Zerlina Maxwell, political analyst, commentator, speaker, and writer, joins the program to share her own diversity story and shares her thoughts on the current moment. Discover why we need to re-think identity politics, and what it will take for our society, culture and institutions to pivot.
In this episode you’ll discover:
- Zerlina’s diversity story, including being the child of 2 civil rights activists (15:00)
- Why we need to change the conversation about identity politics (20:00)
- How to bring humanity back to work (24:00)
- Why Zerlina is proud of the Hillary Clinton 2016 campaign (28:00)
- How the COVID-19 pandemic may change the conversation about consent (35:00)
- What companies need to do to more beyond slogans (38:00)
- How companies can demonstrate a commitment to inclusion (42:00)
- What we miss when we focus on a small political base (45:00)
- The emotional weight of structural inequality (51:00)
Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:
JENNIFER BROWN: Zerlina, welcome to The Will to Change.
ZERLINA MAXWELL: Thank you so much for having me.
JENNIFER BROWN: So, you have a new and your first book coming out July 7th, called The End of White Politics: How to Heal Our Liberal Divide. I am a big fan of yours. I am glued to MSNBC, and I always love your insights. I’m thrilled to have you here. We’re just going to have a wide ranging conversation on more about who you are. I want to hear about your process of writing your first book, because I remember those days. And, honestly, I’m on my second, and it never gets easier.
ZERLINA MAXWELL: No.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. So, I want to hear about that. Then I think we could go through a bunch of what’s happening in our world right now. I mean, just want to put a point on it. We are recording today, June … I have to say this, because things are happening so fast. June 22nd, 2020. We just went through the day of the rally in Tulsa, Saturday, which ended up being a peaceful situation, which you might have breathed a sigh of relief. I know that I did.
ZERLINA MAXWELL: Me too.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yep. And so much happened last week just in the news even. So, I wonder if we could go through a bunch of that. I know you’ll be psyched for that, because this is what you do for a living.
ZERLINA MAXWELL: Yes, it is.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you so much. So, I would love to invite you to share with us your … We say everyone has a diversity story, and some of those things are visible when we think we… but a lot of it’s not. So, tell us a little bit about your early days, your early influences, how they shaped you, and perhaps that kind of moment of awakening around your purpose. When did you kind of realize what you were here to do? Which, safe to say I know you’re doing it right now. But when was that a-ha moment?
ZERLINA MAXWELL: Well, I think I’ve always been interested in politics, but I think finding my purpose within sort of the spectrum of politics, I get that from my mom. My mom, until her retirement, was a program director for the Department of Developmental Disabilities in New Jersey. So, for 30 years, she was an advocate for people who have different abilities. I think just that, full stop, informed my entire worldview, number one, because she was an outspoken advocate for people who sometimes could not speak literally on behalf of themselves, but also she taught us that everyone is valid, everyone is valid, and that’s a really important lesson when you’re a young child sort of experiencing difference or trying to figure out how to navigate the world. I mean, I was a Black child in an all white community for the entirety of my childhood.
So, I think her lessons to us in making us actually spend time with her clients, making the time to actually talk to them in whatever way they were able to communicate. I remember so many moments where I would try to communicate with somebody with cerebral palsy, and then we would build a friendship. Those were my teen years, and all of that was informed by my mother. So, it makes me the kind of person that has a moral center, and that is really around the idea that, if I have a voice, I have to use it to speak up on behalf of the people that don’t have one. And if they don’t have one because no one’s listening to them, there’s a gatekeeper blocking them from the microphone, or they cannot physically even speak, I need to think about them, empathize with their experiences, and then try to fight for them.
I mean, I come from a family of civil rights activists. My grandfather was a civil rights activist in the 1960s, and he marched in Selma with my aunt. So, those are the stories that I heard growing up. My mother’s sort of focus on always reminding us of where we came from and who we are … Imagine a little Black child going to school with all white children wearing Black is beautiful T-shirts at eight. She made me do that. It was horrifying, but I get it now. Right? In this moment in particular where Black Lives Matter is literally being painted on the street in front of the White House, I think it’s really important to reflect on my mom, or it’s important for me to reflect on the lessons that my mom taught me at a young age. Then my dad, he’s a coach and a teacher. So, he’s always giving me lessons and little speeches like in a movie.
So, I feel like I had parents that they taught us that we’re only one person, and we’re a part of a legacy, whether it be a part of our family legacy or historical legacy. But you sort of want to leave your mark on the world, because life goes really fast, and you never know what’s going to happen, obviously. We’re in quarantine. So, you sort of want to do … I mean, it’s the Hillary Clinton quote, but you don’t … I mean, my parents didn’t use that quote, but do the most good. Do some good, point your good intention and efforts in a direction of a problem, potentially, hopefully, and then do whatever you can to fix it, solve it, make it better.
