How are you my Black friend?

Jul 14, 2020

The past few weeks, I have received an unprecedented amount of texts. Most of them saying the exact same things in a myriad of flavors: “How are you my Black friend? Look at me, I see you, I hear you and I am doing my best.” I am writing this piece to answer your question honestly, show you my pain and have a response to send you that says, “Do not just look, act. Do not just hear, listen. And your best, it could still be better.” At the end of this piece, I plan to let these feelings go in the hope of finding that zeal to keep on moving forward. The past few weeks, I have committed to meditation and introspection to come to terms with the experiences which I am sharing with you.

I grew up in a small satellite town in Abuja, Nigeria called Kubwa. It was relatively less-privileged community and I would be remiss if I say there were no injustices around me. Stark poverty, dilapidated buildings, and slums juxtaposed against world class/gorgeous homes, the nicest cars, and every luxury that life could offer. Growing up in Kubwa, we were instilled with an immense sense of pride from an early age. We did not have much in the realm of wealth or riches, but we were motivated, tenacious, and possessed a clear sense of self. I was taught that my sense of self was not tied to externalities rather they were tied to those intrinsic qualities that I am afforded just by being alive. This mentality ensured that I was proud of the little I had: my personality, my intelligence and where I was from. Even when I would visit wealthier parts of the state competing against “better schools.” I felt no pressure to change or conform to how things were around me. I was who I was, I was proud of that, and I always excelled. And this pride only blossomed as I grew older and faced new challenges.

My first encounter with the idea of race was in a high school Geography class where we were taught about the history of different peoples around the world. Their core characteristics, features and how these features and characteristics came to be. Growing up in Nigeria, race was stuff I needed to know to get a good grade in a class and that was about it. Needless to say, everyone around me was Black. Upon my graduation and moving to the United States, race took on a whole other level of importance. I quickly came to see that it affected who your friends were, where you lived and how your environment interacted with you. And soon, the American purview of race and its connection one’s humanity began to permeate every facet of my psyche. And although I have managed to maintain my intrinsic pride and sense of self, I cannot say the same for how I interact with my environment/community.

How am I? I am sad, frustrated, and overwhelmed. I am sad because I have changed my name, the way I dress and even the way I sound to make people feel comfortable around me. As a freshman in college, I never understood why I got weird looks, or why people walked faster whenever I came out of a building or subconsciously held their backpacks closer. I would look around to see if something happening and wonder to my naïve self if I may have to step up and protect this person and myself. It did not take me long to realize that I was the one viewed as a threat, not because of anything other than how I looked. I did not understand it, why would they view me like this? I was a vulnerable 18-year old, thousands of miles away from everyone I loved. I believed I had arrived in a country where I could leverage my education, my passions, and my upbringing to make an impact in my community. But with each weird look, hurried walks, and involuntary bag clench, they looted my humanity, my vulnerability, and my self-dignity. By my second year, I had made significant changes to accommodate these people and their implicit biases. These included: crossing to the other side of the street, walking slower or past them so they do not feel threatened by my presence, avoiding evening classes, and dressing up in “non-threatening” attires to save my life. I figured that I would be less likely to “match a description” with my bright red pants and a white sweater. I am sad because the color of my skin makes people uncomfortable.

I am frustrated because even with all my changes, I still feel unsafe. I am constantly wired to worry about how I might come off because my life is in the hands of many people, who I hope are not racist. While training for my marathon, I was constantly scared that I would run past the wrong home, after all, why is a Black man running through this neighborhood at 5 am. Now imagine how I felt watching the death of Ahmaud Arbery, who was running just like I do every morning. Since watching that video, I have been unable to muster the courage to go out for a run. As irrational as that fear is, I think to myself: “Better safe than sorry, besides, you can afford a treadmill. There are hundreds of people that use treadmills.” Even being hundreds of miles from the scene of his crime, I am petrified and traumatized because every time, I think of running, I see him and then I see me as him. There were times when I would leave my keys at home and even when my roommate was arriving in 20 minutes, I was so terrified of being accused of loitering in front of my own apartment. I would walk 10 minutes to the nearest coffee shop and wait because it was the safest way, I could think of not being profiled. Coffee shops became a haven for me and overnight, that all changed when two Black men were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks on suspicion of trespassing while waiting for a client. And there goes coffee shops, another place where I must think twice about going to because I am Black. I am frustrated that I live with the constant fear of when someone would call the cops on me.

