Leila Roker on Fighting Racism: 'Don't Surround Yourself with People Who Think Things Are Okay'
PEOPLE’s Voices from the Fight Against Racism will amplify Black perspectives on the push for equality and justice
Leila Roker is a 21-year-old freelance journalist and social media coordinator who focuses on politics and fashion. She has worked with WWD, NBC and ABC. Roker is a New York native and is currently based in Paris. This is her story, as told to PEOPLE.
I don't think any Black kid remembers the first time their parents sat them down to have "the talk." From an early age, you start to notice on your own that your teachers and classmates speak to you a little differently. I think all people of color, not just Black, have experienced that.
My parents always told me that you have to be twice as good to get half as far. It will be difficult to navigate your career because most of the time, people in high positions won't look like you. Once you're able to get your foot in the door, you may also feel like you're representing a whole community, which can feel like a lot of pressure. You have to hold yourself to a higher standard, which is a tough lesson to learn when you're young.
I grew up attending a predominantly white private school, and the experience made me grow up a lot faster. There were not a lot of people who looked like me, so I started soul searching as a child, trying to figure out who I was. My parents were more strict with me because they knew I couldn't do certain things other kids were doing and getting away with. My standard had to be set a lot higher for a reason.
I first learned about George Floyd's death once I saw the video online. It was very surreal. We hear about these types of stories often, but there was just something so graphic about this one. I know the Black Lives Matter movement has sustained for years, but I hadn't seen this type of push behind it before. This time, things felt different.
The incident brought up a bit of survivor's guilt for me because you realize, this can really happen to anyone. That could've been my brother, my father, my uncle. The most frightening part was that, even if you are a nice, good person, it doesn't mean the world will spare you. It's not about how you act — this was about the color of his skin.
It took me a couple of days to try and process what I was feeling. I later decided to write about it, and to provide a millennial point of view because I think there's a lot to say about the desensitization that's afflicting our generation. We've lived through housing crises, recessions and a global pandemic, and we've been able to put on a brave face through it all. I wanted to let others know that it's okay feel sad. It's okay to say what's happening is terrible because human lives are violently being taken. I wanted to put into words what some of my Black friends have been discussing to also try and express to my non-Black friends: this is how we're feeling.
As the world started to come together to fight for justice for George Floyd, people began to also speak out on behalf of Breonna Taylor and the differences between the response George was getting compared to Breonna, a 26-year-old unarmed Black EMT who was also killed by police. I think many Black women largely feel ignored by society, and the way that Breonna's story wasn't being magnified with the same amplitude as George's has been hurtful to some. Although I acknowledge that this is a very complicated issue with many layers and I don't discredit how people are feeling, I still hope we can continue to come together and support each other. We must remember the larger goal and continue to fight for justice, so we don't have to lose anyone else.
When I think of leaders of the next generation, I think of people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I want to see more leaders with that type of energy, motivation and ability to connect with the people. I want to see more diversity in government so checks and balances can be performed effectively.
It's time for us to go beyond hashtags and take action. It's really important that we vote, call our local representatives to demand change and make donations if you are not comfortable protesting. You can no longer surround yourself with people who think things are okay right now. It's more important than ever to hold people accountable if you want to see real change.
- As told to Diane J. Cho
To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations:
• Campaign Zero (joincampaignzero.org) which works to end police brutality in America through research-proven strategies.
• ColorofChange.org works to make government more responsive to racial disparities.
• National Cares Mentoring Movement (caresmentoring.org) provides social and academic support to help black youth succeed in college and beyond.