That’s who my parents are, and so that’s who I am. That’s who my sister is. She’s a deep empath with crystals and the whole astrology thing. I don’t even understand. So, that’s who we are. That I ended up in politics is not a coincidence. I’ve always been obsessed. As a little child, I was like … My dad voted for Republicans, and I would yell at him at like eight.
JENNIFER BROWN: Wow.
ZERLINA MAXWELL: So, I’ve always been vocal. He jokes that my nickname when I was a toddler was Little Miss Question, because I just wouldn’t shut up. I just really needed to know all of the answers. So, I think about that a lot. Especially he tells me those stories in quarantine… the stories…
JENNIFER BROWN: I know, because you’re sheltering with them. You’re literally with your parents, right?
ZERLINA MAXWELL: Yes. Yes. And it’s so weird-
JENNIFER BROWN: I’m sure.
ZERLINA MAXWELL: … because we’re adults now. So, my sister and I both are … We’re all here, all of us-
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh my gosh.
ZERLINA MAXWELL: … and two animals. It’s actually really great, because we’re adults. So, now we get to get to know our parents as people, if that makes sense, because you’re…
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah, yeah. As adult to adult.
ZERLINA MAXWELL: Then we’re not going anywhere. Even when you lived with your parents when you were younger, like before college, you were going to high school, or you were going places. They were going to work. So, this is a lot of time together that you didn’t necessarily have before. So, it’s very interesting.
I’m also very curious about this idea that the intra-generational quarantine situation has created part of the spark for this moment, because you had parents quarantined with college students who were like, “What? Black Lives Matter? What are you talking about?” Then they were on TikTok educating each other about white supremacy, and their parents do not know what they’re doing. They just think they’re doing dances, and they don’t know that they’re radicalizing a generation’s view of progressive politics.
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s so true.
ZERLINA MAXWELL: Yes.
JENNIFER BROWN: So, I’m sure if you said your dad was a Republican, I wonder how are they taking your-
ZERLINA MAXWELL: He would not say he is a republican … But he has voted for them.
JENNIFER BROWN: Okay. He has voted. Yeah. So, I’m curious. You write this book End of White Politics. You have the voice that you have. Are they like 100% super proud, keep going, or are you all having the tough conversations generationally, even between how they viewed activism and how you are embodying that?
ZERLINA MAXWELL: It seems sort of arrogant to say, but I feel like I’ve taught them a lot about our generation. I’ve learned a lot from them, but also I think they probably looked at me a little crazy when I first started with Twitter, and they were like, “What are you doing? We do not understand. What is Twitter?” But now they don’t ask those questions. Maybe they’re like, “What’s TikTok?” And I don’t really know either.
My dad is a scientist, so that allows … Both of my parents are pastors on top of all of this. But my dad is a scientist, so he’s very rational. So, he’s a good person to have a debate with, because you can present rational arguments, and then he considers them seriously.
JENNIFER BROWN: Wow. Okay.
ZERLINA MAXWELL: So, it’s very, very delightful. People should try that more often. Right? I mean…
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes. Agreed.
ZERLINA MAXWELL: For many, many years, it’s a good sounding board for me practicing how to articulate a persuasive case for why my point of view, or at least considering my point of view, is the way to go. Right? I’m not saying I’m right about every single detail about every issue, but I definitely probably have thought it through more than you if you’re landing on the wrong side of it, because I’ve definitely thought it through. I mean, that’s what my brain does. It just processes, and then it reprocesses information from every angle. I can’t stop it. It just does that.
Yeah. But I do think that it’s helpful to have a sounding board on some of these debates, but right now, I mean, everybody in this house is very clear on where they stand on politics in this moment. My dad is absolutely … I mean, my dad saved my life essentially, because I live in Brooklyn. He called me. New York shut down a week before, or a week after, I left. My dad called me when California shut down like, “You need to get out right now,” because when he saw New York not shutting down and California was shutting down, he was like, “This is not federal strategy. It’s not going to work.” Because he’s a biologist who literally he teaches biology. He’s a professor. He teaches biology and including coronaviruses. He was like, “You need to leave.” So, I picked up my cat, and I escaped. But I think that it helps to have a sounding board, like a scientist, to sort of practice my argument, because ultimately I do think I am correct on some of these things.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, indeed. Yeah. I have a dad who’s on the other side of the political spectrum from me, but I do think of it as the same thing in terms of how I present the argument. The practice of that is equipping me to do what I need to do now. It continues between us. He’s 83. And it’s more difficult when you’re on opposite sides of the political spectrum. But that’s my challenge, right? Or opportunity, as we say. It’s not a challenge, it’s an opportunity, in the business world to try to land points, right? To try to figure out how would I reach somebody like this with this message. How can I make it make sense? And he’s a physician too, so I get the logic.
