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The Power Of Touch & The Black Brute Narrative In The Workplace With Aaron Johnson

What is holistic resistance? How can we practice it to break historical narratives and challenge oppression in the workplace?

In Episode 131, Aaron Johnson, Professional Speaker at The CUT, joins Melinda in an honest conversation on the power of touch and the Black brute narrative in the workplace. They explore holistic resistance as a response to the profound impact of the Black brute narrative on African heritage men. They discuss ways this narrative shows up in the workplace, including through a lack of safe space where Black men can be vulnerable, set boundaries, and protect themselves when those boundaries are violated. They also discuss the relationship between White women and Black men and how each of us can advocate for anti-racism in the fight against oppression.

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If you ever see an African heritage grown man in a semi-professional or professional environment, begin to weep or feel, everyone kind of freezes. Like, what is happening? But oftentimes, when you have a White woman, or a woman, or a person that fits outside of the Black brute narrative, begins to weep, oftentimes people don’t even mind…. We don’t have a lot of models of how to hold this Black male that has some big emotions in a space…. But how does it impact the workplace? Well…, I always say, how does it ever impact the human being to not be able to be a complete human being in an environment? It smothers everything. It has some impact on… my ability to communicate…, to give feedback thoughtfully…, to receive feedback.
Guest Speaker

Aaron Johnson

Professional Speaker at The CUT

My name is Aaron, and what lights me up right now is cultivating environments that allow black-bodied people to show up as their full tender selves. One of my goals is for black folks to be in spaces where connection to each other and the earth is accessible. One of the ways I am currently cultivating healing is my Chronically UnderTouched Project, where I support black men who have not had mindful, thoughtful platonic touch in creating their own holistic touch practices and care plan.

Learn more about the host and creator of Leading With Empathy & Allyship, Melinda Briana Epler.


MELINDA: Welcome to Leading With Empathy & Allyship. I’m Melinda Briana Epler, Founder and CEO of Empovia, formally Change Catalyst. I’m also the author of How to Be an Ally, and your host for this show. 


What is allyship? Allyship is empathy in action. We learn what people are uniquely experiencing, we show empathy for their experience, and we take action. As a part of that process, we learn and unlearn and relearn. We work to avoid unintentionally harming people with our words and actions. We advocate for people, and we lead the change on our teams, in our organizations, and across our communities. 


In this episode, you’ll learn tangible actionable steps that you can take to lead the change to be a more inclusive leader, no matter what your role is. Want to learn more? Visit Empovia.co to check out more of my work. 


All right, let’s get started. 


Our guest today is Aaron Johnson, Professional Speaker at The CUT, which he will share more about momentarily. In this episode, we’ll be talking about how we can be more anti-racist. Anti-racism is multifaceted, and part of that work includes understanding the ways that intergenerational trauma and historical power structures impact the ways that Black people are perceived and treated in our workplaces today. We’ll discuss particularly Black men today. We’ll discuss how a Black brute narrative, being chronically under-touched, and a lack of space to be vulnerable, can lead to inequity and harm in our workplaces. Of course, we’ll talk about healing and allyship as well. 


Welcome, Aaron! I can’t wait to have this conversation together.


AARON: It’s an honor to be here with you. Thank you for inviting me.


MELINDA: Yeah. Aaron, could you start by sharing a bit about your own story of where you grew up, and how you ended up getting to do the work that you do today?


AARON: I would love to. I grew up in Phelan, California. In Southern California, it’s the High Desert, a very small town. Both my parents were pastors; my father has passed on. I started out mentoring young African heritage men in school. My first couple of mentees were just trying to graduate from middle school trying to make it into high school. That was our goal. I had no idea I was starting on a journey to mentor them for the next 15 years, and to see them all the way into their adulthood, and to prepare them to take on oppression. So for me, my goal was like, can we get you to pass a class: English, math, science, and so forth? Can we get you to graduate eighth grade? That evolved over the years to like, can we keep you alive, can we keep you out of the systems that are coming for you? So for me, that mentorship program was called Turn It Up Now. The idea behind that program was, we didn’t want to call young people by the thing they were accused of, or maybe something they did that was bad. So these are the bad kids, they’re all thieves. We don’t name them by what they’re accused of, or what they’re navigating in the distress. We started naming them by what the gifts were. So if a child maybe had stolen and gotten caught, and that’s how got them into my mentorship program, we don’t call them a thief or a bad kid. We started saying: “Oh, you’re an artist, so what did you do?” Looking at their good. That’s it, that’s who you are! So we started turning up all those good things. 


