I was in elementary school when I realized how much my life would be defined by the color of my skin. The math teacher was introducing us to the concept of probability. At the start of class, she wrote four numbers on the board. She asked us to guess what they represented – none of us had any idea. They were, she explained, life expectancies – those of a white woman, a white man, a Black woman, and a Black man, in descending order.
A hush went over the room. I was uncomfortably aware that I was the only Black student. I still recall the furtive looks my classmates gave me as they whispered to each other … “Why is Sarah going to die earlier?” I felt a wave of confusion. All I was able to process was that something – something I did not understand – was fundamentally flawed in me simply because I had more melanin in my skin … and that my life would be shorter … lesser … because of it.
It was later that I would learn the numbers I was shown that day are the inevitable result of systematic race-based discrimination and oppression; a product of a decision by some to debase, control and exploit others for power and economic gain … a dark practice that is an undeniable part of our human history … and, as the horrifying events of 2020 viscerally showed, a practice that is alive and well to this day.
Even with this backdrop, my belief is stronger than ever that we can and will change the dynamics that threaten, shorten and plague the lives of Black people and people of other racial and ethnic backgrounds. While the losses of this past year are incalculable, it was a year that also brought an awakening – an enhanced understanding that we are all humans; a growing recognition that overt racism, systemic discrimination and unconscious bias are omnipresent, must be dealt with head on and cannot be relegated to “the past.” We also see a widening conviction that change must, and will only, come from our actions, our words, our vigilance and our deeds.
Glimmers of change are all around us: people of every race, origin and color coming together to advocate for equal rights. Leaders, not just Black leaders, but leaders of every type and station, from individuals to institutions taking action to eradicate race-based inequality. And individuals, neighbors, allies, friends and strangers stepping forward and deciding to be part of the change. We are making Black history … human history … now.
This year I come into Black History Month with hope, joy and conviction: Hope that comes from witnessing the progress we have made, joy that comes from the belief that we are at an inflection point and conviction that comes from knowing we are writing a better future, with the learnings of history as our guide.
As I think about the limitless possibilities in front of us, my thoughts turn to the elementary school children of today, and the importance of enacting change becomes even more clear. Let us not be afraid or intimidated, and let us stand up for what is right. Let us build on this moment and continue to advocate for equality for all.
Let us intentionally create a more inclusive world where no child is defined by their color. Because when we do that, we build a better future for everyone.