But the generational thing is painful, because I think they’re so saturated with change right now they’re overwhelmed with the rate the world is changing anyway, and then this happens, and it’s so easy for people to kind of retreat into, I think, fear, and feeling that this moment is a moment where everything that’s familiar that some people consider to be kind of some of the foundations of our democracy, when everything could be … The baby could be thrown out with the bathwater. I think that that’s what some people are feeling that are actually teachable in their heart of hearts.
So, it’s interesting to kind of parse through is this overwhelm, is this nostalgia for another time when you’re dealing with white people who are being asked to change right now and asked to really take a hard look. I’m fascinating with all the sources of resistance, because I think we’re going to have to get through that before we galvanize…
ZERLINA MAXWELL: Oh yeah. There will be more resistance.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, there will.
ZERLINA MAXWELL: Definitely the end … I feel like this moment … I was saying it on my radio show, saying all of this on SiriusXM today, that I feel like this is the end of something, not the beginning of something. It’s obviously the start of a new era, but I really do feel like … I mean, the president’s rally in Oklahoma, a picture’s worth 1,000 words. The sight of empty blue seats with one lone Trump supporter and a sign in the middle, I think it fully illustrates.
My book is called The End of White Politics because of the Pew research data. The country is going to be minority white in 2045. That’s just what the data says. I haven’t factored in COVID-19, and I don’t know if that’s going to have a nominal effect. I don’t know. That’s research that somebody’s going to do. Right? But frankly, it was very interesting to see that a group of people who have been conditioned to believe that they’re the majority, because that’s been how it … It’s been the case, right? You’ve been the majority. You’ve had the power. You’ve been the president. You’ve been in charge of every company. You’re every CEO. You’re at the top of everything. And you’ve seen that.
You’ve been led to believe that you’re the majority, and 2016, it proved you right. You are the majority, right? Even though we know they didn’t even win the popular vote. We all know that that’s true, and yet we’ve been obsessed with the base of the Trump Republican Party this whole time. And I’m like, “This is not that many people.” I don’t know why we’re obsessed with this small minority of the country, because, even if you’re just talking about white people, it’s still a minority of white people.
So, the reason why I feel like the statement of The End of White Politics needs to be said is because, number one, we were centering and focusing only on one type of person, and we weren’t even … We were othering women as if they’re some other species that-
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s so true.
ZERLINA MAXWELL: … they needed special examination. That’s the way we cover it like it’s a special interest. They’re more than half of the population.
So, I felt like we needed to flip the whole identity politics conversation on its head. It is wrong. We’ve been doing identity politics the whole time. My cohost, Jess McIntosh, and I quote her in the book, says, “We called it politics, but it was white identity politics that we were doing.” So, all I’m saying is that we’re headed to a place where white voters will be the minority of the electorate. So, let’s start acting like it and expand the spectrum of conversation so that we can include everyone and exclude no one. That’s all I’m saying.
I think it’s sort of a … The beauty in it is that it’s simple, and it’s based on data, and that it’s something that does allow us to do the things that we are trying to do on progressive policies, because the numbers are on our side. And if you need to be reminded of that, then just look at that photo from Oklahoma of the empty blue seats, because that is us. We are the blue seats.
JENNIFER BROWN: I love that image. You’re so right. You’re so right. I love that. That’s beautiful.
ZERLINA MAXWELL: The blue seats. Yep.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s so good. Have you tweeted that out yet?
ZERLINA MAXWELL: I haven’t. I haven’t.
JENNIFER BROWN: You heard it here first, folks. That’s excellent.
ZERLINA MAXWELL: I might say it on TV if I get the opportunity.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, that’s so good. That was really, really amazing. Very nicely done. So, when you worked with the Hillary Clinton campaign, you reflected that there was a lot of criticism of identity politics because she amplified the historic nature of her glass ceiling shattering candidacy and was criticized. Then you have a whole chapter on Bernie bros, which I thought was really fascinating.