Well, what I found myself doing is, in the hallways, talking to principals, probation officers, teachers. I found myself doing these little micro-workshops, trying to bring the equity on behalf of my mentee, that was oftentimes an African heritage young man. In some cases, it was successful. In other cases, it was less. But I found myself consulting with organizations on behalf of my student, building program to deliver resistance on behalf of my mentees, I should say. 


I remember the moment when an organization in a school district invited me to run a one-day workshop, and I realized I had been doing that for years already. When I asked what they needed, I realized that I have not been paid for it because my focus was simply to support my mentees’ survival and thrival in their work. In this context, they were asking me to think about an entire district, an entire department. I was like: Oh, it feels overwhelming on paper. But when I actually go into the room, this feels old, this feels familiar. So in so many ways, Holistic Resistance was born out of the mentorship program. That first job that I got and was actually paid to consult and paid to facilitate and paid to do some mediation between folks in that room, that was three different jobs. At the time, I didn’t have clear separation. But I was doing all that in that workshop; I was doing some mediation, I was doing some consulting, I was workshopping on race. But it planted a seed in my mind of: Oh, I can do this every week, this is important. I can not only help just five students, I could influence an entire district, and have much more impact on behalf of the same population and others as well. 


So that was a birthing place of Holistic Resistance. I eventually stopped mentoring. I shouldn’t say stopped mentoring, absorbed into Holistic Resistance with more resources and focus. So in so many words, there was one university consultant situation we were in that we looked at the phrase: we holistically resist. We are holistically oppressed, let us holistically resist. That was a response to one of my mentees in their distress going: Ah, we’re holistically oppressed! And I remember responding just out of conversation, we have to holistically resist! And we both just froze and said, write that down, write it down, write it down. In so many ways, in that little Corolla Toyota, Holistic Resistance was born. But had several years ago before it became an actual organization and started engaging the world, had a website, all the things that help us sharpen what we’re actually doing. That was the birthplace.


MELINDA: Yeah, thank you for sharing that. Can you share just what do you mean by Holistic Resistance, what is that? Then, if you could also share a bit about what your work is like now?


AARON: Yeah. Well, Holistic Resistance, from that conversation, we started just writing about it. We realized that even in ourselves, we had this separation of like: March on the street, that’s protesting. But when I mentor someone, that’s something different. Then when I eat food, I grow food in my garden and I feed myself food and nutrition, take some power over having access to my own food, that that was somehow separate. We were like: No, these are all dismantling oppression. So as I get into my body and get access to health and move myself across the earth, through exercise and eating good food, that’s part of resistance. That’s making me less likely have to rely on a medical system that may not be able to track my Black body well, that’s a part of resistance. If I actually am able to go mentor someone, that is resistance. If I’m a parent and I’m parenting a child that White, Black, and all the colors in between, that by giving that education to that child so they grow up with some awareness around race and dismantle, that is dismantling oppression. So as parents, you’re shaping the world. I have such deep love for parents, I have an investment in parents. This is marching in your Librium. So we say in Holistic Resistance, we just need to make ourselves aware that as oppression will come for us, we want to be efficient in how we respond to it; we don’t respond in pieces. 


I remember my mother told me, my mother used to pick cotton in Bakersfield as a young lady, maybe middle school to high school, and she would talk about how her father would teach you how to pick cotton’s before machines did it. She would pick cotton at the bottom of the stock, go up to the top. Instead of bending down and starting at the bottom again, they would just go right over to the left and go straight back down. They didn’t want to waste time just bending, that extra effort of bending down. They’re starting at the top, going straight from the top and going straight down. That efficiency, however small that movement was, when you picked all day, that movement of saving the efficiency was going to make a difference of how they would receive enough nourishment for their family of money. 


So I’d say resistance is the same way, is that we’re picking, we’re picking, we’re not going to waste any movement. We’re going to slap oppression one way, and we’re not going to require, we’re going to go back the other direction. We efficiently slap both ways, resist both ways. So we make sure we’re looking at double ways to dismantle systems, however small it is. Holistic Resistance says, let’s be efficient and collective. That’s how oppression is coming against us, let’s respond the same way. So that’s the nature of Holistic Resistance. 


It’s sometimes confusing for folks. Because we have natural building on our website, and we have singing on our website, and we have consulting. Like, why is natural building, consulting, singing on the website, how is that possible? And you’re talking about touch now, why is touch holistic? Existence. When we see it, we name it. We add it to the pot, we don’t separate it. So we do have obviously focuses, but we realize they all lean on each other. Caring for the environment, caring for our bodies, caring for each other in touch, these are all connected pieces. 


