December 4, 2021

the water we breathe

a group of nineteen people stand together in staggered rows outside a nondescript office. the men and women are all wearing some form of business attire. the photo is in black and white, but as far as i can tell it's from the nineteen-eighties.
photo caption: a group of nineteen people stand together in staggered rows outside a nondescript office. the men and women are all wearing some form of business attire. the photo is in black and white, but as far as i can tell it’s from the nineteen-eighties.

There is a photo near the desk where I worked full-time before the pandemic. I used to look at it every time I walked past. It’s a photo from the eighties, as far as I know, though the image is not in color. I blocked out the name of my organization because it doesn’t matter to the story. This could be a photo from any number of organizations.

There are nineteen people in this photo, all dressed in the business style of the eighties. The men are in suits or button-down shirts. The women are in suits or long dresses. They stand outside, staggered in the way work photos tend to be, close but not too close, in front of their offices. Fourteen or fifteen people appear to be white, three are Black, and that’s all I’m confident in saying.

Those three people worked for the same organization that I work for today. Looking at the photo daily, as I once did, sometimes makes me wonder: who are they? How do they figure into our decades-long history? Some days I ask myself, why did they leave? When did they leave? When they left the organization, what stories did people tell about their reasons for doing so?

Did they leave all at once? Did it happen over time? Did they fight for the same things that we fight for now? Things were different back then. But how different was it?

I find myself wondering if they and people like them had a hard time working at their place of employment. It’s a question I’ve asked myself, at one time or another, across my entire career. Do I belong here? Am I a part of this workplace and this culture? How am I helping to shape the place where I spend so much time?

who have we already lost?

I’ve worked at organizations that have confronted inequities and agreed to move. I’ve worked at organizations that say, direct or implied, “this company may not be for you.” You have to know that it’s unfair to say “this workplace may not be for you.” It’s obscene to say those words only to someone who is Black, Indigenous, or a person of color. A truly welcoming workplace would be welcoming no matter who ‘you’ are. And the truth is, these spaces do belong to someone. These spaces belong to people whom society identifies as white. Without even trying, these spaces will support and uplift the needs of people who are white. This support and elevation will come at the expense of people whom society identifies as not white.

Most companies operate within non-racism, which means they take no action against racism. They challenge this malevolence by pretending it doesn’t exist. Rejecting all but the most blatant examples. Denying a connection between interpersonal power dynamics and structural racism. Companies that operate within such racism will perpetuate that racism onto their staff. People who identify as white may not even notice it’s there until someone points it out. It’s almost always a person of color who must do so. It’s almost never part of the job they were hired to do.

White people have always had these spaces. They have always felt like they belong. But when we ask them to consider someone else’s sense of belonging? They become incapacitated by doubt. They tell themselves, and us, that things are moving fast enough. It’s possible that things are. But I hope and work for a future where everyone can belong. Who will we lose along the way? Who do we tend to lose when an organization caters to its dominant culture? What ends up happening to the people we lose?

One common truth about change management is that it can happen, but it takes time. People say organizations move like old ships, shuddering and turning against the outside world. But organizations aren’t ships. They aren’t alive, not like we are. They are full of people. And people change every day. People without power or authority must often change, quickly, even when we don’t want to. But people in power often don’t feel that urgency, not even for crises that are centuries overdue.

How do companies usually move when they face a crisis? How do they learn and adapt to meet whatever new challenge it is they face? How fast can they shift when so many people share a common desire to learn, grow, and change? I’d propose that organizations, full of people, can move fast when they need to. They can move fast when they recognize a crisis. How might we convince people in power that this crisis is a crisis?

this is water. this is water.

I live in a country where artificial white supremacy is the norm. It’s been this way all my life and for centuries before me. Unknown thousands of people have drowned in the water that even now we take for granted. For people who identify as white, the water doesn’t feel toxic. It feels like air. It delivers to them life and prosperity. And for them, like me, it is all they know. Those feelings of success and well-being are hollow. The illusion of white supremacy enrages people when the cracks start to show. And yet, for some people, the water is soothing enough that they refuse to get out.

I think back thirty or so years ago, the decade when nineteen nice people gathered together for a photo. How much progress have we made since then? We’ve spent all these centuries bailing out as much water as we can. There’s still so much left.

So many people in power still believe that what they’re breathing is air.

my name is josh martinez. i have always loved trying to understand systems, and the systems that built those systems. i spend a lot of time thinking about how to get there from here.

say hello: josh[at]bethefuture[dot]space

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