So, can you take us back to that moment? I guess, why, when identity is so important actually to the demographic shifts and to actually speaking from the place of lived experience as the group that’s going to be the majority in 2045? We got a really rough start with the conversation about identity. It felt like it was weaponized. And yet what you’re saying and writing about is that it’s so critical actually to emphasize it, because it matters. It matters in terms of the issues we care about, really the direction of the whole Democratic Party. So, tell us how you’ve seen the conversation evolve about identity, quote/unquote, politics, and how it was experienced in the Hillary campaign, and then subsequent to now.
ZERLINA MAXWELL: Well, I think with Hillary Clinton’s campaign, there was sort of a conflict between the traditional campaign that we were running with … I was in the communications department. My boss was Jen Palmieri who really I think expertly led a traditional presidential campaign. But even she writes in her book that she didn’t factor in sort of the tax on Hillary for being a woman as much as she probably should have.
I think anybody looking back now can understand that, while she did use her identity, sort of “I’ll play the woman card in response to Trump,” she also very carefully didn’t use it in moments when it could have been helpful, like when she was at the debate and he’s stalking her around the stage. In the Hulu documentary, she says, “I thought in the moment, should I say, ‘Back up, you creep,’ or does that look like I’m not able to keep my cool?” She was tap-dancing this unfair, arbitrary line of what looks presidential.
But the problem is that we’ve never had a woman president. So, who knows what response is the right one? And she always says, “Show me a woman doing politics the exact perfect way, and I’ll do that. But you can’t, because there is no model.”
JENNIFER BROWN: We don’t have examples.
ZERLINA MAXWELL: Right? So, fundamentally, I feel like that is the problem. I feel like in hindsight I am proud of the Hillary Clinton campaign. I think they did a phenomenal job in certain aspects of expanding the conversation of intersectionality, around reproductive justice, and even having a presidential candidate say those terms is infusing a criminal justice and racial justice lens into her policy platform and in her messaging did allow for the conversation we’re having now to happen. Right? And the fact that all the presidential candidates in the last cycle were all talking about… That does not happen but for Hillary moving that piece. And it’s not only her. It’s activist and grassroots based. But the campaign used that relationship with those activists to inform their messaging and policy. So, that was really important, and I want to credit the campaign with that.
Looking forward, I think of it this way. You can’t represent a party with the diversity like the Democratic Party without having people who represent the diversity of the Democratic Party. When I look at the chapter that I have on Bernie Sanders, and additionally I have a critical chapter on Joe Biden, I think they both stand up. So, it doesn’t have to do with the fact that one is more progressive and one is more moderate. That’s not the point. And also, it doesn’t have to do with the fact that they’re white men, because I do credit certain white men who are able to at least acknowledge that black women are the base of the Democratic Party and then act like that, like Senator Doug Jones, who’s in a tough fight for his reelection in a very red state. But to the point, if he is reelected or successful, it will be because the black women who got him in there in the first place are able to do it again.
So, my critique of Bernie Sanders, who improved tremendously from 2016 to 2020, in terms of making sure that had an intersectional lens on policy, that, if you were asking him about what’s your plan for black America he didn’t start with criminal justice reform, because that’s insulting. There’s nuance like that that’s really important. He hired more activists and grassroots organizers to inform that messaging and policy. So, that was an improvement, but I still think that there are many blind spots. The failure to even acknowledge that the blind spots exist is infuriating. That’s why, in the chapter on the white privilege and the white resistance, I talk about people to judge also, because I feel like there was this lack of acknowledgement that, if he were a black woman, no one would take him as seriously. It is not even a question.
We are almost basically the same age. So, it was crazy to me to see somebody stand there and be like, “I’m going to tell you what my policies are later. It’s the minutiae.” That was incredible to me. And just not even acknowledging the privilege of that. I didn’t like it. But I think that … I think in hindsight, when we’re having this conversation in this moment about who Joe Biden should pick as vice president, I have been very vocal. I think it should be a black woman. There are plenty of them that are qualified. Pick one, please. Just pick. I push back on this notion that “Well, Stacey Abrams has less experience than Kamala Harris.” No. Donald Trump’s the president. Full stop. We’re not doing that conversation over here. When the black woman is up for the promotion, all of a sudden there’s all these qualifications that didn’t exist when it was a man on the other side.
Additionally, the thing about experience is, if you don’t have experience, you should study up on the thing. So, in 2008, Barack Obama didn’t have a lot of experience in foreign policy. That was part of the reason why he picked Joe Biden. But he didn’t sound dumb when you were asking him questions about foreign policy. He studied up. He had advisors. He sounded like he knew what he was talking about. That’s the difference. If you don’t have specific … None of these people have been vice president before. The only person who’s been vice president is Joe Biden. They’re all coming to it with their diversity of experience, but what I want to be able to trust is their values and their judgment. And all of the people he’s considering have shown that they have excellent judgment and character. So, they’re going to study up, because a black woman’s not going to show up unprepared.