So right now, I’ll simply say that we are in a pretty deep investment in consulting and working with organizations, school districts, small businesses. Also, we’re committed to make some of the most tender, no pun intended, and most radical work of slowing down. Ideas like, where is tender touch for Black cis men with other Black cis men? Not that we’re not tracking all the other comprehensive parts of the touch. But it’s tracking: Oh my goodness, because of the birth of the Black brute in this country post-slavery, going into the Jim Crow era, that there’s a way in which the Black brute narrative has been under-interrogated, under-dismantled over the last 100 years or so. So we’re just taking on this very focused effort to bring that awareness into, not just our instillation into what we’re doing in the workshops, but into organizations, school districts, corporations, to rethink about how the Black brute narrative is still living. Not named maybe as a Black brute, but still living in their organization, and how we can see it, notice it, and reevaluate how we hold Black bodies, skillfully, and particularly Black men bodies in this context.


MELINDA: So let’s go into that a bit. Can you share a bit about what the Black brute narrative is, and in overall the perception of Black men’s bodies in the workplace and how that impacts Black men?


AARON: Yes. Black brute is seen every day, but it’s not necessarily named. So we see it every day, but it’s not necessarily named. So sometimes we spend a lot of energy just allowing people to actually know what they’re looking at. So the Black brute was a fictitious creation of a story about the Black male body, to justify terrorizing, murder, and particularly the lynching of the Black body. We couldn’t just go in there and grab someone that was innocent, even back post-slavery, and just snatch them up and kill them. There was some kind of moral compass in America’s culture. We had to create a story to do the illegal act. Then one thing that was done is, as much as the mob would go into a space and take on some of the newspaper, the written word was equally responsible as spreading a fictitious narrative. Oftentimes, the photographs that we see are just copies of postcards and articles that were documented for that very purpose, to perpetuate a fake narrative. 


Now, the quick definition of the Black brute is a large, strong, Black male body, that is physically strong, intellectually and emotionally not developed or complex. So things like fears and tenderness are nowhere near them, and that they also have impulse control specifically towards White women. That the only way to control them is White men have to come and terrorize and to kill them, and lynching was that mob mentality story. There’s many horrific narratives here. But the Tulsa Oklahoma massacre is a famous one, that an attempted lynching turn into a massacre because of the resistance from the African heritage folks that were there. So unfortunately, many parts of history have not been covered skillfully on that. But there’s a theme there, and what the heartbreak is that these images and thinking are eerily still intact, and have woven themselves into our modern day culture. That’s where we are inviting folks to slow down and try and notice. So that’s kind of the definition small lineage of it, and how we’re invested in the Chronically UnderTouched Project, to highlight what it means to put light on it, and to build community thinking about it and not just drop into shame, which can happen when this topic comes up.


MELINDA: How does that play out in the workplace? How does that historical perception continue to this day? How does that seep into the workplace in the ways that we interact with one another?


AARON: Well, there’s many ways it shows up, but I’m just going to bring up some that I’ve dealt with more recently. One of the first things I find is that when we look at African heritage men in the workplace, and we’ll use corporate as a big umbrella, and that can actually extend into other places of work. But I’ll say what comes up the most is that most African heritage men that I work with are taught to have to shrink themselves to fit into some version of the Black brutes, or they have to overcompensate and be as far away from their strong, energetic self, with a risk of being accused of being a Black brute. It also, unfortunately, smothers their ability to raise their hand when, specifically White women, but also White men, reach out and violate their boundaries, violate their bodies. Even casual or some might say microaggression ways, which I wouldn’t even qualify as a microaggression. But because that language is accessible to folks’ mind, in these ways, it’s harder for us to raise our hand and go: this feels like a violation to my body, this feels like you’re tracking me differently than others. By raising my hand, there’s a way that I have to do it in a certain kind of way. Because if I don’t pin to that narrative of the Black brutes, I can get sucked into being accused of being overly aggressive, overly threatening. 


