended, Jewish immigrants and certainly has experienced his fair share of anti-Semitism. So, we both felt fueled from the disadvantaged starting points of our existence.
Fifteen years ago, I believed that I had dug in and pulled myself right on out of the baggage of my birthright. I had made lemonade out of lemons, and it was all our doing. I would have been prideful when thinking about how we turned around our situation, and I would have been defensive if anyone had suggested that I was advantaged in any way. I clung to that defense for a long, long time so that I didn’t have to do the work required to excavate the truth of the world we share. The truth is that we live in an America still unwilling to reconcile its story. This denial continues to marginalize way too many people of color.
I remember seeing the protest in front of East High School after Michael Brown’s death. My son sent me a picture on his way home from his privileged high school. Something about that picture unleashed my curiosity. This is the power of an effective protest. It consisted of (I don’t know how many) people, lying lifeless on the sidewalk, face down, on Poplar in front of East High School. They were just lying there. Lifeless bodies. It was in that moment that I allowed a flicker of doubt to ignite my curiosity about the inequities which continue to plague us in this gritty city I love so much. Little by little, the flicker ignited a flame that has been burning and directing me toward educating myself about the covert racism we continue to perpetuate. Our silence is violence. Being willing to learn and be uncomfortable is teaching me that the work begins with white people.
Monday’s meeting showed me how much our team is hurting and that I have to walk more softly when trying to foster a dialogue about these topics. I have a lot more to learn. The teammate who left the meeting did come back so he could share a few things about his experience and feelings. As a white, business owner in Memphis, Tennessee, I promise that I will continue to educate myself about the systems we have built and continue to support with our white privilege. That is 100% my job, and I will continue to work toward dismantling those systems. At 50 years old, I am now keenly aware that the history I was taught is not the history many people in this America have lived. That “American Dream” I have been fortunate enough to realize is sadly still not equally available to all. And, we must do better for all our fellow humans.
Eclectic Eye will continue to have hard conversations and stand up for all our marginalized friends. I don’t know how exactly this plays out for us, but I know enough now to know that Black Lives Matter, because white lives still matter more in the systems we have set up in this country. And that inequity must change.
It is never too late to get curious. Am I scared for my already precarious business situation? Absolutely. Yet, I am more scared of being complicit in the ongoing oppression of our black and brown brothers and sisters.