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Black History Month: What if we stop denigrating and start loving?

As we celebrate Black History Month, here’s a radical idea. What if we stop denigrating Black people and start loving them?

You might be thinking: What is she talking about? Who openly denigrates Black people in 2022? It turns out, we all do.

Media outlets dedicate more coverage to Black deaths than to Black brilliance. Movies about the Black experience often feature a parade of trauma storylines. Even earnest charities and foundations, in fundraising appeals, routinely call Black young people “at-risk,” Black neighborhoods “blighted” and Black communities “marginalized.”

Repeating such tropes has dire consequences. Cognitive science tells us that the pervasive use of stigmatizing language and images can arouse fear and trigger negative associations in the greater public consciousness. Research from Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman and others shows how we are wired to react automatically and draw on familiar narratives. Even well-intentioned foundations and nonprofits inadvertently dehumanize population groups if they repeatedly link them to their deficits. This can contribute to how employers, teachers, investors, police officers, health care workers and others treat and judge Black people, which can ultimately diminish the life outcomes of the populations that these charities seek to improve. More harmful, these narratives affect how Black people think of themselves — these narratives get internalized and can affect self-esteem and resilience.

I remember one time a local newspaper ranked certain neighborhoods in Detroit among “the most dangerous in the country.” Shortly after, I met a young man who said to me, “I live in that neighborhood — but I’m not dangerous.” It was heartbreaking to know just how right he was. By labeling that neighborhood dangerous, he felt like he was the one being labeled dangerous. And this isn’t just about how people feel—this is a matter of life and death. We’ve seen this in Minneapolis with the well-known death of George Floyd and most recently, Amir Locke, who were automatically assumed to be dangerous.

Throughout history, Black people have sought the same dignity, freedom and universal rights that all humans across the globe seek. Against daunting odds, they’ve succeeded in making enormous strides. To show our support, it is time to make a pledge to support Black people’s long-held aspirations to L.O.V.E. — live, own, vote and excel — freely. In a national focus group that aimed to understand the priorities of Black people, they cited their aspirations to:

1) Live with a sense of physical, mental, and spiritual well-being

2) Own their financial future, including the ability to create generational wealth

3) Vote to protect Black interests

4) Excel in all that they do and amplify narratives of Black excellence

Supporting Black L.O.V.E. requires an intention to speak about Black people as contributing human beings, not as problems to be solved or threats to be mitigated. Every individual, corporation and organization professing to champion Black L.O.V.E. needs to focus on better understanding this incredibly diverse population of nearly 48 million Americans. We need to see and appreciate them as the valuable caregivers, community leaders, executives, entrepreneurs, scientists, innovators, artists advocates, voters patriots, volunteers and visionaries that they are.

The good news is that this asset-based approach is gaining traction. For example, BMe — a network of grassroots leaders, social innovators and donors — has introduced asset-based framing to banks, foundations, nonprofits and communications networks using research and understanding of cognitive, social and cultural psychology.

Similarly, at the McKnight Foundation, the private family foundation I lead, we believe it’s long past time for new narratives. When we speak about racial equity, we’re intentional to point out how targeting resources to specific cultural communities create a ripple effect of broader social and economic gains for all communities.

McKnight is dedicating even more of our grant dollars — and deploying all the other resources available to philanthropy — to create vibrant and equitable communities in our home state of Minnesota. This year, $32 million in grants will go to organizations that accelerate economic mobility, build community wealth, cultivate a fair and just housing system, as well as strengthen democratic participation.

Last year, on the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death, we awarded 10 unsolicited, trust-based grants to organizations that work to create a state that could have sparked and enabled, rather than extinguished, the life of George Floyd. These Black-led organizations take a holistic approach to strengthening and healing, as well as offer community-crafted solutions to realize their aspirations for a just Minnesota. In addition, we’ve begun an intentional process to track our spending on vendors and ask how we can invest our money to create more enabling conditions for wealth-building for Black businesses.

The call for L.O.V.E. boils down to this: Value people for their full humanity. Take the time to understand the Black community’s dreams, not just the issues that serve as nightmares. This isn’t about being charitable or kind. This is about learning to define Black people by their aspirations and contributions, so that we can more readily recognize the policies and practices that oppose those worthy aspirations and meaningful contributions. Let’s grow the movement to lift people up rather than put them down with the Black L.O.V.E. pledge.

Tonya Allen is president of the McKnight Foundation.