Then there’s a way which I can also go on another kind of hurt here is where I get fetishized, where the leadership or the organization can optimize fetishize my Black male body-ness. But when I raise my hand and feel violated, they look at me like what’s wrong with you? That feeling of missing me could happen when the fetishization becomes normalized in the space, when it’s like I’ve only seen, if a cultural or workplace has not done any interrogation, oftentimes the default is destructive nature from the Black male body and how they approach. He’s tough enough, he’s fine, why is he crying? He can’t lead, he’s too tender. These are ways in which we find organizations having a hard time noticing how much they have unconscious belief structures still intact, that when he shows up tender, when leadership shows up tenderly, it feels weird on our bodies. It’s like, I don’t know if he’s a good leader. Because that kind of tenderness in the Black male body, that should not ever happen. I know this can be a male challenge, but we found it leaning even heavier on Black male bodies in our experience of the amount of tender comprehensive. Even though that’s oftentimes asked for, when it actually is showing up is shocking to the system. 


So we find that those are common places in the workplace that I have wrestled with, and consulted with, and just recently have been very successful in slowing down, allowing people to allow leadership, typically Black male leadership, to be tender, and also respected. To look at not making tenderness and weakness and mental collapse being somehow connected. That you can be tender, and be as stable and as clear about what’s happening. You can also feel the magnitude of the situation. So Black male tears in the workplace are not terrifying and confusing, they’re just as, I shouldn’t say just as, the desires may be as balanced as White women tears of White male tears. But White women tears, kind of that narrative of where we find this big disparity of how much emote is available for the Black male body. Not just tears, but just thoughtful, tender interactions can be confusing for the Black male body in a lot of standard corporate places.


MELINDA: Yeah, there was a lot in what you just said. The two main pieces, I think what I heard is, in the interactions, there can be an unauthorized touch, and an imbalance in what you can say or do about it for a Black man in the workplace. That was one piece of it. The other piece was vulnerability, and that safe space to be vulnerable; not even a safe space, a space to be able to have a wide range of different emotions and interactions in the workplace. 


I want to just give an example for folks who may be thinking, well, in the touch side, are we talking about harassment, are we talking about sexual harassment? Yes, maybe. Yes, and I’ll share a few examples. As a White woman married to a Black man, conversations we’ve had have been remarkably revealing for me. When it comes to even just sitting down in a restaurant, servers touch Wayne way more than they touch me way more. It’s generally White women, and I think that it’s some kind of a signal that I’m okay with you. But I’m okay with you, but if I actually have to touch you to say that, then there’s something maybe I’m not okay with internally. There’s a lot more to it, and also, there’s a power. It’s literally a power grab when you’re touching somebody without permission; there’s a power differential that’s happening. The same thing happens, not just in restaurants, not just with servers, but also when we’re interacting at parties, when we’re interacting at conferences, when people shake his hand and hold it. What are you doing right there? You’re literally holding somebody’s hand, and they’re not allowed to take it away. There’s a power dynamic that’s happening there. So just sharing examples there of how it can seem small and slight, but then that could fundamentally change how somebody shows up in that space. 


Then in terms of the vulnerability, maybe we could go a little bit deeper into that too, and that it feels like a paradox. Because you need vulnerability, you need to be able to be vulnerable in the workplace in order to be a more effective leader. In order to create the trust with your colleagues, you need to share some vulnerability. Vulnerability and authenticity is correlated with trust. It’s correlated with creating psychologically safe spaces for people to be innovative, to be creative, to thrive in the workplace.


So maybe you could share a bit more about how this narrative changes the ability for Black men? I hear you’re saying African heritage a lot, and I want to talk about that a little bit, too is what that means for you. But could you share a bit more about how this can impact men as they go through their daily just workplace work, and also careers?


AARON: I think there’s a couple of things. Now let’s get a couple of words I might be using throughout this podcast and the show, that might not be as familiar to your audience. So I just want to define them really quickly, then I’ll go into answering your question. I oftentimes use African heritage, not because Black men is bad. I just find that it’s a more accurate description in describing my lineage. Oftentimes, it’s hard to say African-American, when America has done a whole lot to obliterate, control, and extract from my body. So to identify as African-American is harder for me. Not a problem if you identify as African-American, but I find it myself that my heritage is what I want to focus on, because America is still struggling about how to actually accept my presence here. We’re growing, but the increments are forward and backwards still. 


The piece around tenderness and the workplace, I want to also to step back a little bit and name that. It doesn’t start at the first day of work. That the shaping of the emotional profile of African heritage man starts almost before he was born, and depending on what home he comes out of. But oftentimes, when he gets into school, there’s a lack of space given. As soon as they start to develop, 10, 11, 12, there’s a lack of space given that’s heavier on Black male bodies, musically, cinematically, athletics-wise, when you’re tracking. I share this a lot by using this example, because when I was a young man, Mike Tyson and Michael Jordan were the two most popular Black male bodies on the planet at the time. I don’t know if there’s anyone else that could have paralleled the amount of fame. We didn’t even have a TV in our house, and we knew who Michael Jordan and Mike Tyson were. 


