Speaking Up on Racism, but Not Out of Turn

Racism is evil and pervasive, deeply embedded in law and society. Black lives do matter, and things need to change. It should be that simple, and not any sort of political or controversial issue at all. On this, though, the already difficult task of discussing meaningful topics in social media “sound bites” has become an even more precarious endeavor. Long story short: I made a couple of lengthy posts that I put a significant amount of thought and effort into. Then, I had to hurriedly make a post on running and in an effort to cleverly switch topics for a moment I worded things poorly and failed pretty hard.

This blog post isn’t meant as either a defense or an apology of that, or an extension of the Twitter thread that ensued. I don’t view looking back to dwell on any of those things as productive at the moment. This post is meant to take some of the lessons I learned from my mistake and the thoughts I’ve developed in reading, discussing, and processing new information to help better navigate a path forward and hopefully help others learn before making the same sort of mistakes themselves. I have no firsthand experience or authority to suggest solutions but nonetheless I have a voice, and the ability we all should have to recognize a problem related to basic human rights.

The tl;dr – this is an incredibly important topic. I am not even close to an authority on it, but we can all try to speak up and bring awareness to it without speaking out of turn over those who do have experience and knowledge. The road is long but if we can unify behind such an enormous common goal then big steps forward can happen – now.

Why This Matters

A huge amount of the frustration with the poor wording and unfortunate Twitter truncation in my post (in case people didn’t see it, for context, it’s below in its original unedited form) was undoubtedly born out of overwhelming frustration people have with seeing this topic come up time and time again and having others say something while it’s cool and trendy, only to then go back to business as usual and leave the people out there really pushing for change in exactly the same spot they were before. My post played right into this fear. I even learned a new term – “virtue signaling.”

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Needless to say, that was not my intent. And part of my defensiveness was my internal horror at being labeled as such. I don’t speak much, partly because I’m an unabashed introvert who has honestly somewhat enjoyed the isolation aspect of Covid19, and partly because when I do actually speak I want it to matter. I also didn’t feel it was my place to say something much more detailed than I already had on a topic I have no authority on.

But there are people we can all uniquely reach, who are not purposefully seeking out those voices who have more experience (we can’t all purposefully seek everything), and so we do have the opportunity to at least bring awareness to those resources and people who have authority on this subject.

And so why does this matter, if I can’t offer more than that? Why is it worth speaking up at all? No, this isn’t my personal fight. No, I haven’t experienced firsthand the things that are being protested. But this is a human rights issue, and it is the shared responsibility of all of us.

These aren’t one-off stories or just things that randomly happen – it is a systemic issue tilting the odds against a specific group of people. Sure, I’ve been mocked for who I am, as recently as last week for speaking about this as a white male and as far back as grade school for being a hillbilly from the sticks who couldn’t talk right. Everyone has stories like that. It is not even remotely close to the same thing. Never once have I actually feared for my family’s safety, and I’ve always had the comfort of knowing that our social institutions and society in general are there for my benefit, or at least not slanted against me. I revel in being a Tennessee hillbilly living in England, but that comes with all the benefit of being unique with none of the downside of being different.

It was absolutely sickening to see a hateful, blatantly racist Tweet complete with slurs and all on one of the threads I had been involved in. It’s not just about subtle “sneaky” racism, there is still full-blown stuff like that out there that is nothing more than the tip of the iceberg for what lies beneath. This isn’t something that can just be ignored, or that will naturally go away over time. This can’t be tolerated. And it can’t be tolerated now.

It’s also not just a few bad apples; it’s indicative of a system that produces these types of people with a high enough frequency for them to not be considered “black swan events.” In one of my posts I did some math on the George Floyd scenario: if 1 in 1000 people think it’s ok to kill someone like that with nearly 9 minutes to think about it and watch it slowly happen (I think most would assume / hope it’s fewer than 1 in 1000), then the odds would be 1 in a trillion of there being 4 people randomly selected together who all think it’s ok (10,000 times lower probability than winning the lottery). At some point the only conclusion is that there’s something wrong with the system / society the officers were selected from. If someone flips a coin 50 times in a row and gets heads every time, the probability is immensely higher that the coin is weighted than that they just got super lucky. While most people aren’t blatant racists, we all share responsibility for allowing that coin to be weighted and the overall bias of the system to continue.

