Levi Strauss & Co. has a long history of fighting for equality and advocating for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community. The following essay by Joel Massiah, Senior Merchandising Planner and member of our Black Employee Resource Group — a group dedicated to cultivating, strengthening, and sustaining positive relationships between LS&Co.’s Black employees and the broader company — addresses the pain currently coursing through our community while sharing his positive optimism for the future.
I love this country because I believe in its democratic ideals. I believe in the American spirit that at its genesis speaks truth to power and challenges the status quo for those who are unburdened by the oppression of others. This is the cornerstone of our union. It is the higher self and the unmet potential that is our country. Yet, I am not disillusioned. I know that the system to which we belong is unequivocally unequal. I know that for some people their safety, prosperity and pursuit of happiness is in perpetual question. I know that for some people the denial of their unalienable right to exist is met with the hard truth that our system indeed chooses winners and losers.
It is true that for everyone, someone else’s perception of you is beyond your control. However, as a gay Black male, these assumptions had the potential to have devastating ramifications on my growth into adulthood and, to some extent, endanger my life. The evidence of this was always around me and has been enabled because of systemic racism. It is both the subtle and the blatant.
The subtle assumptions are the casual phrases that were said to me in high school – “You’re very handsome for a Black guy” or “You speak so eloquently, you must be from another country” or “You must hate being Black because you don’t act Black.” It was a derogatory comment about Black people or gay people in my presence with the immediate follow-up statement of “Oh, but not you. Why can’t they be more like you.” These were things I could shrug off and dismiss. Despite how hurtful these microaggressions were, I refused to let them define me before I could define myself. I refused to let those statements restrict me from who I was going to become versus someone else’s expectations of me; this wasn’t easy.
But the truth is that the blatant racism is what I feared. It always lived in the corner of my mind that my life could one day be snuffed out by someone else’s hate. This fear is not unfounded as there were examples all around me, even as a child. I was a child when Rodney King was violently beaten. I was a child when Matthew Shepard was murdered.
Knowing these truths can be extremely painful. But this is also at the core of the protests we are witnessing today. It’s living as though there was a pit in the collective stomach. It’s like offal in the collective mouth. It was at the core of all the notable movements we now memorialize. It was the fire that propelled the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Liberation, the Stonewall Uprising and now Black Lives Matter.
Protest is one of the oldest tools in our American toolbox, and I stand on the shoulders of my brave elders, the original disrupters. I am the cross-section of a multitude of identities because of those who came before me. I am the descendant of the strong African people who survived hundreds of years of slavery and Jim Crow. I am the gay men and women who were accosted and humiliated by the police. I am the trans people who refused to be deleted from society without a fight, yet their work goes unfinished.
If anything at all, the past has shown us that progress is not linear but iterative. Iterative if only because of persistence. We are yet again at another intersection of our institution’s weakest points, converging with the people that are directly in harm’s way of its ineptitude — but I am optimistic. Where we go from here as a country inevitably must be more inclusive and progressive, if only because we cannot unsee what we have seen. There isn’t a yesterday to return to, only a tomorrow to resolve. And I plan to vote with intention.