I remember just recently, someone sent me a video of an interview with Mike Tyson sharing that he would cry before every fight. He would cry before every fight! Whoever was interviewing him said, so why would you cry before every fight? He said, because I didn’t like the person that I was becoming. Now, for me to see Iron Mike crying would’ve blew my mind. But like I said before, that the shaping of the corporate executive manager did not start on the first day of work. It starts with him not seeing that footage of any footage of the emotions. That’s just one example, but it’s one we all can grab. If you ever grew up and you’re my age bracket, and you knew Michael Tyson in his heyday, think about how that would hit your nervous system to see him win or lose a combat and begin to weep, or weep before, and how that would shape what’s possible for you. If Iron Mike can do that, what’s possible for me as a young Black man? We are hugely influenced at 11 or 12 years old; we’re trying to become, we’re trying to understand and become. So as we’re deciding that, we’re constantly looking for makers, in our family and outside our family. 


So by the time we get to college, still, the dominant presentation of Black male bodies are athletes. And what we know about athletes is, every time one does show tenderness or hug each other, there’s almost a national story; there’s an article, there’s a discussion, they’ve got to analyze the behavior. These two brothers are hugging each other in the dugout, it’s the article, you can find it too, I don’t know if it was the New York Yankees or what team it was. But they were in the dugout, and I think his mom passed away, he found out, and one of his teammates grabs him and just holds him, like a human being would, should, can. And people are like, what’s happening? Let’s play this, it’s a thing. It’s a thing because it’s not supposed to be actually seen, because it’s stepping outside of the modern day Black brute narrative.


So by the time you show up to work or to your interview, this is already in the air. It’s already potentially in yourself. Oftentimes, most organizations don’t even track this; they just absorb what the overt culture is. You get hired in, and you start to work really hard, and you start getting leadership positions. Maybe you get a couple of other Black men under you, some White people under you, and it’s time for you to actually have some complex conversations with people. Maybe your job is like a doctor, where you have to have emotions, because people have lives on the line, after or before. Maybe your job is in a place where you’re in a foster care system, where you are supporting young people that have all kinds of challenges. There’s a job that has that level of responsibility, and your expectation as a Black male is to be cold, to be just doing your task at hand. That’s the unconscious. No one might say: Hey, don’t feel. But the idea oftentimes is, when you start to feel, when you start to have complex emotions, almost everyone doesn’t know how to hold you. 


If you ever see an African heritage grown man in a semi-professional or professional environment, begin to weep or feel, everyone kind of freezes. Like, what is happening? But oftentimes, when you have a White woman, or a woman, or a person that fits outside of the Black brute narrative, begins to weep, oftentimes people don’t even mind. Hey, do you need a hug, how do we hold you? I just might even reach over that I’m coming for you. They have a model; we’ve seen how to reach for folks in that way. But we don’t have a lot of models of how to hold this Black male that has some big emotions in a space. Now people have done it skillfully in the world that I’ve lived in here and there. But we look at the mainstream culture, what is our natural protocol? It’s just a freeze and look, they’ll be all right. Hopefully, he’s all right. Because we have no idea if it’s going to turn into rage, or if it’s going to turn into something else, because that’s in the Black brute narrative of him to be tender. Just to be tender, and sit there to tenderness, is confusing. That’s how we know it shows up. 


But how does it impact the workplace? Well, to me, I always say, how does it ever impact the human being to not be able to be a complete human being in an environment? It smothers everything. It has some impact on everything. It has an impact on my ability to communicate. It impacts my ability to give feedback thoughtfully. It impacts my ability to receive feedback. If I have a person who has a complex and full emotional experience, when I give them feedback and they give me feedback, if I’m cold, I’m shut down, I am a task-driven soldier-like focus, even if I’m just in an office that has nothing to do with being a soldier, to give that person feedback, be vulnerable in my mistakes, to ask for help, that all becomes more limited. Then the critique and the review is like, well, you can be more productive, they aren’t communicating. That’s true. But the tender part is, if I’m trying to be all those things, and also smother a part of myself, that is an emotional calorie burn, that I have to hold oftentimes in business-like environments. 