Then there’s the “there are so many other problems those matter too” argument. Ok, fine, there are a lot of problems and worthy causes to contribute to. But they aren’t mutually exclusive! Supporting one thing doesn’t mean someone is anti-everything else. There have been many memes and comics floating around like the one below, but the part I really love about this one is the last three panels.

Shared by my friend Matt Beckler, who is also coincidentally a Minneapolis resident

It is deeply ingrained in our nature to stick to and defend what we believe is the truth. No one likes to be wrong. But it is rare that we have all the information. In my time becoming an “expert” in my field I’ve learned of more things I don’t know than things I’ve actually learned. The best we can do is to continually seek the truth and act out of love with the information we have. Then our knowledge might at times be wrong, but our goal never will be. So please, seek the truth – find and pay attention to those black voices who have experienced this in such large numbers that the pattern is undeniable. And then continue to act in love, but with that new knowledge as a foundation.

So right now, I don’t understand how saying black lives matter can be controversial. They do. There, done. Said. Wasn’t hard. And if anything, it says all lives matter even better than literally saying “all lives matter” does. To me it implicitly says that every life matters at the individual level and we can celebrate those differences, rather than being assimilated into some Borg-like culture where everything just matters collectively. Really my rambling here can be much more eloquently summed up by Dr. King: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The one thing I believe the comic above leaves out is the urgency and opportunity of the situation. If, in the comic, other forests are on fire too, that still doesn’t mean saving rainforests isn’t a worthwhile cause. Right now we are at an enormous crossroads, with a great deal of focus, resources, and momentum to make a real, lasting change on something we collectively have the power to do. We can’t all decide to cure cancer and then just make it so – but this is a cancer of our own design.

Trying to shift focus to something else would not only destroy that opportunity but steal momentum and inspiration from addressing other issues afterwards. If we can make positive change for anyone, we are all better for it. If someone has a great opportunity to score at the end of the first half they don’t stop and say “hold up, let’s just let this one go for now and use the time to talk about our second half tactics instead. That’s important too.” This situation has been ignored, and pushed back, and ignored, and then ignored some more.

Speaking Up

This is where things start to get murky for me. I’ve never viewed social media / the internet in general as an effective place for me to speak up. I would much rather be behind the scenes doing something directly, and not have to deal with the negative response at the known expense of not getting the positive either.

When it comes to people with an opposing view, I can count on one hand the number of actual productive conversations I’ve had on social media. Those were enormous energy drains where even with a positive outcome I was left feeling I could have done something more positive with that time and energy.

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My original thread on this topic wasn’t something I just rolled out of bed and typed up. I had multiple drafts of this to try to be sure my 280 character thoughts weren’t misinterpreted.

When it comes to people with a similar view, well, what’s the point? It becomes nothing more than an echo chamber with the only outcome being a steady dopamine drip from likes and kudos. Not only will people tend to only follow the people they agree with, even if people try to follow a set of diverse perspectives the social media algorithms (never can trust those machine learning people) will themselves figure out what someone likes and only show those things to them. When I post on Twitter about my work, my family, or something actually meaningful, sometimes I might get 3 likes. When I post some pointless, silly, trivial comment on running, I might get 300.

But all that said, I do have an open mic and a voice that at least in theory seems to reach and carry weight with a non-trivial number of people. I’ve always had feelings ranging from confused to embarrassed when people say that they admire me with little knowledge of me beyond me having a hobby that a lot of people have and happening to have been blessed with some gifts that allow me to do it a bit better than most. Regardless, the open mic is there and I have an opportunity to use it for something that’s more meaningful than running.

So going forward, I will not hesitate to use my platform to bring awareness to something that I feel needs it. Yes, I will continue to post primarily on running, not only because that’s where I have expertise and can do more than just spread awareness and amplify other voices, but because I hope that in doing so I can continue to reach a more politically and socially diverse audience to truly increase awareness rather than just reinforcing it and getting cornered by those dastardly machine learning algorithms (if it’s not clear, I’m a data scientist and have helped design those types of algorithms). I will also continue to do things “offline” where I feel I can personally be most effective.