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s not allowed.
ZERLINA MAXWELL: They didn’t get to this level in their life without doing the assigned reading. They did…
JENNIFER BROWN: Can you go into that just a tiny bit, sidebar the whole sort of expectation of perfectionism and how that’s felt for you on a personal level? What has been your experience of how you feel you need to show up and how you will be judged and where the bar is?
ZERLINA MAXWELL: Well, I am going through a complete and total reformation in that respect currently in quarantine, because there’s a couple of different levels to this. My first sport was gymnastics. So, not only did I do gymnastics, but I was a competitive gymnast until the age of 15. So, when you talk about perfectionism, I’ve got that. You could even tell in terms of my TV … Just my aesthetic, the way that I sit, the way that I am. You can sort of tell either I did ballet or gymnastics.
JENNIFER BROWN: You’re a performer.
ZERLINA MAXWELL: I’m a performer. I can get up, and I can be poised, even if I’m screaming on the inside. That’s what we’ve been trained to do. So, it’s helps me in my job. Thanks for that. I’m glad.
But I think I’ve had to, throughout my life and throughout my twenties, now I’m in my late thirties, but really shake that off, shake off the strive to be perfect, to appear perfect, to look perfect, when things are not perfect, because nothing’s perfect. So, it’s shedding the idea that it’s not … I guess the expression … I don’t know whose quote this is, but it’s not the way it looks, it’s the way it feels. And sort of shedding this idea that how it looks is more important than how it feels. I actually am now really sitting and marinating on the idea of, no, it actually it’s how it feels, and I need to think about those things. That’s one piece of it.
But the other piece of that I’ve sort of recently been thinking about is this … Because I’m a survivor of sexual assault. So, that’s the other piece of my work that, even before I wrote this book, I was very much planning and still plan to write a book around the reckoning and Me Too and the idea that we live in a culture of rape and how we can strive to dismantle that. Although I’ve been thinking that COVID is actually going to be very indirectly helpful, because no one … People will understand consent very much now. That was a very circuitous way for that to come about, but I feel positively that in some ways, post-COVID, we’ll be able to have a reimagined conversation around consent, because we just have to stand back and be respectful of people’s space going forward, which is a very interesting thing.
In terms of sort of the idea of perfectionism, sort of going back to my story of survival, I think I’ve had an up and down relationship to how I present myself to the world in every single way. So, recently I realized … And this is actually a new development in quarantine. I recently realized that I had sort of shut myself off to the male gaze, one, because I live in New York, and, two, sort of as a form of self-protection. I have a lot of friends who are queer. So, I’ve sort of just presented more in line with someone who is not seeking male attention in any way, shape, or form.
I realized it in quarantine that … Well, besides my dad. He doesn’t count though. It’s my dad. So, there is no male gaze, and that I can actually take this safe space that is quarantine and explore what it would feel like to dress for the gaze that, in this case, is a straight woman as male, but when there are no men. But that’s sort of the head space I’m in now. But it sort of goes back to the piece about deconditioning and deprogramming the desire to look perfect, even if I don’t feel perfect, and then sort of the complicated relationship that I’ve had with the male gaze and feeling vulnerable … Because New York, walking around is really hard, and as a survivor can be just like triggers every five minutes.
The ways in which now I finally have an opportunity to sort of explore that without the danger associated and the emotional triggers that come along with walking around New York City without my headphones and my buttons all the way up, turtleneck, covered all the way up, because I’m trying to block that. So, I’ve been sort of thinking through a lot of ideas around personal presentation in quarantine, because you have this sort of safe space to do it. That’s an interesting question, but I’ve absolutely deprogrammed the perfectionism that I got from gymnastics, although it does help me on TV.
JENNIFER BROWN: Well, the show must go on. I’m a performer too, so I know we are literally bulletproof. We’re the ones you want to throw in there when you don’t know what’s going to happen, and we have to pull it together and make it look nice and always have something to say that’s witty and well put together. But I study this so much, and I know that some people feel they don’t need to put makeup on or do their hair. Men don’t have the same experience.
Once you realize that and how much time we put into all of this machinations, I guess, of being female, it’s overwhelming. I’m loving that too. I think probably a lot of women are revisiting all the effort we put into it and also the levels of safety. I mean, living in New York is interesting, because it sort of emptied out. And as a woman walking around the streets even, it was a different feeling. It was a looking over the shoulder. It was definitely the lack of the people that always make you feel so safe in New York City, because everyone’s always around all the time.
