Mike’s Monday Message: My Allyship Journey—From Arthur to AFP
As we honor Black History Month this month, we focus on the incredible contributions from the Black community despite their incredible struggles with overt racism. While we have a long way to go, imagine for a moment the possibilities, the potential progress if we all pull together and support each other regardless of race. NOW is the time for us to come together and create impact.
For those of us who identify as white, how should we show that support, how should we show up as allies, and what does allyship mean for each of us personally? And just as important, do our colleagues feel our allyship? How do my intentions show up, in a true and visible way?
On occasion, I’m asked why it’s so important to me to be an ally for my fellow humans of color. Is it only because I’m in the role of CEO and president of AFP and so I “have” to be an ally during my time in this role? The answer is unequivocally no! In today’s message – a little longer than normal - I’m sharing my personal allyship journey and honoring some of the people who have shaped my journey.
My allyship journey actually started in primary school where some of my closest friends were kids from India, Turkey, China, and various African countries. While Denmark has often been held up as a model for this or for that, it is also a country that has a history of systemic racism and inequality – google “Denmark racism” or “Greenland racism.” My friends experienced this racism and, for reasons I’ve only come to understand in my adulthood, since I was little kid, I have always been a fierce defender of equality and fairness. Tell me the “rules,” but they must apply to all equally and justly (as a pre-teen I wasn’t aware of the significant systemic issues around who sets the rules and for whose benefit those rules are created).
Fast forward to when I was 16. During that summer, I had the opportunity to spend the better part of two days with Arthur Ashe. Arthur (I was asked to call him Arthur) was a world class tennis player who faced great racial injustices as a Black man and a Black athlete and focused his post-tennis career on fighting for social and racial justice until his death in 1993 from AIDS.
He was in Copenhagen on a promotional tour for his tennis equipment sponsor and, through that mutual relationship, I was able to spend time with him as his “helper” one day and then have a private four-person dinner with him the next evening. The photo below is from the first day – oh, and let’s keep the “OMG! Mike is that really you? You look so _____ (fill in the blank)” on mute please – lol!
During dinner, we talked about many things – the previous day, his travels, my background, the usual chit chat. But during our dinner, he also shared his story with me, which if you don’t know it, I encourage you to learn more. Much of his story was about his struggles as a Black tennis player growing up in Richmond, Virginia, where, among many other racial injustices he faced, there were public tennis courts and private tennis clubs at which he was not welcome. At the time of our dinner, the names of those courts and clubs were just names to me – places more than 4,000 miles away. But, as a white kid born and raised in Copenhagen, I was “amazed” that there were facilities in a major U.S. city where any person this talented was not allowed access. Today, while it breaks my heart, it no longer surprises me. After dinner, we went our separate ways and, while I never met him again, my life bumped into the outer fringes of his from time to time. Arthur continued his celebrated non-tennis work as an advocate for human rights, philanthropy, and racial equality, and I … well… I was 16, so what did I know.
Later that year, I moved to the U.S. and then enrolled at the University of Richmond (Virginia, USA) – yes, that Richmond, the Richmond where Arthur was born and that he had told me about over dinner. Ready for the proverbial chills? I was on the U of R tennis team and guess where we often played during my time there? On those very courts where Arthur had told me he was not allowed to play!!! While today, he could have played on these courts, this past discrimination was not lost on me almost every time I walked onto those same courts.
Likely Arthur Ashe’s most important mentor was Dr. Robert “Whirlwind” Johnson, a Black physician who (among countless other achievements) coached and fostered more than 200 Black tennis players— including Arthur Ashe and Althea Gibson—until his death in 1971. Dr. Johnson, using his personal tennis court in Lynchburg, Virginia, devoted his life to breaking down the very prevalent racial barriers by using tennis as the vehicle.
Remember that I said earlier that my life would bump into the fringes of Arthur’s life? Well, during my collegiate tennis career, I kept running up against a player I was never able to beat (to this day, my competitive nature makes it really hard for me to acknowledge that – lol). As competitors, he and I gained a strong level of mutual respect for each other; so much so that today we are still friends. Have you already figured out who this person is? He is Lange Johnson, Arthur’s mentor’s grandson – Dr. Johnson’s grandson. Lange and I have talked about his grandfather, his struggles and his impact on Black tennis players – conversations that continue to guide me in my actions today.
