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What should white people do to help the racial justice movement

Reporter Eric Flack seeks guidance from a high school friend about white allies' role in the fight for social justice.

WASHINGTON — Author's note: This summer, as I reported from Black Lives Matter Plaza surrounded by tens of thousands of demonstrators demanding change, I decided I wanted to do more than just lend my voice of support to the social justice movement. But the truth is, when all the crowds went away and the protests ended, I was embarrassed to realize I didn’t know what to do next. That’s when I decided to call someone who I thought could help me. I called a high school friend named Okorie Johnson. This piece is about who Okorie is, why I asked him for guidance and some of what I learned from the uncomfortable conversation that followed. 

"I applaud you..." Okorie Johnson – an accomplished academic, an international cellist and a childhood friend – begins to say. It's his final video log answering a question I'd posed to him. What should white allies, white people like me, do now?

His voice trails for a moment, and on his face you can almost see the grinding of mental gears, set by years of conditioning talking to white faces, turning backward. And then there's a second look that just says, "Hey, you asked for it."

Okorie starts again.

“I'm gonna walk that back. I'm glad you asked me to have this conversation. But I think this is the work that needs to happen. I think you wanting to do the work is an important part of this. And while I'm glad that you're doing it, I'm not so sure that the goal should be that every white person that shows up to do this work gets a gold star and gets a pat on the back.

“Because at the end of the day, it's... I just think it's your work to do. We’re here, we've been doing it, we'll continue to do it."

Racism, Okorie told me, "is just not our invention to uninvent.”

Okorie and I met riding the school bus together as kids to the Landon School for Boys in Bethesda, Maryland – an exclusive suburban prep school we were both fortunate enough to attend. He's gone on to live an incredible life. He doesn't take it for granted.

Credit: Okorie Johnson

“There has been a decent amount of tragedy and trauma somehow that I've missed that many of my friends and my family haven’t,” he said in one of several video logs he agreed to record to answer questions I had for him about social justice.

“And it's not because of any intrinsic qualities, exceptional qualities that I've had, the kind of experiences that I've had. And it's not because of any flaws, or any absence of character or kind of moral fiber for the folks who have had different experiences,” Okorie said.

“A lot of us just got lucky.”

Okorie said his path, particularly the experiences he had attending Landon, taught him how to navigate a world built by, and predominantly controlled by, white people.

For the full extended interview with Okorie, watch below:

“I'm comfortable with white people. I'm not afraid of white men. I'm not afraid of white women,” Okorie said. “I'm certainly not afraid of, you know, white people who seem to be impressive or intelligent or anything like that. I think I'm impressive and intelligent.”

“But what I will say is, having been raised around wealthy white people, if you are not raised around wealthy white people, you don't necessarily understand all of the rules, both written and unwritten; all the expectations, if you aren't necessarily able to see them as familiar and make them see you as familiar,” Okorie said.

“The white world can be an amazingly predatory place, particularly for black boys.” 

'It’s Black Because I’m Doing It.'

Okorie, who started playing the cello at age 6, calls himself “a looping, improvising, storytelling cellist.” He plays professionally under the stage name OkCello.

“But what's interesting about being a cellist, and what's interesting about being a black cellist, is that in some ways people think that it is a contradiction in terms,” Okorie said.

“I'm committed to playing the music I like to listen to. And what that means to me is that I'm going to use the cello to play Black music,” Okorie said, noting he hopes to include cello driven Go-Go tracks on his upcoming album.

“I'm not going to allow anyone's expectations of what's white or what's Black to keep me from doing something,” Okorie said.

“It’s Black because I’m doing it.”

Watch more of OkCello's performances here.

In 2015, the year nine African Americans were massacred in a hate crime inside a Charleston church, Okorie wrote a song called “Incredulous.” He said the title was inspired by the way the victims had welcomed the shooter into their bible study before he opened fire.

