Today marks three years since George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. At the time, for myself and many other Black people in America, Floyd’s death was a sad, unfortunate story we had all heard before. It stung, but highlighted a reality that, respectfully, I was all too familiar with.
It was a weird time for all of us. Covid lockdowns and remote work were starting to feel permanent, as were weekly Club Quarantine sets on Instagram and that weird stretch when people got really passionate about baking bread. Aside from barbershop closures, I was adjusting nicely to the new normal by hiking, becoming a plant dad, and indulging in guilt-free weekday afternoon naps. Self care had become a priority. But that was all sent into a tailspin once George Floyd became the latest hashtag, reminding me that I’d been living through a pandemic my whole life—racism—and that didn’t pause with the start of another. To my colleagues, as was the case for so many other non-Black Americans, Floyd’s death hit differently—and they were not shy about offering me condolences as awkwardly as possible.
I appreciated the efforts, sure. But I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow at how incredulous my (white) coworkers seemed about racial profiling and police brutality. I remember one Zoom meeting where a red-faced guy from another department sputtered through a rant about questioning his patriotism for the first time. I went camera-off for that call. Then there were the Slack DMs. Some offered a variation of “hope you’re well” (I wasn’t). One person dropped merely a yellow heart with no further commentary. I got a Venmo payment for $7, too, so there’s that.
I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow at how incredulous my (white) coworkers seemed about racial profiling and police brutality.
My manager and manager’s manager and manager’s manager’s manager all put time on my calendar within that first week following the tragedy. They claimed they just wanted to touch base and see how I was feeling. But within the first five minutes, it was clear they wanted to make sure I was happy, because as a reaction to Floyd’s death, so many employers suddenly felt they had to pacify their Black employees.
How my higher-ups had planned to do that, I wasn’t exactly sure. In some of those calls, my well-meaning colleagues wanted to discuss how our company could hire and retain more talent with experiences (and skin tones) that matched mine. They had ideas and plans. They wrote an open letter about doing better and posted it on the company's Instagram page—scroll back far enough and it’s still there (right next to the Blackout Tuesday square). But the urgency felt knee-jerk in a way that made me question just how long-lasting and sustainable these initiatives would be. Time proved my skepticism to be shrewd.
My company continued to grow its workforce throughout Freedom Summer and beyond, and I can’t front, quite a few of the hires were Black folks. A few were positioned in senior roles, but it seemed a whole lot more were junior or mid-level. There were employee-resource groups started and supported with small budgets. Racial sensitivity training for managers. I almost began to drink the Kool-Aid—that is, until the pandemic bubble had burst, and layoffs had seemed to cut the majority of those aforementioned hires. Summer 2021 and beyond, it seemed, was where D-E-I went to D-I-E. After all that talk of change, we’re right back where we started.
I don’t believe George Floyd died in vain. Black death, whether at the hands of racist police or civilians, will always be tragic. I mourn those deaths because with each instance—whether Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, or countless others—I understand I could meet a similar fate here in the U.S. of A. For a few weeks in 2020, I think my colleagues understood this, too. But time has a funny way of fading those sympathies, even though these tragedies continue to happen. I was reminded of this just last month.
After news broke about 16-year-old Ralph Yarl being shot in the head after going to the wrong house while looking for his sister, I told my manager I was taking a mental health day. To my manager’s credit, he didn’t probe or ask what was wrong. I’m not even sure he connected the news with the PTO request. Of course that’s not his responsibility, but if he had asked, I would’ve said I needed the time off for the same reason I did three years ago, when I was being offered so many mental health days that I began to question my standing at the company. I needed the time off because another Black life was senselessly and brutally harmed, just as many, many others have been before and since.
George Floyd was killed because a store clerk thought his $20 bill was counterfeit. Three years later, I’m still questioning whether the reckoning in my workplace and beyond was authentic.