I am overwhelmed that my fears never give way, and this prevents me from partaking in what others might consider normal. After getting a job almost an hour-drive away from me, buying a car was never an option. While thinking of getting a car, I would find myself asking questions like: What's the mileage on the car? Would this car be too nice for a young Black man? What will happen if I forget a document? Who will teach me how to talk to the cops? Growing up in Nigeria, I was taught Chemistry, Biology, and Physics but there was no crash course on driving while Black in America. I wanted to ensure that the probability of me getting hurt and possibly killed during a routine traffic stop was as close to zero as possible. So, I have spent the last 3 years commuting three hours daily five days a week because I watched Philando Castille get shot 7 times in front of his girlfriend and her four-year old daughter. Some people might say: “Now you are taking this too far.” But honestly? Not at all. For me, the options are commuting a few hours versus the pain my family would feel if they lost me. A hardworking son who left home with a dream, a son who sacrificed the last 8 years striving and thriving to make a positive impact on the world, and a son who they have seen just once since he left home. There is no rationale that would allow them process their pain, there is no words that would convince them to accept fate and there is no god that would make them forgive the loss of a family member just because he was Black in America. I am overwhelmed because what seems normal to most people is a deep and convoluted existential crisis for me.

Writing my pain and fears down, I am then forced to confront and try to fathom what it must feel like to not just be Black in America, but to be African American. Unlike me, a lot of African Americans my age never even had the opportunity to build a true sense of self in an environment that was not hostile to them because of the color of their skin. At every turn, they are stigmatized, vilified, and criminalized from a very young age. And still they rise, they rise to their challenges, they rise against oppression and they are rising again and challenging every single one of us to stand up for Black justice. And with all of this, there is still apathy, disdain, and condescension from some people, and this is regrettable. For these people, I leave you with the poignant words from Martin Luther King Jr’s 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Working through my thoughts and my feelings, I realize, I am ANGRY. I am angry because waking up every morning, I am waiting on who said or done something to make my life even more uncomfortable than it is, whether as an immigrant, a Black man or as an individual. The ever-present and growing sentiments of fascism, racism and anti-immigration has made my last 8 years in America almost unbearable. For years I have internalized all of these and never spoke up about these. But creating the mental space to confront these have forced me to share with my Black friends, only to find out that they too have been carrying the same weight. We have accepted and normalized our oppression to fit into a society that does not make the effort to really care for us. And this whole experience has shown me the importance of conversation, introspection and most importantly outrage.

Today, I begin a new journey. For myself, for my company and for the future that we aim to build. We started City Health Tech in a bid to use technology to build healthier communities and mitigate the spread of infectious diseases globally. And the truth is, racism is just like the preventable diseases that we as society have chosen to co-exist with. Preventable diseases are spread by unhealthy hygiene practices just like racism endures due to prejudiced systemic issues. And as these fester they lead to colossal breakdowns around the world as we can see from the COVID-19 pandemic to the George Floyd protests. Even as we aim to use to use innovation to tackle the spread of diseases by advocating behavior change, we are committed to lending our efforts, expertise and platform to advocate for the revamping of the underlying systemic issues that cause the uncontrolled devastation of Black lives and other minorities in America.

It goes without saying, but as a company founder, I choose to say it anyway. We would:

  1. Promote open and honest conversations about race issues in America with everyone of our employees, partners, and investors.

  2. Provide comprehensive education about racial injustice that has been glossed over by the American education system to our employees and the communities around us.

  3. Discuss systemic/institutionalized racism and the impact it has on the provision of healthcare to Black people and other minority groups.

  4. Build a diverse workplace. Which includes open and honest practices when it comes to recruitment, hiring policies and respect for each individual.

  5. Partner with organizations in minority communities to provide proper hygiene education and donate our device Opal to schools in these communities to prevent the spread of illnesses.

We pledge to continue to support the fight for Black justice at every corner because Black Lives Matter.

Irewole Akande

Co-founder and CTO

City Health Tech

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