I also want to avoid a situation where people think they need to “stay in their lane” on even speaking up that there is a problem. I love the Tom Morello response below, and the fact of the matter is that this is a human problem. Everyone who’s a human should have the experience to know there’s a problem (determining the solution is another issue). So please, it doesn’t matter who you are or how many people follow you on Twitter, please bring awareness to whoever you can on this. If I reach 100 people and it stops there, it’s nothing compared to if each person reaches 2 others and it continues without people thinking they need to be “qualified” before they can pass on a message of basic human rights.

Screenshot courtesy of my friend Logan Smith, also the person behind the @YesYoureRacist Twitter handle

Something I am going to stop doing, though, is engaging in 280 character debates, exhausting my energy, and in many cases being counter-productive. I will limit myself to one response, either to clarify a comment or to ask for clarification. Then I’m moving on to something more useful.

Speaking Out of Turn

And here’s where things are the absolute murkiest for me, especially on the topic of police brutality and systemic racism. As someone who has no experience in this matter and isn’t even close to an expert on what needs to happen, it’s a fine line between speaking up and bringing awareness vs speaking over top of the people who actually have that expertise.

When possible, I’ll try to add my unique perspective and expertise in any way I can. My second post (below) was an attempt at that. One person was so upset that I said things in a way that didn’t resonate with him that he emailed my sponsors about what a horrible person I am. But if the primary goal is to bring awareness, the most useful thing to do is try to reach the people that each of us can uniquely reach, and for me that includes people who speak data.

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Some people are motivated by a powerful story, and some by powerful words, but some won’t budge without cold hard data no matter how many times you quote Edmund Burke to them or send them a link to a moving story (“sorry, anecdotes ain’t data”). For growing a movement as large and as quickly as possible, all types need to be reached. That means some messages will fall flat to some, and that’s fine. To others it will be the catalyst, the tipping point that gets them to take action. I might be a data person but if I hadn’t have seen the George Floyd video I may have never posted anything to begin with. And no amount of data is going to matter or be needed for someone who keeps seeing these experiences happen to them or someone around them.

Other than those rare occasions when I’m attempting to add data to something, I’m going to try to focus on awareness and amplification of those who have the expertise to form actual solutions and plans for concrete action. Not everyone can or should be a leader on everything, and this is an area where I will 100% follow because the course is unmarked and I don’t have a map.

Please have these conversations with anyone you can reach, and when possible meet them where they are (figuratively) and communicate in their language, and guide them towards relevant material and resources.

The link below was included in my original post as a great repository of resources for learning and taking actual action, and I’ll include it again here. Like I said originally, I don’t care if you like Obama or not. Ideas stand on their own merit, and the concept of this somehow being a partisan issue makes my head explode.

Anguish and Action

We work to help leaders change their world-and the world needs changing. The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the loss of far too many Black lives to list, have left our nation heartbroken and outraged. Find ways you can meet anguish with action.

If you’re a data nerd like me, this has some great reading:

Center for Policing Equity – Home

Center for Policing Equity collects data and helps law enforcement agencies identify ways to improve their relationship with the communities they serve.

If you’re a trail runner, give a listen to Mirna Valerio:

Or give a read of Joe Gray:

No Change In Silence | Trail Runner Magazine

This past month has been a nightmare for the United States of America. Many had thought racism was dying down. Over the last three years I have had many conversations with friends and family and the topic of “racism on the rise” has come up frequently. Is it really?

But if running is your thing, don’t stop at just trail running. It’s an issue all the way down to casual neighborhood jogs:

Running while black: Ahmaud Arbery’s killing reveals runners’ shared fears of profiling

James Ravenell, an IT professional and founder of the national group Black Runners Connection, calls running his meditation – an escape from the daily stress of being black in America. Now he feels running has been sullied for him.

Speaking Down

Here’s where I guess I got “triggered” (another new term I learned) on Twitter. To be clear, I never got angry or hateful, but I did get overly defensive after feeling attacked and seeing others attacked just for clarifying and adding context to what I said. I then became equally guilty by my response to it. It does not benefit anyone to revisit that and I’ve struggled quite heavily with how to address this without doing the very thing I’m saying not to, but I feel quite passionate about the importance of this and would rather fall short in saying it just right than not say it at all.

I am unbelievably, beyond frustrated with seeing people on the same side tear each other down. I am exhausted from watching movements with incredible promise and amazing goals end up splintering and crumbling because of slight differences in strategy, or worst of all endless posturing and elitism about who’s doing the most or doing it best. This is my single greatest fear as a potential cause if no significant changes come from this. United, incredible things will be accomplished.

