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Why you need to have a happy workforce

29th July 2021

Dana James-Edwards on what Obama can tell us about diversity and inclusion

When I was growing up, I heard the words, “You can be whatever and whoever you want to be” all the time. But a part of me never truly believed it until the moment Barack Obama won the US election. Here was someone who while highly educated, was not from a particularly wealthy background and had the same colour skin as me, holding the highest office in the United States of America. Some might even say the most powerful position in the world. I was elated. However, my feelings of achievement and pride were coloured by some of the media and social media coverage and commentary at the time. 

I watched aghast as he was called a Nazi, a monkey, and depicted as an African witch doctor complete with grass skirt. I remember deactivating my Facebook account to take some time off social media in the wake of his election, because every time I logged in I would see something about the desperate need to pray for America in the hands of Obama and how the country was going to be ruined under his leadership. I got angry at those making the comments and false assertions, but will admit that a part of me was also cross with Obama himself.

“Why isn’t he fighting back?”, I thought. “He has all of this power and all of this reach and access to resources. Why isn’t he using it to quash all these aspersions!”, I grumbled to anyone who would listen. I watched the mudslinging happen again and again across his first term, and a myriad of indignities and injustices unleashed not just against him but against his entire family, and it made me more and more enraged. 

Then, during his re-election campaign I remember Michelle Obama saying, “When they go low, we go high”. And I heard her. Because she was right. Going low is easy. It’s what you do when you feel pain and rage and want revenge. Looking back, every time I wished the Obamas would go low, I was coming from a place of fury. I wanted the people taking away my sense of pride and spreading misinformation couched as fact, to be punished. I wasn’t thinking about what the effects of the Obamas unleashing that anger would be in the future and what message it would send. I just wanted someone to pay in that moment, and no good action starts in that space. 

The Obamas, I think, knew that while a temporary release of anger in public might feel good in the moment it would overall do more harm than good. They had to think longer-term. In addition, they had the eyes of the world on them. Some, just waiting for a misstep that they could spin and amplify. They also had a generation looking toward them as role-models, just as I was. By taking the high road they maintained their dignity while in office and protected their legacy in a way that still enables them to be seen as exemplars today.Had they gone low it would have just been more fuel to the fire, and they would have played into the trope of the ‘angry black man’ and ‘angry black woman’ that still exists and continues to surface negatively today.

What is important to note is that Michelle Obama never said that taking the high road is easy, and exempts you from the pain and anger that arises when others are hurtful. But she did say that you feel the pain and hurt, and rise above it, which I think is something that we can all continue to learn from. 

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