So I’m going to breathe here. But that’s one of the places I’ve seen this come up again, and again, and again, is what does it actually mean to allow the whole human being to arrive? Most corporate offices don’t realize they’re seeing 20% of their actual act African heritage man in the room.


MELINDA: So much in what you just said. One of the things I want to add to it, or expand, is I have learned that there is a stigma in a lot of Black communities around mental health and mental health services, and also physical health services. There’s so much within that, and so many reasons why, that lead back to the historical context of oppression that you’ve mentioned, for sure, and the systemic inequities within the medical system where Black people in general, and especially Black men. Well, Black women are also dismissed because of their pain, much more frequently than White people. So it goes hand in hand. The same when we’re talking about mental health services is, there is a stigma within the community, Black men in particular, and there’s also not being able to be vulnerable in the workplace that is pushing back. So there’s a cultural context and an inner context, and then also the structural contexts and the cultural context pushing outward as well, and pushing inward as well. So that you can’t talk about mental health issues within the workplace, mental illness within the workplace, without tipping that scale, tipping that narrative, pushing against that narrative of the Black brute, as you say. As a result, people saying, what’s going to happen to this Black man that has an illness, a mental illness? I think that is really something that we need to investigate within our workplaces, we need to investigate within our work cultures, we need to investigate within ourselves, all of us, in how we navigate that mental health and physical health for Black men. 


Then the other piece I want to add here is that it’s such a tight rope that you’re talking about, where you have this narrative, and you also have the stereotype threat that might be coming your way. That the Black man might not want to play into the stereotype of being the Black brute, for example. A stereotype threat is where people feel at risk, reinforcing stereotypes about people like them, for those of you listening who don’t know that. So you have that stereotype threat, which may change how you interact even in a Slack message, how you interact with a colleague, whether or not you want to push back on any kind of feedback. Because there’s that stereotype of Black men being aggressive. 


So those are the things that popped into my mind as you were talking, about the little ways, the little examples, or big examples of how that can impact people’s lives, health, and then also workplace relationships. 


AARON: Correct, 100%. 


MELINDA: The code-switching, too, is another one, where somebody might feel the need to be somebody different, change their language, change their personality, change their style, and etc., to conform to the culture at work, the White culture at work. That’s part of only the 20% that you’re talking about, is that not having that safe space to be or your authentic self. Lots of research shows that when that happens, it’s cognitive work that you’re daily dealing with, in addition to your work load. And when you’re not able to be authentic in the workplace, you’re not allowing that person to fully thrive in the workplace, you’re not allowing them to be fully innovative, you’re not allowing them to grow. 


AARON: That’s true, yes. 


MELINDA: Well, let’s talk about solutions here. You mentioned a bit about the relationship between White women and Black men, too, and maybe we could talk about that a bit. Because I do think that’s part of the solution is really understanding the historical context, as a White woman navigating and working to be a better ally, things that you are important to think about. The historical context being as an example, I’m thinking about Emmett Till in 1955, who, at the age of 14, was accused by Carolyn Bryant, of offending her in a grocery store. Then he was abducted, tortured, and lynched. That kind of historical context comes into play in the same way when Amy Cooper held power over Christian Cooper in Central Park, and that hurt people; people who feel less power exert power over others with less power. That where White women have been struggling for power in systems that aren’t designed for them, that designed for White men generally, in these cases, aggressively exerting power over Black men, that perception, or that historical context continues to play out in the workplace. 


Way back in Episode 8, Michael Thomas, when we were talking about intergenerational trauma, Michael Thomas said something that still sticks with me, which is: allies do your own work. What he meant was that if you’re not doing the healing of your own trauma and oppression, and if you’re not actively working to build an understanding of this systemic oppression and the systems, we’re talking about really showing up as a good ally, you may end up harming others in the same way that you’ve been harmed, or similar ways. So allyship can also be harmful if you’re thinking of that power differential and it’s coming out of pity or sympathy, rather than real genuine deep empathy and compassion for another person. If you’re seeing it as somebody who’s less than and you’re helping them to get more than, rather than doing it because it’s the right thing, and doing it in a way that you fully, deeply understand what would be helpful for that person, what they’re experiencing, and what they want from an ally. So that’s one piece of it, I think, in terms of solutions, is that act of allyship. Maybe, could you share a bit of how you see allyship, and where you see that ability for people to advocate and create change in the workplace?