Once major change happens and a beachhead is established then people can decide whether to set sights on a new common destination or split up and pursue multiple goals. Without that beachhead nothing happens. Not everyone has to agree on every single thing in life in order to focus and come together for one common purpose. This goes back to that comic too: taking a stand on this issue of basic human rights while disagreeing on others doesn’t make anyone a hypocrite. I doubt many people landing at D-Day were worried about the other political positions of people in the boat next to them or who had the shiniest boots. “You hate Hitler? Yup. You gonna try to take that beach? Yup. Alright we’re good for now.”

To prevent derailing this post entirely and trigerring myself for real, I’m going to avoid delving into my thoughts on the two party system and how it does nothing more than consolidate power and crush independent thought… but maybe another day.

None of this is to say that there’s not legitimate criticism of people’s objectives or methods. No one should be coddled and the leaders / experts can’t be expected to spend all their time giving out pointers – they’d get nothing done themselves. And the people who have experienced these things firsthand also have every right to be angry, and frustrated, and out of patience with people who are unwilling to take the time to learn. People, like myself, need to take the time to actually learn and internalize the information. This isn’t some middle school book report where someone can just get the CliffsNotes or ask their friend, get their grade, and then never think about it again.

But even with every honest effort to learn, mistakes happen. Give people the benefit of the doubt and if something needs to be said reach out privately with messages of encouragement and positive redirection rather than publicly shaming them or making an example out of them. If there’s time for that, there’s time for a supportive message.

I speak with a lot of people trying to get started in ultrarunning. Naturally, they make mistakes. If I responded to their mistakes or their questions with ridicule it would be incredibly discouraging at best and at worst result in them leaving the sport entirely. If done publicly, it would have the same effect on any other novice ultrarunners who saw it happen. Like an ultra, there’s a long road ahead with a lot of work to do and at some point even the most well-meaning dedicated people are going to stumble.

It’s natural to express the anger, but if the end goal is positive change there has to be more than that for absolutely any movement no matter what the cause. To build something that continues to grow and reaches critical mass instead of slowly falling apart and just shifting the negativity to other places, people need to be encouraged to join and to feel like they can contribute in some way, no matter where they are in life or what experience they have.

Please, please just treat others the way you want to be treated and lift them up – don’t respond to hate with hate. I would do a Barkley loop on my knees if it meant people would do that.

I fell short on that in my own initial response, and I’m sorry. After feeling like crap most of the week a random person who I have a huge amount of respect for and had absolutely no reason to weigh in on the matter offered me a simple, short message of encouragement. It gave me an immediate and enormous lift. I will remember it whenever I have the chance to do the same, and I hope her simple act of kindness can continue to spread indefinitely.

Actions Over Words

In the end actions are the only thing that matters, and nothing anyone posts has any value if it does not spur action. I’ve always had a “don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” perspective on this, so this is fairly awkward for me. But I hope that everyone can be encouraged to take whatever action they can, and I realize now that with my social media visibility comes the assumption that if it’s not on social media then I must not be doing it (the person who emailed my sponsors was also upset that I hadn’t posted the donations I’ve made).

I’ve always had a huge passion for kids, particularly those who have the cards stacked against them just by where, when, and how they happen to enter the world. I’m a father of three, soon to be four (in a year of bad surprises ours at least started off with a good one in just the second week… but also definitely the last time that will happen). I’ve had the enormous fortune of always knowing that my kids were going to come into a situation where I could provide for them, financially, educationally, and emotionally.

But with that fortune comes the disheartening knowledge that that’s pure luck for them while others get written off and have an uphill battle, whether due to their home situation or due to the system being biased. I’ve been working with kids since I was one myself in high school. I continued in college, and while I’ve financially continued to support a number of organizations my life became “too busy” to continue any more active involvement.

I’ve always had the mindset that I’ll do what I need to do to ensure my family’s security, and then go all in supporting or starting a charitable organization (I have a tendency to go all in on anything I do, which makes it dangerous for me to do too many things). But the people who need support don’t have time to sit around and wait for it, and there are areas where I can do more now.