But you’re not the first woman that has told me that they button their shirts all the way up to the top, that they wear loose clothing, that they don’t put makeup on as a statement actually in the workplace. Because we feel so scrutinized, we all kind of deal with it differently. Some of us play into it, and then we feel bad for doing that. Others of us reject it and try to sort of, I guess, desexualize, if you will, our appearance.
But either way, it’s such a tremendous distraction, which is the most important thing to focus on of all this, because it takes our energy and our focus away from our brilliance and our ability to be present and feel safe while we’re doing our work. That level of comfort is so what I want for all of us. I study the workplace and how we don’t bring our full selves to work. So many of us don’t. And not even every straight white man brings his full self to work either. I mean, would argue the workplace is toxic for everyone, because it was built by and for one group of people, and that’s never going to be the best, the optimal environment for a diversity of humans. It’s just not going to be.
ZERLINA MAXWELL: Well, I’ve always had a very clear boundary, I think because of how I grew up. I think being the only black person it means that I can’t really bring my full self, because it’s so different from everybody else’s experience. So, I’ve always joked that, if there is some office happy hour, I’m not going to that. And not because I’m not friendly with people that I work with, but …
My cohost has a really good and interesting sort of rule about friends. You categorize friends as people you would call if you’ve had a bad day. And there are so few people that are in that … You know what I mean? If you’ve had a bad day, you’re on the verge of tears and you just need to talk somebody, those are the people that are your friends. Work boundaries are important to me, because I think I want to bring sort of my professional self to work. I mean, it’s very weird in quarantine. I think a lot of culture around this is going change post-quarantine.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yeah. Thankfully.
ZERLINA MAXWELL: But I do think that, before, I definitely was sort of bringing my professional self to work, and then I’m going and I’m being myself at home. And you don’t know both sides of Zerlina. You’ve never seen the other personality. And that’s fine, because that gives me a little bit of freedom to be that, and I don’t have to-
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s true.
ZERLINA MAXWELL: I mean, I’ve worked in big law firms, and so they’re sort of notorious for ratchet holiday parties. So, I’ve early on sort of saw people acting not so wonderfully, and so I was like, “How are you going to go into a meeting tomorrow and present and then people are going to take you seriously when they just saw you fall down drunk?” Just I never got that. And I know that being the only black person means that it’s not like … Oh, it might have been Tom, or it was Brad. It’s Zerlina who fell, and now she’s in front. I think that I was always thinking about this stigma associated with that, if I’m the only person in a particular place.
JENNIFER BROWN: You sensed it was not safe and it would not end well for you.
ZERLINA MAXWELL: No. No.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yep. Yep, yep, yep. Totally. That’s how many queer people, for example, still stay closeted in the workplace, or people who are … Even just people who are sober. The whole sort of … Speaking of social work, alcohol-fueled, sports-oriented … I mean, we think about … I had one client where crossfit was like the only health benefit that they covered.
ZERLINA MAXWELL: Oh my gosh.
JENNIFER BROWN: It was the only health benefit from a fitness or an exercisr perspective. So, just the biases of the things we like to do, and then the assumption that’s made that everybody also finds it fun and/or inclusive or healthy indeed, it’s just there’s so … Everywhere you turn in every workplace practice, I feel like everything needs to be blown up. I know that that’s scary for some of us. They’re like, “Well, how much change can we take at once?” The problem is that so many things need to change. It’s almost like, what order do you do them in? Easy to hard? Do you get out the hard stuff … I mean, it’s going to be hard for years. If you really want to … There’s so much that is overdue, and it’s sort of been piling up in my mind.
So, right now rooting out systemic racism, for example, in organizations is a fascinating thing. Just slapping on Juneteenth as a paid holiday, for example. I wanted to get your thoughts on that, because we’re watching the corporate space really carefully and celebrating, for sure, that that is being acknowledged. It’s an opportunity for education. But I might argue that’s an easy thing in sort of the pantheon of investment that can be made. I don’t know if you’d agree with that. If it were easy, I think we’d see more companies doing it. So, what do you think about … So, everyone’s jumping on that bandwagon. What do you think?
ZERLINA MAXWELL: It is easy. Were you saying “Happy Juneteenth” last year? I think it’s very interesting how everybody’s like, “Black lives matter!” But I’m like, “Do the black employees that work for you … Are they advocated for? Are they protected from discrimination? Do you listen to them when they come in with their complaints? Do they build up until it’s finally too much? And the one person in the company has a file yea long of harassment complaints, whether they be about gender or race or both, and they’re still in the company.” I mean, those are the kinds of things I think people need to start asking about next, also about leadership in companies and how many executives within a company are from diverse backgrounds, not just race but gender.
