On a year of seismic shifts

This decade has started with a year that none of us would have wished for. It has come with fires, floods, a pandemic, economic upheaval, and now the Black Lives Matter movement. It seems our environmental, economic, and social issues have come in successive tidal waves that threaten to overwhelm us. We’ve barely got our breath back before the next wave comes and it hits hard in ways we didn’t expect.

Even if these issues don’t start in our backyard, our world is so interconnected now that we simply can’t sit back and watch them unfold from a distance. We’ve all seen George Floyd at the knee of a police officer, pleading for his breath and his life. We know George Floyd is one life in a long line up of tragic stories of police brutality against people of colour.

We know this flows on into the criminal justice system but really it flows on into every system – education, health, politics, and business. It’s not just an American problem. It’s a human problem – on a global scale. If we don’t place equal value on human life, then what does it say about the quality of our humanity?

On an unattainable dream

You then wonder if it will ever change. It’s been going on since slavery in America and before that, if you consider the plight of the American Indian people and it continues to this day, long after the Civil Rights movement. It’s been going on since the colonisation of many countries, including Australia.

Recently, on the 26th of May Australia celebrated National Sorry Day. It’s a day that marks the grief, suffering, and injustice experienced by Indigenous people, particularly the Stolen Generations. Between 1910 and 1970, many children were forcibly removed from their families and taught to reject their heritage. This was to wipe out a whole race and culture of people. If you’re an indigenous person living in Australia with that kind of history, how would you feel? Would you feel like you matter?

Then you wonder if sorry will ever be enough because eradicating racism for good feels like an impossible dream.

On our individual stories

Perhaps it’s possible if we confront our individual stories within the conversation. It’s unavoidable not to have a story in Black Lives Matter. The difference is you will either have a black story or a white story. You will either choose to share it or keep silent about it. But you will have a story.

My story is that I was born in Apartheid South Africa to parents of colour – one classified as Bantu and the other classified as Coloured. Such is the complexity of South African politics. My parents left South Africa, a country they loved for no other reason other than that it would forever limit their potential and their children’s potential, all because of race.  They were escaping a system that legalised racism only to find that the racism they were escaping existed everywhere they went, just in different forms.

As a result, I have always lived in Western countries where the majority of people are white. I’ve found as a person of colour living in the West, race is this inescapable thing that follows you everywhere you go. It follows you into many conversations even into one you overhear at a critical time in your South London secondary school. I am about 14 years old, sitting next to my girlfriend in science class and overhear her excitedly share with our teacher (who happens to be white) her dream of becoming a medical doctor.

“Unfortunately, you’ve got three big things working against you,” our teacher says. “You’re black, working-class and female in that order. There’s very little chance of making it.”

The teacher’s response is delivered with such balloon-bursting precision that I believe my friend gave up on her dream that day. And if I’m honest something died in me also. Why couldn’t our teacher give my smart and talented friend three big reasons why she could pursue her dream. But did you notice that being black was her first disqualifier?

On being defined as black

Frankly, I live with being defined as black but it is not my preference. I’ll share why.

In my world of brand marketing, black is an absolute enigma. Black is the absorption of all colour and the absence of light. In colour psychology, it represents the hidden, the secretive and the unknown. This is why is it often used by premium brands to evoke power, mystery, sophistication, and confidence. In language and storytelling, we often see the negatives sides of black with terms such as Black Death, black market, blacklist, and blackout.

When it comes to race, the definition of black brings up a myriad of mostly negative stereotypes. When Michelle Obama became First Lady, America didn’t know what to do with her. So, the media quickly painted her in the default and familiar stereotype of ‘angry black woman’. In her story of becoming, Michelle shares how she had to work so hard on her image, profile and messaging to change the narrative to better represent who she was and what she stood for.

At Markd, we work with a number of nonprofit organisations that champion the causes of people with disabilities. I love that every attempt in language is made to put the person before their condition. It is a person with blindness and not a blind person. It is a person with hearing loss and not a hard of hearing person. I feel the same way about race. Wouldn’t we all like to be recognised as a person first before we are defined by our race? Race needs to be put in its proper place as one of the many ways we express our humanity.

It’s not that I don’t love my race, my culture, and my background in all its diversity. It’s recognising that I also love Byron Bay, Chanel No5, Asian food, English period dramas, reading Malcolm Gladwell books, and helping leaders and brands find purpose. How does that fit in what is a narrow and often skewed definition of what it means to be black?

Even as powerful as the colour black is, it punches above its weight when it comes to defining billions of people of different nationalities, cultures, languages, beliefs and shades. It is a visual short-cut in the way we might use icons in brand marketing to simplify rather that tell the entire story.

That’s why I prefer to be called a person of colour rather than a black person. But that’s me. Not everyone will feel the same way and I respect that. When you have a desperate and urgent message to send to the world, Black Lives Matter is a powerful and concise way of doing that. But underneath that definition of black are unique stories of people’s lives. And frankly, those people are tired and angry at being limited by negative perceptions of race.  Some have even been forced to stop breathing.

On a purposeful future

Like my friend in secondary school, there have been many times when I’ve felt disqualified because of my race. It’s a horrible feeling that takes the wind out of your sails. You want to give up and settle for a more diminished version of yourself.

It’s even more cutting when you hear your son with head bent low tell you that one of the boys at his preschool told his friend not to play with the black kid, meaning him. He was four years old at the time. I’d love to say that was the last incident, but it isn’t.

So how do I choose to live with all this? I focus on those who see my potential beyond a stereotype – friends, colleagues, bosses, direct reports, customers, clients, collaborators, my husband and my business partner. It’s uplifting to be seen as a person beyond a race. I feel as free as a bird in the presence of people like that. It gives me hope and it gives me hope for my two sons.

People that know me well also know that Nelson Mandela is one of my personal heroes. Basically, it’s between him and my mother, which is why I’ve written a book inspired by them. I don’t have all the answers but I look at shining examples like them to propel me forward with purpose and hope.

Nelson Mandela connected to his ‘Ubuntu’ in a 6m cell in which he spent most of his 27-year imprisonment. Ubuntu is a South African term that talks to our sense of shared humanity. Nelson realised his purpose was not just to free the people of colour in South Africa, it was to free ALL the people of South Africa. Unless black lives are free, none of us are ever free.

We are so connected in our humanity, that we are either one of three people. George Floyd pleading for his life, the police officer led by fear and prejudice to press his knee down on an innocent man or people of all colours using their power of influence to say racism no longer has a place in our community, our society, our business, and our world.

What is your story in Black Lives Matter?

Sibon Schouten - Markd Global

Sibon Schouten

CEO and Founder Markd Global