AARON: Totally. I think one of the first things I see often, and I’ve seen this happen a lot over the last several years, is they underestimate the pace of change; the pace of what it means to actually interrupt oppression in their workspace, in their communities, and in their families, and in themselves. I say that because we live in a culture where thing it’s a speed, and what might it feel like to fix 100 years’ worth of oppression in a couple of months or a week in March, that feels very attractive. It’s also a place that, and we just want to slow down, particularly White women in this context, is this a profound opportunity, because oftentimes White women are used as the pawn. Even if they don’t want to be used, they’re oftentimes used by White men to justify a behavior and excuse to wield power over. In this modern era, we’ve seen plenty of footage of White women who have joined the problem of wielding their power, their words, their fear, their terror, to activate the White male system, either be another White male in an officer outfit or another White male in proximity to activate that. In some cases, when it’s documented, it’s reversed on them, we’ve named a couple of those situations. 


But one other thing I want to mention, is that what I find to be more of a challenge, and this can be White women and White people as a whole, as it builds some responsibility about what it means to drop into allyship and working in dismantling oppression, is to really understand the pace is probably too quick. If you’re actually tracking CNN, or ABC, or any of the major media, this is way too fast to actually achieve our ultimate goal. So I think what happens is people get really excited, they burn themselves out probably in about three months. I say that because there’s a way in which White folks and White women always have the exit button they can press. They hit that button and say, I’m going to take a break, and that break might be until the next election cycle, it might be till next person dies slowly on camera. I get to take a break. “I’ve already given X amount of dollars, and I marched for at least three days this week, I’m now going to take a break. I will attend to myself.” I think it’s important to tend to oneself, I’m not encouraging folks to exhaust themselves. But what I’m encouraging to understand is that what we’re actually up against is not a flashpoint oppression experience. Oppression doesn’t show up when the media is excited and it goes away when they stop covering it. It is a constant pressure that needs constant resistance. So I think there’s a way, and I’ve always asked this question, is what shoes are we putting on? We’re putting on sprinting shoes, or marathon shoes here? Because this is a marathon. 


And what I’m sensing oftentimes is I get emails. But sometimes my emails, I want to hear the person breathing. “Holistic Resistance, we’ve been invited to notice racism on some level in our organization, and we need help. This weekend, can you help us as soon as possible? They’re urgent. The internet’s attacking us, whatever has happened, it’s urgent.” Oftentimes, included that request is, can you help us write an equity statement to put on our website, so that we can let people know the how invested we are in anti-racism? Oftentimes, they’ll say, well, how long, how fast can we put the equity statement up? I say, it will probably take about 12 months. They kind of pause and say, we’ll call you back. 80% of the time, they don’t call us back. Because 12 months was like a ridiculous amount of time to write an equity statement out. The reason I say that is because when I think of White women and how they’re showing up, or however it is they’re showing up, is oftentimes too fast. Slow it down, and really settle yourself into a lifelong pace. We don’t have a lot of examples of what lifelong pace of care is. But oftentimes, it invites us to ask some very important questions. 


Because people ask. I was sitting amongst a group was a yoga conference in San Diego, and someone pulled me aside, there was a lot of White women there, 80% White women there. They said, “Aaron, what’s the worst thing that a White woman could say to you?” I was like, well, the worst thing, there’s a list. But before I even go into the worst thing, I think one of the things that causes the most damage I’ve seen in my ecosystem of work is for, particularly it’s White women oftentimes who are doing this, but White men have done this as well, is they step in and go: “Aaron, I got your back! Black person, I got your back. I am here, you can lean on me.” The Black person is like, I’m not sure. “No, no, we got you! You can lean on me. If you need something, we are here. This is serious, we are marching.” They’re not tracking down capacity, they’re going too fast. Their words are, and their temporary actions are, lean over. Lean, and we will hold you. Then as you start to lean back, and it’s very tender space, so then if you fall, that person is like, I’m out of capacity, I’m going to step away, and then they just let you collapse. They’re like, I don’t want to kill myself, I’m out of capacity. They couldn’t think of it the first time you checked in, or the third time, or the fourth that. Only as the cards gets really intense, they let you collapse. Sometimes it’s situations where people’s lives are on the line here. It’s not just inconvenience, people’s lives are on the line here. So they’ve worked their selves into the system far enough and didn’t track their own capacity. That is pace. 