Incredulous is an adjective that describes the feeling of being unwilling or unable to believe something.

“After watching the footage of how they so civilly and humanely treated the murderer of those souls in that church, obviously that angered me,” Okorie said. “But it made me so confused and I'm embarrassed to admit that I was incredulous. I was just in disbelief.”

“You know, in 2020, I'm kind of embarrassed that I was incredulous because I have every reason to believe that this country is capable of that kind of tragedy and horror.”

A Black Boy In A White School

Okorie started attending the Landon School in the fourth grade and would spend nine years of his life there. It would take him an hour on public transportation to get from his home in Northeast D.C. to the Landon campus in Bethesda, Maryland. When he was younger, his grandmother rode the bus with him to make sure he made it to school safely.

“When I started in fourth grade, I was the only Black kid in the fourth grade,” Okorie said. “Not just in my homeroom, but in the entire fourth grade.”

“The next year we got one of my good friends, probably one of my closest friends at the time, to come in the fifth grade. So, there were two of us. And then there were two more that came in sixth grade.”

Okorie said by the time he graduated in 1993, there were seven students of color in his grade.

Credit: Okorie Johnson

“It was definitely different.”

But Okorie said he came to Landon uniquely prepared for the privileged white culture. His mother, Brenda Stubbs, worked as a speech pathologist. Okorie said she worked hard to ensure her son’s speech was free of any inner-city intonation or annunciation.

Okorie said he also learned how to play ice hockey at an early age thanks to a family member who discovered the sport in college. Okorie started playing ice hockey at 4 and had been playing for five years before starting at Landon, where ice hockey was a popular sport.

“And so, in all honesty, negotiating the basketball court across the street from my house was actually more work than negotiating the Landon School,” Okorie said. “I learned how to do both well, but the reality is that I sounded familiar to a lot of the boys, in particular the teachers at Landon School.”

“So that was to my advantage.”

A Series Of Fortunate Events

After graduating from Morehouse College in Atlanta, Okorie pursued his music career as well as academics. Okorie has served as director of culture and equity at the Drew Charter School in Atlanta and was recently named an arts & social justice fellow at Emory University. His cello career includes two studio albums, and Okorie has performed professionally both nationally and internationally.

But Okorie said his success is a product of a series of fortunate events as much as any special quality he possessed that others from his neighborhood did not.

“You know, my family worked really hard,” Okorie said. “They loved me fiercely. They created a little protective bubble, they gave me a lot of opportunities. And so, I definitely don't want to somehow take anything away from my mother, my grandmother, and my grandfather, who worked really, really hard to create opportunities for me."

Credit: Okorie Johnson
Okorie Johnson and his Mom, Brenda Stubbs

“But you know, there's so many people whose parents worked hard, who got shot or locked up, or, you know, got addicted to crack. And it wasn't their fault. It was not their fault. It’s just irresponsible, I think, to somehow suggest that it was a result of poor character or decision making.”

Okorie said the crack culture that plagued inner cities in the 1980s was not created by Black people, yet communities of color were the ones who paid the greatest price.

“Particularly because of the policies and the systems that Black communities and neighborhoods had endured, at that point, for 80-plus years,”Okorie said. “So, no, there's nothing exceptional or particularly valuable about me intrinsically and there certainly is nothing pathological or problematic about the souls of the many Black boys and men whose lives were sacrificed to that phenomenon.”

“That's important for me to say.”

A Friend Asks For Help

I was nervous when I first reached out to Okorie to ask if he would share his experiences and views on how white “allies” should support the social justice movement. 

The request came after I covered demonstrators in D.C. demanding an end to police violence against unarmed people of color in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others.

But because I attended the Landon School with Okorie (he was a grade ahead of me but we rode the bus to school together) and had maintained a friendly relationship with him over the years through social media, I was hopeful Okorie would be willing to talk about all this with me.

Which, he was. But he wasn't going to sugarcoat what he had to say.