My wife and I have donated to the Center for Policing Equity (linked above) which has been working for years on some of the specific issues urgently needing bold action, and doing it in a way that can inform and shape policy decisions. We’ve also added the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust and OneWake to the organizations we contribute to regularly. The rest of the founding team at Envelop Risk will also be pooling our resources for an initial larger donation. These organizations exist at the intersection of current issues with my long-held passion, which I hope will enable longer term more meaningful relationships with these groups where I can grow that passion and contribute more than just financially.

OneWake is in Raleigh where Jessi and I met and went to college, and one of our good friends has been involved there for close to two decades. I believe that long-term sustainable change at the community level is an important part of moving forward.

ONE Wake

ONE Wake Statement on Killing of George Floyd and Systemic Racism African Americans live with the constant threat of death by people who are sworn to serve and protect us. People are marching, crying…

I have two big running challenges still planned in the UK this summer if Covid19 permits. I’ve reached out to the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust, and I plan on using those challenges to support them. I’ve always had the rather idealistic and naive view that people should donate anyway without needing someone’s “challenge” as an impetus, but in reality those types of things work. As someone who always tries to analyze the situation and take the most logical action, I can reach no conclusion here other than I was internally using that as an excuse to not do something.

Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust

The Trust was founded to tackle inequality in all forms. We’re dedicated to transforming the life chances of young people and improving the world in which they live

So contribute to where you can, and to where you feel your limited time and resources can have the biggest impact. For some people that might mean just a donation. For others it might mean no donations at all but just learning, spreading awareness, and VOTING. But in any case this is a rare opportunity to get an urgent issue over the line, so please act on it and do not be a bystander.

Conclusion, finally

Just like my recent social media attempts, I also slipped up when I started working with kids 20 years ago. Except it was a literal slip up doing a comedy sketch as the character Johnny Danger. Turned out, Johnny had to get knee surgery and missed the first half of the track season. But first, I got back up and finished the sketch! And I’ll do that here too, and whenever necessary.

Some people are going to attack me for this being not enough, and some are going to attack me (from both sides) for saying anything at all. I went back and forth a few times myself on whether to post it or leave it as a permanent draft. In any case, I will take any and all feedback I can and attempt to learn from it. But I’m done worrying about whether someone says something mean to me on the Twitters. There are millions of people out there dealing with a lot more than that and I’m going to do what I know I can do best to help, regardless of what someone who’s read my Instagram profile and saw I’m good at running around through the woods apparently knows I can do best. I don’t care if I look like a ridiculous fool, and make it to the finish line wearing a shredded grocery bag as a poncho and a rotting orange hat I pulled out of the briars. What I care about is making it to the finish line, or in this case supporting others as best I can to help them get there.

But as for right this minute, I am going to go on a run so I can recharge and process my thoughts more. One aspect I enjoy about long runs through the mountains is the temporary escapism – the chance to live in the moment, cast other worries aside, and test myself mentally and physically in a low consequence situation. But there’s a line between necessary self care and burying my head in the sand. As appealing as the latter might sound at times, I simply cannot. Racism, in all its forms, must end.

4 thoughts on “Speaking Up on Racism, but Not Out of Turn

  • June 16, 2020 at 10:03 am
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    Excellent article John, thank you.To play my small part I have decided that despite being an introvert and a mouse I will no longer allow casual racist remarks to pass without comment. People whee I live (rural, mainly white population) just assume that you’ll agree with their Daily Mail/Express formed views and I have tended to stay quiet rather than challenge. No longer – but I shall remain polite and calm and hope to educate.

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    • June 16, 2020 at 12:32 pm
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      Thanks Ali, and yes I believe that is an important part to play. There are a lot of people (not all, but many) who I think really do have good hearts but just don’t think about these issues, and many of those are ones you might be able to uniquely reach. That first step of people moving from say, 0 to 5 on this issue on a scale of 10, can be the biggest and most valuable one.

      Reply
  • June 25, 2020 at 6:40 am
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    THANK YOU John for using your digital space to speak up about these matters!! And for doing so in a very genuine and thoughtful way. It’s too easy to tell oneself that “this doesn’t involve me” – but this is not the time to be quite and we all need to do our part and I’m grateful for everyone who’s making a stand against racism and a stand for human rights! This brings hope for a better world and for a better future for the next generations.

    Reply
    • June 26, 2020 at 2:27 pm
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      Thanks very much Mia! This is something that it’s tough to find the right words for but I’m glad I gave it my best, and will continue to do so.

      Reply

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