By Gabrielle Napolitano
These are words that have been clinking around in my head for a week. Words that have been creeping in through the cracks of balancing the demands of a job that has turned remote but has not relented, with the ceaseless accountability of managing the remote learning of my twin 5-year-old daughters and their 3-year-old baby sister only when she feels like it (i.e. very rarely).
Ideas and feelings that insist on forming themselves as I sneak a few minutes of the news in those rarified hours after bedtime. Memories screaming to be heard as I relish in the primary forms of self-care that I can muster on the regular, workouts and showers.
It feels like a reckoning.
Collectively, America has been forced, perhaps spurred in part by the necessary isolation of a pandemic, coupled with the latest excruciatingly brutal and needless deaths of Black people at the hands of the majority, to remember and feel.
For me, the memories look like kindergarten or first grade and knowing with a certainty that came from somewhere that must have been cellular, that the teases “brownie” and “Oreo” were at their core intended to make me feel less than.
Before I knew the beauty in the wide array of hues of brown that make me, when Hair: Brown; Eyes: Brown; Skin: Brown … made the prospect of a self-portrait an embarrassing proposition. I longed to grab for the Green crayon, or the Blue. Or, most especially, the coup de grace, the Peach.
And while my life has not been without its hardships, as I believe all lives have, my privilege has been undeniable. It begins with the ambiguity of my racial identity, which in itself affords me a certain latitude I fully recognize I would not enjoy with slightly different features or a darker complexion.
My privilege has extended into incredible academic opportunities, bolstered by several keenly timed and vitally placed people willing to endorse me, encourage me and even convince me at times to take the step, fill out the application and at the very least pretend I felt equipped to be there.
Before I knew it that girl on the playground had stepped through enough doors that the breadcrumbs had long since run out. Two Ivy League degrees in hand, she is absolutely unrecognizable to the version of me whose path contained more closed doors than open ones.
When I go there, I only think: there but for the grace of God go I.
Regardless of my privilege, sometimes it feels directly in spite of it, I am, undoubtedly, a person of color in the eyes of the world. The systemic racism that plagues this country writ large, I see at play far more often than I would care to admit, in my own thinking and feeling about myself and the people around me. Today, it feels like a reckoning.
For me, and every person of color in America, our own brushes with the ugliness of that racism play and replay and replay again in an endless loop, every time the breaking news flashes on the screen or the link to the video begins to circulate.
And we know. We know it could have been us. I am supremely lucky (and it is not lost on me, probably also supremely naïve) to be able to “only” count on my digits “those times”.
Like that time in the bar in Boston, or those times in Europe, or that feeling in certain board rooms and offices. What my playlist leaves out are the countless, literally innumerable instances of covert, insidious, maybe unconscious but undoubtedly systemic racially fueled slights, both personal and professional.
I was heartened by the message of former President Barack Obama this week, who implored us to remember that we don’t have to decide between social activism and political engagement. That we, by definition, will only get where we so desperately want to go, with both.
Now is the time for that reckoning and for my own. Every single day I have the opportunity to use my unique combination of experiences and abilities to help, even at just the most personal level, advance the mission. If I am honest with myself, too many of those days I have not chosen the righteous path.
Just maybe though, the dichotomy of my existence, just like the way forward for this country, isn’t an either/or proposition.
We get bogged down in the personal, in the home life, in the day to day. But the death by a million papercuts that is covert racism is here with me too in my new home base of a wealthy Long Island suburb. There is no turning away from it any more than we can turn away from the violence and devastation of all varieties that we see on our TV screens today.
No, new neighbor, I am not here to clean this empty house, I just purchased it. Yes, fellow pre-K parent, these are all my children, even that blond-haired blue eyed one.
It is not lost on me that the external manifestation of the beautiful genetic amalgamation that is my three daughters, makes them safer in the world for the fact that their African-American heritage is not readily apparent. But what I cannot unthink, no matter how hard I try, is that they are not safe.
They are not safe when their mother shows up for Kindergarten pick-up and the cat is out of the bag. No amount of diplomas or privilege will protect me if I find myself in the “wrong” situation.
I am not safe until Black lives matter. People of color are not safe until Black lives matter. No one can truly be safe until Black lives matter.
The death of George Floyd and the increased scrutiny on that travesty wrought by a global pandemic has been the catalyst.
Among the signs of peaceful protest that have been splashed across the airwaves this week the one that said something like “All mothers were summoned when George Floyd cried out for his” haunts me in the daylight. I hope that this is my summoning.
I hope that it is America’s as well. Both will absolutely falter in finding the ways to make tomorrow better than yesterday but we cannot afford to pay the price of going back. It feels like a reckoning.
Gabrielle Napolitano is a director in PriceWaterHouseCoopers LLP. She lives in the suburbs of New York City with her husband and three daughters.