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Painful unlearning is not as painful as never unlearning

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Painful unlearning is not as painful as never unlearning

Leaders talk of the present Covid19 as being a defining public health, economic and social crisis of our lifetime. But really this disease has been a catalyst to reveal the far deeper schisms in our society that need even more urgent leadership and action. We are surely in the greatest chapter of social upheaval our generation has experienced.

In the work I do I often hear people state loudly that they are “great with change… embrace change… love change”. The truth of it is most people hate change. We can accept change that feels distant or change that doesn’t impact us but as soon as change disrupts us personally or challenges our conditioning — yikes! So we avoid it, fight it, resist it like crazy — desperate to stay in our warm, cosy cocoon. Stay in our knowns and comfort zones.

Harder still is change that is unexpected, that we feel blindsided by, that we feel we can’t control. This is how many people, leaders and businesses feel about Covid19 — it came seemingly out of nowhere and took us all by surprise. It uprooted our norms and turned our worlds upside down. But we can hardly say this about the learned racism that many of us have been complicit in maintaining. The activism and protests for Black Lives Matter are for change that is severely overdue.

People talk about this time as our great reawakening. Reawakening literally means waking from a sleep. But perhaps what we are experiencing is more than that — many of us haven’t just been sleeping, we have been colluding with status quo. This type of change is painful for those of us who have failed to take meaningful action because it means owning our fallibility and accepting the urgent need to step up, red-faced and own our culpability. We are learning that we need to unlearn so much of what we have accepted as ‘normal’, as Rachel Cargle says:

“We grew up in a world we didn’t create. Now it’s time to unlearn it.” Rachel Cargle

It is time to take responsibility and lean into the journey of unlearning, of change. It will be painful but it is more painful to do nothing, to stay silent. As Luvvie Ajayi Jones says “your silence serves no-one”. Surely it will be vastly more painful if we wake up in 5 or 10 or 15 years’ time and notice that nothing has changed.

“What is it that you wanted me to reconcile myself to. I was born here more than 60 years ago. I’m not going to live another 60 years. You always told me that it’s going to take time. It’s taken my father’s time, my mother’s time, my uncle’s time, my brothers’ and my sisters’ time, my nieces and my nephew’s time. How much time do you want for your ‘progress’?”

James Baldwin

As a society, can we accept that it’s been more than enough time? It’s been more than enough time to move beyond our collective shock, our willful denial and our paralysis — it is time to unlearn and execute a plan of great change. To own our growth as an individual and to hold our society accountable to meaningful progress. As we have heard time and time again — it is about action, not about words. Because we will be remembered not by what we say, but by what we do. As Laura Silva said it’s time to #showthereceipts, to show the proof of our action.

In this spirit, here are my four commitments on my journey of unlearning:

1) I am committed to being a compassionate Ally and active Accomplice Someone said to me recently, “it’s not enough to be an Ally, you need to be an Accomplice”. They said this word not in the sense of committing a crime but rather in being a co-actor and taking action. I believe in doing both — I want to stand in Allyship at the individual and community level, but also do my part to focus on dismantling the structures of authority that keep any person or group oppressed. For me this has been about looking at my own sphere of influence and starting the journey there — by speaking to institutions that I hold dear to demand more and to find ways that I can directly contribute to their journey of progress. But there is still a lot more to do.

2) I am committed to the lifelong journey of learning and unlearning Curiosity is founded on wanting deeply to know or learn. It is about seeking to understand, asking questions and about focusing on the learning itself. As Kemi Nekvapil said in her article “I am Black”:

A few things not to say: I understand. You don’t. I can imagine. You can’t. I can’t believe this is still happening. It is.”

Kemi Nekvapil

I don’t understand and I can’t imagine. So I will focus on the lifelong, perpetual process of learning and unlearning. Here are a couple of the myriad of resources that have been shared with me that I am using to educate myself and my children:

I have finally started to listen to the voices that I should have been listening to all along. Reading books by brilliant and powerful thinkers on anti-racism (many of them shared in the above link). Talking about race to my children. I will focus on listening deeply with the intention to truly hear. None of this is to be praised, it is really table-stakes — I should have always been doing this. And still there’s more listening and learning to do.

3) I am committed to owning my privilege, to speaking up and taking action

Too many times I have stayed quiet, I have not been brave enough to challenge as I’ve sought to be polite or avoid conflict or be nice. Who is this serving but my own ego? So instead of trying to ‘be right’, I am focused on standing up for what I value, what matters and ensuring I do not stay silent. My privilege means my voice can be heard so my silence is even louder. Surely staying silent is one of the greatest examples of privilege. Whilst I still worry about being “another white person learning out loud” as Hannah Gadsby herself articulated, and still worry I will get it wrong, I am leaning in because as Meyne Wyatt so powerfully articulated on ABC’s Q&A “silence is violence”. I want to #usemyprivilege and my platform to amplify the voices and perspectives that need to be heard. As I do this I know I will learn. I expect I will fail and fail again. And as painful as it will be to hear that I’ve made mistakes now and countless times in the past, it will be far more painful to me to know I didn’t do enough or that I stayed silent.

“In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends”

Martin Luther King

4. I am committed to the long game — this is a marathon not a sprint

A brilliant former colleague of mine Thomas Igeme posted this article to the “Newly Activated Black Allies” and he said: “We noticed when you joined the party late, but we’ll be gutted if you leave early….This stuff is hard and messy and if you stick around long enough, it will ask you to face our own complicity and our nation’s brokenness in ways none of us want to. You will say the wrong thing. Or you’ll say the right thing the wrong way. Or you’ll do your best with the purest of intentions and find you offended and hurt the very people you wanted to help.” I got here far too late but I’m here to stay.

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Maya Angelou

I will leave you with the eloquent words of Austin Channing Brown in Brene Brown’s Unlocking Us podcast:

“The work of anti-racism is becoming a better human to other humans”. Austin Channing Brown

This is our greatest, most desperate need and hope as a society. We must hold ourselves and each other accountable to this. We must do this now not only for ourselves but for our children and for generations to come.

Let us each remember as we strive to know better, to unlearn what we know, to become better, that the process of bettering oneself requires change. And change can be painful but not changing is quite frankly, unbearable.


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