I have been a public speaker and commentator for more than two decades, but I rarely tackle racial topics head-on. I quickly lose interest in most racial discussions because they are typically about "what do you think (or feel)?" They rarely address or answer the practical question: "What are you going to do about it?"
This weekend, however, I am looking forward to being a speaker at a Black Lives Matter (Korea) celebration of Juneteenth. Although not widely known, Juneteenth has been celebrated by Black Americans since 1866, starting in Galveston, Texas, not far from where I grew up. Slavery was outlawed by the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, but a war still had to be fought and the news of freedom didn't reach everyone immediately in those days before social media.
Although I feel a connection with Juneteenth, I initially turned down the invitation to be a panelist during the BLM-Korea celebration. The panel, "Finding the Balance: Embracing Black Joy Through the Struggle," will focus on the mental health of Blacks seeing a lot of negative things in the news about Blacks.
I have been swing dancing through my professional life and I wasn't sure that I would be a proper panelist or that my optimistic outlook would add value. One of my favorite quotes and philosophy of getting involved in social causes has been attributed to socialist Emma Goldman: "If I can't dance, then I don't want to join your revolution." Regardless of what is in the news, I have never struggled with any mental health issues. I don't know what it means to be depressed.
When a friend attempted suicide multiple times and reached out to me for help, I read deeply into psychology like I was cramming for an exam. Reading through the literature, I realized that I am an ethical hedonist who wants joy for himself, people around him, and society in general.
Can an ethical hedonist fit in at a discussion about Black people struggling with mental health? The team member inviting me to speak at the BLM Korea event assured me that my optimistic outlook would be welcomed, that I might even help some people see the sunshine through the rain.
My lack of interest in conversations about race is more about my determination to get things done, to make words workable. Even where there is clear systemic racism, individuals need to be prepared to take advantage of current and future opportunities.
In 1899, W.E.B. Dubois wrote that even if white people became angels overnight that most Black people would not be prepared to take advantage of opportunities. He also lobbied for changes in laws and helped form the NAACP a decade later, but his sober point has kept me realistic, even as I worked on increasing educational opportunities for people (especially low-income people) in the U.S. and empowering North Korean refugees here in South Korea.
That is not to dismiss the words of activists and intellectuals about racial issues, but to say that I am more interested in those trying to apply what they know. I don't doubt that experts on Black mental health may come up with some effective race-based remedies and counseling. It would seem, however, that many mental health issues start with the individual, and that goes across numerous cultures.
Do an internet search for "mental health" and add whichever racial group or culture that interests you, and you can read all day about their various challenges. I would guess that Black, whites, Asians and others suffering from mental health challenges would have more in common than ethical hedonists from those various groups and nationalities.
Race, of course, spills into many other topics. At times, it seems that there is "social media homework" that people feel pressure to share the latest videos and hashtags. And when it comes to race, social media homework means staying on top of the latest news about injustice against Blacks.
What's the impact on people with mental health issues reading about the latest injustice in the headlines or historical crimes being brought back to life? It could be nothing or it could make a difference, I don't know. On the flip side, I can say with certainty that what's in the news doesn't bring down this particular ethical hedonist.
I don't expect the Juneteenth conversation this weekend to answer my favorite question: "What are you going to do about it?" Instead of putting pressure on myself to come up with practical action, I can be a Negroid swing dancing my way through life like an ethical hedonist at a panel discussion.
Casey Lartigue, Jr., (CJL@alumni.harvard.edu) is co-editor of "Educational Freedom in Urban America: Brown v. Board after Half a Century." He is co-founder along with Eunkoo Lee of Freedom Speakers International (FSI).