In 2021, the United Nations (UN) declared August 31 the “International Day for People of African Descent.” As noted on its website, this new annual observance “aims to promote the extraordinary contributions of the African diaspora around the world and to eliminate all forms of discrimination against people of African descent.”
In the spirit of the day, we’ve asked the co-leads of the Zebras of African Descent (ZAD) inclusion network to reflect on both the accomplishments and challenges faced by people of African descent in the tech industry and global society. Here’s what Tamiko Nelson and John Stallworth had to say:
Laura: There are several days that observe key milestones in Black history and modern-day progress, including Juneteenth and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the U.S. Yet, this may be the first global observance of both the influence and inequity of the African diaspora on daily basis. What types of emotions does a day like this invoke for you?
Tamiko: The day stirs mixed emotions. Recognizing and observing people of African descent is a good start, and it’s great progress to have a day to globally recognize people of African descent. However, globally, the full contributions need to be accurately and completely captured when teaching history.
John: Recognition is always a positive thing in my mind. Too often, I’ve heard ignorance or deniability about inequalities. It still feels like there is so much education needed to expose the world to Black people’s contributions to history. People need to be educated and perhaps reeducated about events in history.
Laura: Do you feel the day calls for more celebration of the positive impacts that African descendants have had on local communities and global society? Or should the day be spent engaging in more conversations around the societal biases that still limit how much recognition is given to people due to race or heritage?
Tamiko: The day should be a celebration and a time to educate and uncover the truths hidden for centuries. My hope would be for the day to be recognized globally with the same caliber as New Year’s Day, the full history to be rehearsed from generation to generation like the Passover and, ultimately, for people to continually correct the rippling systematic effects of the diaspora.
John: Celebrations are generally positive but tend to be transient; the day passes and nothing new. If the celebrations spark more conversation, to inspire change, to me, that would be the best of both worlds.
Laura: Interestingly, the UN has declared 2015-2024 the International Decade for People of African Descent “to celebrate the important contributions of people of African descent worldwide, advance social justice and inclusion policies, eradicate racism and intolerance, promote human rights, and assist in creating better, more prosperous communities, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals.” Do you feel progress has been made in each of these areas the past seven years?
Tamiko: The bigger question is, “How can we measure progress when social injustice is still common in many parts of the world?”
John: It is hard to answer with “yes” here. I feel more visibility has come to light about injustices, mostly because of the availability of video recordings. In fact, the previous political landscape of leadership here in the U.S. enabled and exposed so much hidden racism and many injustices that are still happening. I am not sure the full scope of what is needed is covered by the UN’s declaration. How are the past injustices and the effects reconciled?
Laura: Reflecting on the current state of the world, what measures do you think should be used by governments or even private sector entities to benchmark progress toward equality moving forward? How do we know if efforts are effective?
Tamiko: Government needs equal representations. Sadly, some politicians represent people and communities they are not familiar with. Actions speak louder than words. Government leaders need to take action to provide equal safety and support in their communities.
John: When the social and financial communities of people of African descent are comparable to other races, we can say progress is being made.
Laura: As global co-leads of ZAD, you’re privy to many perspectives on systemic racism and inequality. You also hear many personal stories from people who have either witnessed or been victims of discrimination. In your opinion, what can the average individual do to help others see and overcome inherent racial biases?
Tamiko: Martin Luther King said, “An injustice to one is an injustice to all.” Do not ignore racism biases or pretend they do not exist. Even if racism is not a personal experience, acknowledge that it is happening and impacts everyone. Racism should be destroyed like a weed, from the roots, so it does not spread.
John: It has to be intentional. One of my favorite sayings is: “I am not racist, but more, I am against racism.” This is a more active role. If you want to understand, you have to be willing to ask questions of people who will give you a genuine answer.
Laura: In the spirit of celebration, are there certain people of African descent – either at Zebra, in the tech industry or perhaps within society at large – who you think deserve more credit for what they do every day? Perhaps people not as well known for their altruistic acts, clever ideas, or relentless advocacy as they should be?
Tamiko:This day is all about giving credit to those overlooked. I think we should support and acknowledge mothers and fathers raising children to accomplish what our ancestors could not dream of.
John: I do not focus so much on the popular names of folks seen in the news or big social media platforms. I am most proud of the mom, dads, and young members of people of African descent who strive each day to make a difference to their families and communities by providing resources and example from what they do every day.
Laura: Are there certain initiatives that you are working on with ZAD members and allies to help ensure the (often untold) stories of people of African descent are shared with the world?
Tamiko: We continue to have brave and courageous conversations openly. We create a safe space to speak freely about issues and events in the news. We want people to know it’s ok to talk about “it” because together we can make a difference.
John: We continue to provide forums for conversations to help educate ZAD members, allies, and others about the need for change. The hope is to provide a safe environment for folks to voice their views with an open mind to learn something that will make a difference to move the injustice and social scales toward equality.
Laura: We talk a lot about the struggles of people of African descent. But do you feel emphasizing the successes – spotlighting their humanity, creativity, and virtuosity – would do more to move the needle toward equality?
Tamiko: We need to hear the whole story so we can understand the true success. A butterfly is beautiful and majestic. A part of the beauty of a butterfly is the transformation and breaking out of the old to become something new. If it was born a butterfly, what would we celebrate? We’d celebrate the struggle to become and then the ability to soar. Many have a butterfly story, and we should consider all of it.
John: I do not think you can have one without the other. I agree that the world NEEDS to hear the positive impacts of Black people, but without the other part of the story – “injustice” – then the obvious question cannot be answered: “Why do we still see so much social and financial inequality?” Both stories must be told!
Laura: What can we each do to ensure people of African descent are accepted and their contributions celebrated, no matter where they live in the world or what their contributions may be?
Tamiko: We take a lot for granted. When you use everyday items, stop and ask, “Who made this? How did I get this?” Learn the true creators and inventors. Recognize them, remember them and rehearse it.
John: There is a need to continue to engage and promote conversations. Your ideas and allyship are needed to champion the move of the needle toward equality. Do not just focus on the current injustices but try to understand and help to correct past injustices. Be more than a bystander. Be an ally, mentor or sponsor. Try to ask the question: “If I were someone of African descent, how would this look to me?”
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