Jaime Williams is a product manager at Google in Mountain View, CA. He’s worked for the company for two years. After the protests over racial injustice spread and the issues finally became a bigger part of the national conversation, Williams felt compelled to share his experiences as a Black professional in America with his team. His hope was that they could better understand what it’s like to navigate systemic racial injustice and how it compounds with the stress of life. He shared the following letter with several colleagues, who have told him that it provided more context and has motivated them to take action.
I’ve been largely silent on these events at work over the past two weeks, as I have been trying to process and reconcile the best way to move forward. The compounding occurrence of these events, on top of the COVID-19 quarantine, have personally been traumatizing, as they have been for many of us. On top of that, I have been processing these events through the eyes of my children, as well as my own experiences.
It has required some long and difficult conversations with my son, in particular, as I motivate/drag him over the finish line of his fourth grade year in an online learning environment that he openly despises. While we share many personality traits, his skin is darker and his hair coarser. Because of this, he will likely not be given the same leadway I have had to learn to navigate the complex racial environment of the United States and the world.
He is 9 years old, but knows the story of Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, and Tamir Rice. He remembers the killing of Michael Brown and the protests of Ferguson. And now he’s seen the killing of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, and the Central Park incident between Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper.
I do not feel guilty for him being exposed to these incidents, only that I am reluctant to educate him on the numerous other unjust killings of Black Americans in his lifetime. Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor . . . there are too many to name, and I’d like to preserve some innocence.
There are places where we are not welcome, and could lose our lives on a daily run.”
As an individual event, it might have been easy to write off the killing of Ahmaud Arbery as the actions of a few fringe Southerners that jumped to conclusions when they thought someone had committed a crime. Just an anomaly, or a case of mistaken identity. Or even the actions of a few racist citizens that remain in a color-blind society that has moved on from slavery, Jim Crow, the Civil Rights Movement. For me, it was a reminder of the places in the United States that I still feel unsafe to live. A reminder that I would love to take my kids to a place that’s not so densely packed. But would we be safe? It is a reminder that I am not in control of my body, or the bodies of my family. There are places where we are not welcome, and could lose our lives on a daily run.
The Central Park “Cooper Incident” struck a nerve on several levels. A reminder that being a “Black man” could be used as a weapon against me at any moment. Even if you are “educated.” Even if you are trying to enjoy public spaces during quarantine. Even if you
are trying to hold others to common societal standards (keeping your dog on a leash in this case). Again, you are not in control of your body. Anyone can decide to use your skin color against you, knowing full well it may cost you your life.
I was not surprised by the initial headlines of the police killing of George Floyd. Regretfully, it has become too commonplace. I immediately thought of Freddie Gray, stifled the pain, and tried to move on. It was the video that got me, as it did many of you. The callousness of the officers as they slowly choked the life out of him over nearly nine minutes. All while being recorded. All while George and the small crowd of bystanders around them pleaded for the officers to stop. It felt like such a deliberate act.
Again, a reminder that I am not in control of my body. Any hint of a crime committed, even if nonviolent, could mean that my life could be taken away. Slowly and deliberately, as a routine course of business. Or swiftly, as in the cases of Oscar Grant and Philando Castile.
I have had run-ins with police. Not in some rural part of the country that doesn’t share the Bay Area’s appearance of liberal values. And not as an inner-city youth that eventually found his way to the tech world. I’m a law-abiding professional Black man with a “respectable” job, and still I’ve been mistreated by the police. I have had a privileged life, built on the hard work of many generations of Black Americans before me. I am doing what I am supposed to do, and trying to pass on a good example to my children.
I’m a law-abiding professional Black man with a “respectable” job, and still I’ve been mistreated by the police.”
The most recent incident with the police happened to me several years ago, but a mere blocks away from our offices in San Francisco. After an altercation at a local bar started by other people (who were not Black), the police intervened and immediately assumed my brothers and I were the cause. I remember the swift judgement that we were subjected to, detaining and threatening us as a small crowd of onlookers observed. I remember pleading and trying to explain the facts. I remember none of that mattering. The only thing that changed the outcome of that night was the intervention of white bystanders, clarifying the situation and speaking on our behalf. I am grateful for that, but I am also sad. Again, I am not in control of my body.
My education and elocution cannot save me from these situations. There are no diplomas or job titles tattooed on my face. And my trained, deliberate diction may hide a speech impediment, but it will not wield the same currency of a white spectator. Things could have gone very differently that day, and I would not be your colleague. Again, I am grateful, yet sad . . . a lightweight version of survivor’s remorse.
I am inspired that so many people want to continue to discuss these injustices, and take action to enact real change. The protests across Europe have especially been moving. I am hopeful that this time, the energy and momentum will not not fade, even as we return to some semblance of our normal lives when the quarantine rules lift. That said, I don’t have any easy answers. We were all taught that these problems were addressed by the generations before us. But I hope we all now realize that the work continues.
This is not about lowering the bar, or limiting everyone to the same resources. This is not about being soft on crime, or letting society crumble. This is about striving to create equal opportunity for people to succeed in this world, and that starts with an equal valuation of life, no matter your skin color. I look forward to talking and taking action with you toward making our local, regional, and global lives a better place.
Jaime Williams is a product manager at Google focused on wearable technology. He previously served in roles as the Director of Engineering and Information Technology Officer in the air quality space, after several years of software consulting. He is the husband of Fast Company contributor Bärí A. Williams.