Corey Damen Jenkins shares his take on the Black Lives Matter movement and suggests ways to show your support and solidarity
By Corey Damen Jenkins
Photos courtesy of Corey Damen Jenkins
In 2016, an older woman called my office to discuss decorating her mansion. She hadn’t visited my website, but she had seen one of my projects featured in a magazine. She was very pleasant; we laughed a lot and seemed to really hit it off.
A few days later, I walked up to the woman’s elaborately carved front doors and rang the doorbell for our appointment. My potential client poked her head out and looked past my shoulder, as if to see if more people were coming. “Where’s the designer?” she asked. I smiled and said, “Actually, I’m Corey Damen Jenkins.” Her face darkened. “Oh. You’re not exactly what I was…expecting.” Suddenly there was an unmistakable chill in the air.
As we sat in her living room, I noticed that she was watching my every move, especially my hands. And although she was enjoying a fresh cup of coffee, she offered me absolutely nothing. When I reached for my portfolio she nervously placed her hand on her chest. Where was the gregarious woman I’d met on the phone days before? The woman that was “so ready” to hire me — sight unseen — based solely on my design work? Now I was facing someone who clearly didn’t want me in her house.
Just moments into our conversation she abruptly stood up. “We’ve decided to go in a different direction,” she said. “We won’t be hiring a designer today.” Disappointed, I thanked her for her time. She closed those beautiful carved wooden doors on me. And I left with tears in the corners of my eyes. My business suit didn’t matter. My credentials and experience didn’t matter. My talent no longer mattered. A certain bronzed color palette that I’m proud of — but cannot change — had cost me employment.
Throughout history, many doors of opportunity have been closed to African Americans. As a professional black man, I contend with things that my white colleagues would never dream of. In the Spring of 2020, this reality was crystalized by the back-to-back deaths of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. And while the subsequent marches against police brutality in the United States and the term “Black Lives Matter” have dominated the headlines, misconceptions have surfaced. One of my well-meaning white friends recently approached me about the meaning behind the expression.
“Why call it ‘Black Lives Matter?’” he asked. “Shouldn’t it be ‘ALL lives matter?’” I replied with an explanation I hoped would resonate with his heart. “If you break your big toe, that pain wracks your entire body, right? Does that mean your other nine toes no longer matter? Of course they do! But your broken toe needs focus now. And until that body part is healed, your entire body will be made to feel the pain. No one has ever said ‘Black Lives Matter more’ or ‘Black Lives Matter most.’ It’s simply Black Lives Matter too. And until we figure this out, our country will continue to hobble along in pain.” He nodded his understanding. Then came the next, inevitable question.
“So what do I say?” he asked. “Race is such a touchy subject and I don’t want to say the wrong thing.” First, I said, avoid asking “‘What can I do to help you?’ I know that question comes from a good place, but it projects a burden onto people who already feel burdened.” He wrung his hands in frustration, so I pulled another analogy. “Recall the last time you attended a funeral. It’s natural to ask the grieving survivors ‘how can I help’, right? But anyone who’s suffered a loss knows that question can be too much at that particular time.”
I continued. “Discussing race is uncomfortable so be prepared. Some may lash out at you when you try to help, especially on social media. When that happens — and it will — do not recoil. Remember, we’ve knelt, we’ve marched, we’ve boycotted, and we’ve been told that every way we express our pain is either unacceptable or misinterpreted as unpatriotic. So we’re exhausted. But don’t give up. Show compassion. Show empathy. Remember, you don’t skip a funeral because you fear saying the wrong thing to those who are grieving. You still show up.”
Words matter. Actions matter more. There are practical things one can do to become an ally for people of color. For example, learn more about the discrimination black Americans have been experiencing. Donate to and sign petitions for worthy causes to effect change. Support black-owned businesses. Most importantly, remember that we’re not monolithic: We don’t all think alike or behave the same way. For example, I support peaceful protests, but I am 100% against looting, violence and vandalism. And I would never, ever categorically blame all white people for the racism of others. No lumping! We are one body, one human family. Whether we run or hobble along, we’re going to do it together.
In recent weeks, multigenerational, multiracial crowds have joined forces around the world and marched for Black Lives Matter. That wasn’t quite the case with the civil rights marches of the 1960s. In many cities, the number of white allies protesting equaled or even outnumbered black participants. So, something has changed. Could we finally be achieving critical mass? Maybe. At the end of the day, it’s not white versus black. It’s not you versus me. It’s everyone versus racism and bigotry. And it is time to show up. Will you help us mend what is broken? Do you understand?
Corey Damen Jenkins is an interior designer based in Birmingham.