It’s not that we don’t have enough books. There are some amazing books. Most White folks and particularly women that show up in this work, have read every single anti-racist mainstream book, have memorized the vocabulary. They’ve all got it figured out. But they have not examined equally, their actual pace and capacity, and to speak to it in a real enough and safe enough terms, that the person, the majority in this context, African heritage person they’re reaching for, can trust their ability to track their own capacity. Instead, we find out in mid-support, in critical places where we really need people that show up, and they’re already on their anti-racism vacation. There’s no vacation for Black bodies; we have to wake up in it. We have to rest in our stride. We have to adjust our breathing. But one thing we can’t do is stop being Black and take a break. That is yet to come. So we have to understand that because of that, it’s very helpful, I’ll even say essential, for a real allyship to not just read the books, please read the books. Not just watch the films, watch the films. But if you do all those things and did no interrogation of your own capacity of what you actually can hold, then you’re putting that big system at risk. When when you convince us to lean on you, to step in with, to count on, that you will step in front of, that that’s actually the case, know that’s actually the case. If it is not actually the case, say it now, because it’s helpful. 


I always say, please give me $5 if that’s what you want to do to help this situation at St. Carnage, if that’s actually your capacity. Than $5 million if you’re like: “Oh, now I’m going to chunk and take it to court and be confused on what I was doing. I didn’t realize, I was copying the motion. We just had this big thing happen in the news, so I started sharing resources that wasn’t our capacity. Now I want to control you.” No, wait. Our capacity says, what do you actually willing to give to interrupt? We don’t mind what it is, just make sure that you actually know what it is too, and then we can march forward with that. Unfortunately, that’s something that we have seen come up again and again. So to me, it’s necessarily the worst thing one can say. But it’s the worst thing one cannot examine or hasn’t examined, and be the worst thing that’s modeled. Because words are impactful. But words combined with actions and capacity not tracked, in some cases, can be fatal to Black bodies. That’s serious to me, when lots of lives are on the line. 


So that to me, I find is one way I think we can really all take a breath. My thought is, we settle into the idea of our work, we raise our hand at our own pace, and we raise and go, this is how high I can raise it on behalf of Black folks. That if media company says someone just died in slow motion on the media, we don’t go, now I can raise it this high! We go, you know what, I’m already raising it. I’m already raising it. I know my capacity; it’s not going to move. Because I’ve already raised it. It’s not dependent upon what the mainstream culture is saying. It’s not dependent upon who’s in office. It’s dependent upon my deep commitment of when it’s in style and out of style from mainstream culture, I am right here. That’s action. When George Floyd comes and goes in his carnage, I simply had my hand raised as high as it possibly can. I’ve already imping the cup, all I’m doing is rinsing and repeating. That for me is a powerful way to show up. My pace doesn’t change depending upon who’s in office. My pace doesn’t change depending on how many slow motion deaths are happening on the mainstream media. I find my pace, I’m invested in it, and I keep that pace. That to me is what I would hope becomes more popular in conversation in the White communities, and particularly White women. To have the potential to profoundly have a huge impact on this oppressive system that has wilderness, is best at a profound population.


MELINDA: Thank you for that. There’s so much more here, there’s so much more where we could go deeper. We have to end our conversation now. But I want to thank you and ask you where people can learn more. Where can people learn more about you and your work?


AARON: Yeah. Well, HolisticResistance.com is our website, you can find a lot of our consulting workshop work. The Tender Project that I hold dear to my heart, and we’re traveling the country with right now, is CutProject.org. CutProject.org is where you can find more information about the Chronically UnderTouched Project, the film, what we’re doing. Our best thinking is all right there too. You can find us on Instagram as well, @Cut.Project on Instagram. So we’re there to reach for folks on all those platforms.


MELINDA: Awesome. Okay, everyone. So slow down, practice holistic resistance, raise your hand and keep it raised. More episodes to check out, if you like this one and want to continue your learning, we have Episode 8 on understanding intergenerational trauma and its impact in the workplace with Michael Thomas. Episode 14, moving from structural inequality to human flourishing, with Dr. Angel Acosta. Episode 25, understanding the effects of racism on Black boys and men, with Dr. Kevin Simon. Episode 111, redefining professionalism, with Pabel Martinez. 


All right, keep learning, keep taking action and again, practice that holistic resistance. Thank you, Aaron.


AARON: Thank you.


MELINDA: Thank you for being part of our community. You’ll find the show notes and a transcript of this episode at ally.cc. There you can also sign up for our weekly newsletter with additional tips. This show is produced by Empovia, a trusted learning and development partner, offering training, coaching, and a new e-learning platform, with on-demand courses focused on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. You can learn more at Empovia.com. 


Allyship is empathy in action. So what action will you take today?