“Do you know the fastest way to eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” A friend shared this as a metaphor for undoing racism. She was making a point that we won’t undo racism in one fell-swoop or by blowing up systems with a big kaboom.
Big and small bites make a difference, they may not feel like progress in the moment since it often feels like we’re compromising or not really getting what we want, but those bites are important when we step back and realize those small wins and bites eventually amount to larger changes.
The backstory to my friend’s comment was it was in response to a person who felt paralyzed and stifled to make racially just changes in his organization. Many in the room empathized, but we were also impatient and not in the mood to hand out pity or platitudes. Pity and platitudes aren’t going to help our babies — we wanted to hear about the bites he was making to tackle racism.
Take a Small Bite – What is your small bite?
Racial equity work can be paralyzing and tough. A few weeks ago, I spent time with several womxn of color colleagues and friends over a delicious dinner of homemade couscous and fragrant chicken cooked in a tagine. Over dinner we swapped stories, laughed, and talked. As we traded stories I noted the changes we were talking about took place over time and they happened because we were willing to take steps and small bites, building slowly but persistently to change. None of us had stories of sweeping change where we got to racial justice overnight.
During the dinner, we joked about how many of us are really good at writing letters and emails demanding change; it is the nature of our jobs and one of the ‘tools’ we use. Our ‘one-small-bite’ often starts with a “Dear [blank], I’m writing to comment on [blank].” As we chuckled about our letters writing skills, our letters work as a form of action — our one small bite. One friend shared how she wrote an email to the head of a major company detailing racism she had experienced from the company and within a half-hour of hitting send the CEO of the company called her to apologize and they talked through changes she wanted to see happen. Through that phone call, my friend asked to speak to lower-level decision makers, figuring they had more direct lines of communication with front line workers who interact with the public like her. When she spoke to the mid-level managers, she asked them questions and they brainstormed changes that will reach multiple parts of their company. All of these changes happened because she took one small bite at calling out racism. I acknowledge there was a lot of privilege that played out in being able to take that bite. My friend has safety and security in calling it out even as a poc, she’s English literate, has access to technology, can code-switch — that said she used her privileges to disrupt racism as we all should.
Another colleague shared how frustrated he was with the inactivity within his organization around racial equity. They are doing some of the low-hanging fruit such as book clubs and a few talks inviting guests to meet with the staff. I reminded him these small changes over time make a difference if they build towards bigger changes. The movement building takes persistence and being willing to be in for the long-game.
While I’ve been talking about taking small bites and saying ‘something is better than nothing,’ I’m imagining my friend Kirk sitting across from me at a lunch table giving me his stare down and telling me this approach is wrong. One of the many reasons I enjoy Kirk, he keeps it real or as he says “100.”
Many times we don’t have time to wait for incremental change. Babies can’t wait for adults to stop tripping over ourselves tinkering with little changes in the hopes they snowball into complete overhauls. Kirk constantly reminds me Black and Brown people have been waiting for generations for change to come. There are times to be bold and to go for broke – borrowing the motto of the 442nd Japanese American WWII infantry.
We can lead for bigger changes by putting in our work and being willing to put ourselves and sometimes our bodies on the line. Big changes take investments of time, talent, and resources. It takes having sharp analysis and marshaling the tools that we have in a coordinated way. Pressure from multiple directions is faster and more impactful than waiting for policy change. Movements such as Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter, and #MeToo are examples of how big bites resulted in large scale awareness and change.
Do the Work
Do something, sitting on the side and watching others take the lead isn’t going to change things. The more you practice and ‘do’ things the easier it gets and the more you can do it well. Here is a short list of things to consider doing:
- Disrupt racism – if you hear something ask a question to probe why the speaker feels that way, lead them to your belief.
- Develop deeper analysis – all the data in the world is meaningless to disrupting racism if the analysis of it is missing or poorly done. Develop a deeper analysis of race and social justice issues by surrounding yourself with people who can push your thinking. Share your thinking with others as a way to lead for change.
- Thank someone and yourself – I’ve been thinking more about gratitude and how acts of thankfulness need to be embedded into our long-term work. Saying thank you to our elders who laid down their bodies for us, saying thank you to people who share their stories, and saying thank you to ourselves for being in the physical and emotional spaces to do something hard are important to remembering and staying focused. Thank you to all of you for devoting time to thinking about race and its impact on our lives.
For more suggestions about actions to take check out the 2019 Fakequity Pledge. As I write this it is Persian Iranian New Year, Nowruz (21 March 2019), so a perfect time to renew your new year’s resolutions and pledge to do something.
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