Because I remember at one of the law firms I worked at early on there was a black … Okay. First of all, there was like 600 partners. One was black, and he was like 29. When I found him on the website when I was a paralegal, I remember being like, “Oh, that’s him.” And I was like, “Wait. He’s like my age.” So, it was obviously like he had just been made … You know what I mean?
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s right. That’s right.
ZERLINA MAXWELL: So, they have the one black partner, and he’s 29.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, lord.
ZERLINA MAXWELL: But the thing is that I think what companies do not realize, they need to start realizing this, is that the black people that work for you absolutely are aware of the lack of diversity around them at every second of the day. They talk to each other about it openly, and we have jokes about it. I mean, I’ve been in so many … You know how many newsrooms I’ve walked into and had somebody go like, “Five,” and you know exactly what they mean? They’re counting the number of black people in the room.
JENNIFER BROWN: Oh my gosh.
ZERLINA MAXWELL: This is a thing that happens. And this has happens in law firms too. I remember when we did a happy hour with all the black staff, and it was like seven people. We were like, “This is a firm of thousands of people. This doesn’t make any sense.”
So, I think companies need to show that they actually care about diversity and not just putting out a press release about diversity. And showing that you understand diversity is not just hiring the black person but making sure the black person stays. Do you have a lot of employee turnover because the culture is really just making it as comfortable as possible for only one kind of person? And what I mean is the white guy, a straight white guy.
Where we’re headed in the future, it just needs to acknowledge that women are a majority. We are in the workplace. The workplace as it was before pandemic, as you said, was built around white men who are married with a wife at home taking care of their children full-time. That was how they set up the hours. That was how they set up everything. That’s why there’s not universal childcare. So, maybe one of the things we can do while we’re here in quarantine is think of a radical, new world that we would like to go into, because going back to what we had before is not sustainable in the future.
I mean, I’m very curious to see how long it takes for our society, culture, and institutions, how long it’s going to take for us to pivot to innovation. I’ve been thinking about it for two weeks obsessively. When is somebody going to come up with pod restaurant? I am so obsessed with the types of things that we can create, because we’re the best innovators. We’re super creative. We’re Americans. We can do this. Because I don’t think … When people are like, “We’re going to reopen,” a restaurant barely was making it when they were at 100% capacity, and you’re telling me they’re going to work at 20% capacity, a restaurant in New York City? I don’t think so. I know math. I’m not good at it, but I know enough. I know enough to know that that’s not going to work out long-term.
So, what are we going to do on the other side of this as we struggle through the next six months of this year? Because we probably are not going to have a vaccine. My dad is a biologist. He told me … This is the number that I always think about is five. That’s the number of years it took to make a vaccine, the fastest from research to actually distributing it to people, like on a mass scale. Five years.
JENNIFER BROWN: That hurts.
ZERLINA MAXWELL: But when you get the real facts, it was like, “Okay, I’m going to settle in here.” When I was in quarantine and when I first came down, I had like a duffel bag and my cat, like “Oh, I’m going to be here a few weeks.” Then kind of a month into it when Ralph Northam, the governor of Virginia, was like, “We’re not opening until June,” I was like, “Oh. I’m not going to be … I’m here. I live here now.”
But I think that we have to get away from sort of the focus just on one kind of person, and I just wanted to call it out, because I’m sort of tired of watching election nights and analysis that focuses on Trump’s base or what is Trump’s base and Trump’s … I’m like, what about the 75% of other people?
JENNIFER BROWN: It’s almost a remarginalization, isn’t it?
ZERLINA MAXWELL: Yes. But we’re the bigger group!
JENNIFER BROWN: We are.
ZERLINA MAXWELL: It doesn’t make any sense.
JENNIFER BROWN: But we have less status. We have less status.
ZERLINA MAXWELL: It’s so ridiculous. Also, it’s like you’re dissecting the little group. It’s like white working class voters, white voters with a college degree, white women, white married women. I’m not on any of your slides. Why is that?
JENNIFER BROWN: That’s so true.
