I was messing around with my Minolta CLE and the curtain wasn’t syncing with the flash. That led me to get this interesting photo where part of it is blurry and the other part is sharp(ish). This is a convenient metaphor for how my early thoughts were unclear before finding clarity. Post the black square and throw up the hashtag. Let your peers know you’ll do better. Admit your privilege. But how do these actions move the needle in the long term?
Do we know why we’re joining this movement? It’s taken a while for me to gain a level of understanding I feel comfortable enough with to publicly discuss Black Lives Matter and the discussion around race, now at the forefront of our collective consciousness. One’s recognition of privilege and opportunity aren’t sufficient. Eric Garner, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, and Elijah McClain are individuals that happen to be prominently spoken about — but there are many more we don’t know of. Black Lives Matter may come across as being an “American” issue, but it’s part of a broader narrative about the influence and valuation of skin color affecting our positioning and status within the global society.
Figuring out how to break down antiquated systems and rebuild them is a massive undertaking. We’re in the midst of many enormous challenges — the amalgamation of decisions made long before our time, compounded and exacerbated over decades and generations. Much of the world, myself included, definitely does not have the experience or vocabulary to make sense of everything that has happened in the last month and communicate meaningfully about it. When things started going down, I found myself lacking the courage to speak up, paralyzed by the fear of saying the wrong thing and seeing the effects of what happens if you don’t come correct.
Social media has long been, in my opinion, a poor place for effective discourse. Case in point, the thoughts contained within this Editor’s Letter started off as something meant for Instagram but wound up being too long. Social media’s very CMS was never meant for truly thoughtful discussions that encompass greater complexity. Another obstacle on top of this technical limitation is the reticence to start conversations when there’s that aforementioned fear of being called out, a constant wariness of those who are looking to pinpoint the smallest of missteps to claim a moral victory — a game of paper, rock, scissors that’s foisted on you when you actually just wanted to sit and discuss.
Growing up Canadian in a small town in the prairies, our on paper embrace of multiculturalism and my individual luck meant I endured comparatively mild racism, growing up relatively unscathed without the traumatizing experiences many other Asians, Black, brown, Indigenous, and other marginalized people might suffer. With my move to Hong Kong, where I became part of the ethnic majority, this all made me woefully inept at understanding and finding ways to help.
Donations (such as the funds we raised with Unexpected Connections, our conference co-produced with InterTrend) were an easy start, but personally felt deeply hollow as throwing money at problems doesn’t solve everything. A few of us have individual platforms to create discussion and dialog, and here I was afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing. The last few weeks have been deep dives into the lives and experiences different from mine and doing a lot of listening and reading.
It was the lack of point-of-view on how to do better that left me feeling stuck. Frequent conversations behind-the-scenes where I could ask questions to those far more familiar with American race relations (and global race relations) were super helpful. Ask me a few months ago, and I would have considered myself acutely aware of race, and therefore knowledgeable on how to address racism, and I couldn’t have been more wrong. Each individual’s experiences will define how they see and tackle this problem.
I see everything before us as a conversation about systemic racism, intertwined with socioeconomic issues. Creating ownership and, subsequently, bringing dollars to the conversation seem like a particularly direct path to having a larger voice. I read this piece by OluTimehin Adegbeye in The Correspondent that elucidates my thoughts better than I ever could have.
In her words, “racism has little to do with feelings or color, but everything to do with power, profit, and freedom.” Her article is important because it redirects the attention placed on racist attitudes and behaviors we retain today and places it back on the original system that created them. As Adegbeye writes, “When Europeans institutionalized the practice of converting African people to private property, they needed a way to justify it. So they created a narrative about the people they enslaved.”
From this fundamental seed that is racism — the belief that entire races are inherently “better” or “worse” than another — a tangled mass of threads sprouted and branched off until they embedded themselves into society, science, industry, media, and, yes, became the “implicit bias” that influences the attitudes and behaviors of even anti-racists.
As I said before, it’s the trickle down of decisions made long before our time and trying to process that entire network of tangled threads over a single lifetime that is emotionally paralyzing because it’s simply impossible. There’s no way one can tackle systemic racism on all avenues as an individual.
Instead, find something you believe in and let that serve as the guiding light that lets you snip at first one thread, and then another branch, even if something forcefully tells you to focus on a different branch or tree altogether. For me, stories and, from that, the world of creativity, is where I see myself adding the most help and value — a means of editing, rewriting, correcting, and restoring the narrative while empowering people culturally and economically.
Our branch is creativity and, at its core, it should be a meritocracy where the best ideas and most compelling work rise to the top. But why doesn’t it work as such? Somewhere along the way, institutionalized powers and gatekeepers began to manipulate what was otherwise something so pure, so inclusive, to rig the game and alter the contract of that meritocracy.
With brands steeped in creative culture in particular, I’ve seen the separation between the values they embody on paper and the actions they put out into the world. Sometimes they get it right, and, in many other examples, their playbook is copying and pasting from the same old story.
This is where things change, because once you understand the game, you can also play it to the best of your abilities and alter the rules that don’t work. Our conversations in the last few months have gotten me thinking about how I can play my role better: How can I give attention and resources to underrepresented Black and brown creatives to tell their own stories? How can I get them paid with Adam Studio gigs? I was worried that I would say or do the wrong thing. And now I’m investing that energy into understanding what I do and why I do those things, and learning to come away better from the mistakes I will inevitably make.