(I would not be faithful to our profession if I don’t now point you to the https://whirlwindjohnson.org/ website and ask you, during Black History Month, to donate - any amount - to honor the legacy of Dr. Johnson and everything he did for racial equity and equality. This organization, led by Lange, works to preserve this singularly historical court and to construct a museum telling the story of the struggle for racial equity within the lily white lines of a tennis court. FYI: I have no affiliation with this organization. Thank you for doing this!)
Over the next couple of decades, there were several more instances of “bumping into the fringes” of Arthur’s path but throughout it all, I have never forgotten the stories he shared with me of racial prejudices and struggles he faced.
In the 1980s, I played at several facilities/tournaments where players of color were not “warmly welcomed” (i.e., didn’t get to play on the prominent or show courts, practice courts were “scarce,” had less than desirable start times, housing was not provided but was provided to favored players). I wish today that I would have had the confidence and knowledge then to speak up and be a true ally. Lessons and missed opportunities I have learned from and will not miss again. Today’s version of this is that I refuse to be on any all-white panels and encourage others to take the same stance. These experiences, coupled with my intrinsic desire for fairness and equity, have put me on this path of being a fierce ally. I acknowledge that both despite and because of my privilege, I have much to learn. I have made and will continue to make mistakes but the passion to make a difference, to create real lasting impact, runs deep within me.
It is now more important than ever for AFP to stand up and support all of our colleagues of color – our organization has a unique and singular opportunity to do this. Like so many others, I desperately want AFP to actualize and promote the importance of equity, inclusion, fairness, and justice. Don’t we all want to live in a just society where every person in the world lives free from discrimination and harassment. You and the vast majority of our AFP members are demanding we deploy our collective resources to create and sustain a fair and equitable world.
AFP has made diversity and inclusion an organizational-wide priority. We’ve taken intentional steps so that people of color now make up half of our board and nearly half of our staff, and Birgit Smith Burton is our first-ever Black woman chair-elect. Good steps but only symbolic unless we continue to press on. We’re taking intentional steps to ensure that our racially and culturally diverse leaders and staff have sufficient support and adequate resources to succeed.
But those are all things I can do with my professional privilege. What about my unearned privilege that comes with being a straight upper middle-class white male? There are a number of things that white people can do to be effective allies for people of color. However, for me, personally, I focus on two ideas that are long-term: 1) openly talk about racism and 2) listen, really listen, to people of color. These are not one-off activities. We can’t accomplish them immediately and say, “Done, I’ve done my part for equity,” as if that’s all our allyship work needs to be.
To openly talk about racism, we need to initiate and engage in conversations about race, inclusion, equity and racism all the time, not just in particular months. Think about how often we talk about politics and current events with friends and colleagues. Why can’t we talk about issues like race and inclusion with the same frequency and interest? Yes, they can be difficult issues to talk about, but so can politics these days, and EVERYONE seems willing to talk about politics. Let’s also acknowledge that we’re not going to always say the right thing. But we’re not going to stand still in fear, but rather learn from our mistakes.
This leads into the second idea I mentioned. It’s not enough to talk about racism, we need to listen. Listen to voices of color, and not just on issues related to race and diversity. Systemic racism has crept into every facet of our society, so it only makes sense that we include our colleagues of color when seeking input on all topics. This may sound obvious, but we have to think carefully about the environment we are setting. Are people of color made to feel welcome in these settings, even in informal ones? Let’s work to amplify their voices and ensure that everyone can tell their own story.
Ultimately, that is what history and culture are: stories of a people. What happens when someone else, someone white, tells the story of a different race or ethnicity? They might leave out the embarrassing and uncomfortable truths. Take Black History Month, for example. Honestly, what does the average white person really know about black history and culture? For example, do you know what the “White Lion” was?
The history and impact of Black people can’t be summarized by just referencing periods of social change. If we don’t learn the history and culture then we’ll never truly understand what countless generations of color have endured. That’s how we begin to truly connect and understand that the history of people of color is ALL of our history—the history of our country, our society, and our humanity.
We all want to see change. This is how it happens. There’s not one magical moment when everything changes. It requires each of us taking a personal journey to understand what it takes to be an ally. And, as I’ve learned from my personal journey, which started decades ago, it requires genuine commitment and long-term work.
AFP is committed to this work and to creating lasting positive impact – whether you are a person of color or a white ally, I urge you to join us, to push us, to call us out – all in the effort to stamp out racial and social injustices. It’s a long journey, but together I believe we can have real impact.
(By the way, if you haven’t donated yet to honor the incredible work of Dr. Johnson, please go to https://whirlwindjohnson.org/ now – thank you)
Mike Geiger, MBA, CPA