ZERLINA MAXWELL: So, I just want us to sort of make our voice loud. Tiffany Cross is another MSNBC regular who has a book, Say It Louder, she’s focusing on black voters. I haven’t read the book. I can’t wait to. But I think it’s important for progressives and white progressives in particular to use this moment. I love the book lists, and I’m going to learn everything. I’m like, “Great. I’m not going to answer your text message, but read a book.” And learning about history that they didn’t know about before and sort of thinking about the ways that they can use their privilege and be helpful and not just say, “Oh, I feel bad,” because that’s not helpful to me at all. Now I made you feel bad. So, it’s actually now you’re hurting me more again, because you’re like, “I feel so bad.” I’m like, “Well, I’m sorry to make you feel that way, but racism is happening to people that look like me. But let’s get to work.” I don’t want to talk about it; I want to go do something about it.
I think pandemic is the ultimate reminder that life is short and that you need to take advantage of every single second you breathe air on this earth and try to make it better for somebody else on this earth. And maybe that’s in your family. Maybe that’s just the people in your community. But if everybody did that, it would be a much better place to live. Certainly I think, going back to sort of the visual of the Trump rally, I think those blue seats just represent that they’re a minority. There is a small minority of people who are very, very upset about myriad things. Who knows what they’ve been through? People have gone through a lot of things. I have empathy for them too, and I feel very sorry that they have been taken advantage by a president who has a history of conning people. I just think that I don’t have the time to save them.
I feel bad, but the rest of us absolutely can take back our democracy, because it’s a people power democracy and it always has been that way. And, yes, Democrats take too much money from corporate packs, but that’s not the priority, because children are in cages on the border. I do have a list of priorities, and Wall Street is on it, but racism is higher on my list. Sorry. And I think that’s part of the reason why the Bernie Sanders set, it just didn’t ever sit right in my spirit. I just couldn’t … It didn’t feel like I was a part of their team, and I didn’t feel … I never really felt like they were speaking to me, because they didn’t center what really impacts me every day. Sure, Wall Street greed has impacted me every day in a lot of ways I probably can see and not see. But certainly the woman who, in the bagel shop yelled at me and cut me in line and made me feel stupid and I didn’t even do anything, and likely that interaction happened because I’m black and she’s white, that affects me a lot more in some ways.
I think we have to consider the emotional weight that people are experiencing on top of the structural impact of that inequity. Not to equate Wall Street greed with microaggressions. I’m not doing that. It’s a spectrum. But I do think that, when we’re looking at even COVID data of black people who had these preexisting conditions, but then we’re not considering the fact that you might have hypertension or risk of stroke or high blood pressure or heart disease not because you eat improperly but because racism is stressful and anxiety-inducing. And anytime you drive in a car and a cop is behind you, you have a panic attack. That has an effect on the body.
I just think that the more research that’s being done about the epidemiology of it and sort of how trauma is passed down through our DNA, I think that’s when I get to the place where … Brittany Packnett just said the other say, “Every black person you meet is a blessing, is a miracle.” She said, “Every black person you meet is a miracle.” I think this moment reminds me of that. This moment reminds me of my own family marching in Selma to get the right to vote. There were people being beaten and killed because they were marching for the right to vote. So, how dare I not speak up and exercise that right that they marched to get at the risk of death?
But also, sort of fast forward now, people are risking death to go march and protest systems of policing that have been oppressing them. I think that every iteration of the civil rights movement, usually tied to police brutality in some way, shape, or form, and that is also true of the gay rights movement. So, I think a lot of … It all intersects, but this is a moment when we can actually make real and true and transformative change, because we have the numbers finally. We didn’t always. We didn’t have that before. Now we can vote to change the world.
JENNIFER BROWN: And joined by activated, white allies is going to add to those numbers.
ZERLINA MAXWELL: Exactly.
JENNIFER BROWN: Right? So, it’s our time. This is beautiful. And you’re right, Stonewall, just for those of us who don’t know … The Stonewall movement started with a riot. Stonewall was a riot. It was literally a tangle with police and black trans individuals. So, our movements are actually inextricably linked in that beautiful intersectional way like we’ve been talking about as well. Yeah. It’s finally, I think, time to really make some lasting changes. So, Zerlina, I’m so excited for your book. I know people can get it July 7th. Let me reiterate that. Where else can they follow you, listen to you, have you in their ears, et cetera?
ZERLINA MAXWELL: Sure. I host Signal Boost on SiriusXM Progress, channel 127. You can get that in the app, or, if you are driving somewhere, you can get that in your car, or you can stream it online. Also, I’m an MSNBC political analyst, so anytime I’m on there. I don’t have like a regular, set schedule. Maybe one day. Also, they can follow me on … All my socials are @zerlinamaxwell.
JENNIFER BROWN: Yes, one day. I see really big things for you.
ZERLINA MAXWELL: Oh, thank you.
JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you, Zerlina, for joining me.
ZERLINA MAXWELL: Thank you so much.
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