My first question for Okorie was one he heard others in his social sphere asking as well: what should white people, often referred to as white “allies,” be doing to support the social justice movement?

“You know, I don't doubt the sincerity with which that question is asked,” Okorie said. But, he said, the issue is far more complicated than checking off a “to-do” list.

Okorie: “The idea that we as a society, that white people in general, are going to find the magic additive that fixes things is fantasy. There will be some sacrifice, there will be some things that have to be given up. There are some advantages, there are some privileges, there are some things that are going to have to be returned and relinquished in some ways if this intention is sincere.”

Okorie said supporting the social justice movement isn’t as complicated as some white people make it out to be.

Okorie: “So the same way that if you wanted to join an adult soccer league, and you would Google it, you could Google this, you know what I mean? There's stuff to do. There are books to read, there's "How to be an Anti-Racist," there's "White Fragility," I mean, literally there's a lot of stuff to do, there's a lot of information to embrace, to kind of digest, right? So I don't doubt the sincerity with which that question is asked. I don't doubt that people are legitimately concerned and they really want to do something. 

"What is interesting, though, is it's a difficult enough topic, it's a difficult enough or painful enough or tense or anxious enough phenomenon that people feel like they couldn't figure out what to do on their own. And there are a couple of things that are uncomfortable about that. One, if we're really talking about these systems, if we're really talking about systemic racism, this is not something that Black people invented. So it's almost ironic to come to Black people and say, hey, how do we break it down? How do we fix it? What do we need to do? 

"And then I guess the other thing is that, again, because of the fact that this is the information age, if you dig even just a little bit, you'll find a ton. There are a lot of white people in this space doing this work, who are documenting their consciousness who are documenting their experience, who are creating bodies of knowledge for white people to get involved. So there's that and if you look for it, you'll find it."

Flack: "I'm almost hearing the answer you're giving me is, 'Get off your ass and do something.'"

Okorie: “Get off your ass and do something."

I asked Okorie if the question itself – what white people should be doing to support the social justice movement – was faulty.  

“I just think it's a young question,” Okorie said, implying the moment demands more than white people showing up at rallies or posting messages of support on social media.

Okorie: “If we're going to address white supremacy and racism, it means that white people are going to have to talk to white people about this because the black people who are animated and researched and informed are not going to be at your Thanksgiving table.

“And it's in those spaces where people are their authentic self, where they have their guard down. Where they think, because they're around like-minded people, that people tell you who they are. And if we're going to change the world, we're going to start by people changing who they are.”

Black Futures

Okorie is excited about what sees as a moment of change – adding that the work is just getting started.

“There are monuments that are coming down and people are naming streets differently,” Okorie said. “And you know, a lot of that is symbolic change. The structural change is still very much yet to come.”

Okorie said addressing the underlying issues of systematic racism is at the crux of any significant reforms. And Okorie believes that will only be possible when white America engages in those uncomfortable dinner table discussions.

“Until we're really having those conversations, even the conversation about police brutality is really on the surface,” Okorie said. “There's so much more that we have to unpack. That work has to happen, it's going to happen. There are people who are doing it and I am encouraged that perhaps there's more steam behind it than there probably perhaps has been in a long time.”

Okorie said he is hopeful for the future of people of color in America.

“I believe in the power of black people to generate the future that they want to live in,” Okorie said. “And I believe that there is something really beautiful and powerful that will emerge out of all of this devastation.”

Credit: Okorie Johnson
Okorie Johnson with his wife and two teenage daughters

Okorie said he wanted to make clear: he doesn’t speak for all people of color, only himself.

And it’s only because of the way things have played out in his life that he was in a position to share his views in such an open and unfiltered way.

“It is unreasonable to expect Black people to share/explain/inform as I have. It shouldn’t be a precedent," Okorie told me a in a text he sent days after our conversation.

“But rather, because of how things have played out in my life and because of your sincere request, I have accepted the request.”

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