*Trigger Warning — racialized violence, gun violence, trauma**
A few years back, I created a series of interviews called Leading While Black. My goal was to bottle up some of the collective wisdom of the incredible Black leaders I’ve gotten to know over the years. The main takeaways were inspiring, grounding, hopeful.
This is not that kind of post.
This post is the raw reflection of a Black person in trauma. A person desperately holding onto the hope of collective redemption, while steeling themselves to the harsh reality of race in America. This post is an attempt to shine a light on the tightrope that many people of color must walk so often over the course of our careers, and the unique trauma that many of us find ourselves facing at this moment in time.
It was not the global pandemic that shook me to my core in 2020. It was the global reckoning with race and racism that came to a fever pitch in the wake of a series of highly publicized killings of unarmed Black people in the United States. The recent wave of mass shootings, continued violence against the Asian Pacific Islander community, and collective holding-of-breath leading up to the ruling in the Derek Chauvin trial have reopened a wound that had only just begun to heal after a year of wall-to-wall trauma.
The past few weeks have brought that trauma closer to home for me. On a random Thursday morning on the way to an eye doctor appointment, a white box truck parked on the side of the road caught my eye. When I looked closer, I realized why. Spray painted in angry black letters on the back and sides of the truck were the words “You don’t belong here” and “F*ck Black Lives Matter” — with the stick figure of a body swinging from a hangman’s noose painted across the back to drive the message home. I called 911 to report the incident and was politely told that my request needed to go through the police non-emergency line.
I then sat on hold for 37 minutes.
I made the report, then called my husband from the ophthalmologist’s parking lot. The only words that I could get out for the first few moments were, “I am not ok”. He asked if I needed a ride home. I told him no, I just needed to say it out loud. I made my way into the doctor’s office — the haze of my dilated pupils matching the fuzzy edges of my brain as I struggled to process what had just happened.
That afternoon was one of the busiest in my career thus far — filled with contingency planning, campaign reviews, mid-cycle performance conversations. I pushed my emotions down to make it through the day, and fell asleep — fully clothed — around 8:15 that night.
The following Tuesday brought with it a verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial, its release coinciding with my weekly team meeting. We typically kick off with a round of trivia — a team building ritual in a group where most (myself included) have never set foot in the office, much less met our colleagues in person. That week, we opted to skip the trivia — initially because we had a packed agenda, ultimately because the verdict was read mere moments after the meeting began. Rather than address the trauma I was experiencing (feeling, in many ways, that my very humanity as a Black person was on trial), I switched into care-taking mode — asking the team if they would prefer to hold space as a group, or cancel for personal processing. When they opted for personal reflection, I closed out the meeting with a reminder of mental wellbeing resources and collapsed into a deep numbness. As friends and family, colleagues and news outlets claimed justice had been served, all I could think was that I was still afraid to leave my own home, knowing that the box truck with a hangman’s noose still sat on the avenue 2 blocks away.
Today, my oldest son had an early morning doctor’s appointment. We were in and out of the phlebotomist in less than 10 minutes, followed by a quick stop at Starbucks to feed the beast that is his teenage appetite, as the appointment required a fasting blood draw. We talked casually on the short drive to the school, enjoying the one-on-one time in contrast to the typical morning blur of school drop off with both kids in tow. After letting him out at the front office, the school’s Director of Diversity flagged me down. I had enough time before my 9am to spend a few minutes, but wasn’t prepared for the third trauma in as many weeks that was to come. A student had used the n-word in my younger son’s grade. It was not in his cohort (the school has broken down each grade into smaller pods for COVID safety), but he wanted me to be aware of the situation and the school’s response. Behind the mask, his face suddenly changed as he asked if I was ok. I didn’t realize that tears were streaming down my face. I asked a few questions, thanked him for the information, then drove away. Once again, I called my husband. The words “I’m not ok” hanging in the silence for most of our first few moments on the phone.
I made it home in time for my 9am meeting. I prepared to fix my face and log onto Zoom like I do every other time there is racial trauma ringing in the background. But today, I couldn’t. I didn’t have it in me to keep calm and carry on. I couldn’t keep pushing down my emotions as a Black person to take on my persona as a leader. I cancelled my 9am and called a friend to process.
I acknowledge my privilege. I belong to the relatively small (but growing) contingent of Black VPs in tech. I live in an affluent neighborhood, send my children to private school, and have degrees from 2 Ivy League institutions.
And I still don’t feel safe.
You cannot achieve your way out of racialized violence and hatred. And I can’t spare my children from the sting of racism that will eventually come their way.
I share this experience, not for pity or to elicit support (although safe spaces are always welcome). I share this because my experience is not unique. So many of our Black and brown colleagues are suffering in silence. Incidents of anti-Asian violence continue to spread across the country, with the most recent crimes occurring very close to home for many of our SF and NY-based colleagues. We live with the knowledge that while we are immensely privileged in many ways, that privilege does not spare us from the potential of violence based upon the color of our skin, or assumptions about the content of our character.