We began a conversation with Ed Magee M.B.A. ’04 on another topic, and we ended up deep in discussion about racism, anti-racism, and the enormous complexity of our moment. So when the topic of freedom came up, we naturally reached out to him, and he leapt at the chance to share his thoughts. “I’d kick off the conversation with the Nina Simone quote that the meaning of freedom is simply ‘no fear,’ ” he said in an email. Simone’s famous quote comes from a filmed interview in which the High Priestess of Soul responds to the question, “What does ‘freedom’ mean to you?”

“It’s just a feeling,” she says, and then upon further reflection, “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me: no fear.” In her response, she rhapsodizes about the freedom of being a child and the freedom she feels when performing and finally concludes that freedom is “a new way of seeing.”

Magee works as head of operations at Fender Musical Instruments Corp. and is co-president of the Fender Play Foundation, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit focused on increasing children’s access to musical instruments, instruction, and inspiration. He’s also the executive sponsor of Fender’s Black Employee Resource Group, called Black in Business. Fender created the ERG following the murder of George Floyd and the nationwide response to social-justice issues.

ED MAGEE: For a long time, I felt that just being a successful African American was enough. I was doing my part. I now believe that I have the responsibility to enable and facilitate dialogue around race and racism—with people and communities that I care about. How do we create spaces where we can have thoughtful, reflective, factual conversations about race, despite the volatility of the topic?

DUKE MAGAZINE: Does this relate to freedom?

EM: Absolutely. Nina’s comments are burned into the psyche of African Americans in our country. There have been more than a couple of occasions when I hear or read conversation detractors like, “Well, you guys need to get over that,” whenever we delve into topics around structural racism from our country’s history (slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, etc.). Well, okay, let’s talk about what you’re asking me to get over within the context of living with no fear. One simple example is the conversation called “The Talk” that I’ve had with my kids about how a person of color engages with the police, based upon the very history that you’re asking me to “get over.” Fear is something that we contemplate every time we leave the relative safety of our homes. It would require an incredible level of historical revisionism for the collective African-American psyche to say that we’re engaging the American Dream, devoid of history, with no fear. But it’s also an exercise and lived experience that has created an incredible amount of resilience in the Black community—and equally important, opportunities for allyship.

DM: How does allyship relate to freedom? To “no fear”?

EM: Here’s a specific example: A few months ago, I had lunch with a couple of mid-twenty-year-old African-American business owners who were in Washington, D.C., during the protests following George Floyd’s murder. They relayed an incredible story about one particular night of protests where the police were advancing against a line of protesters. These twenty-year-old, college-educated American citizens were getting hit by batons and pepper-sprayed, no different than what occurred during the Civil Rights era that some have asked them to simply “get over.” The police started advancing against the line of protesters. They conveyed the incredible moment when a group of white women walked between them and the police, sat down and locked arms. The police then stopped advancing. I was humbled both by their story and the incredible courage that both protesters and allies demonstrated through their actions. These kids, in the face of rubber bullets, pepper spray, and batons, were demonstrating the power of believing that their protests could bring about change. The allies who sat down and risked bodily harm demonstrated equal courage and their commitment to protecting the protesters’ right to peacefully advocate for progress. But let’s also acknowledge what “no fear” means at the other end of the protest spectrum. The citizens who on January 6 strolled into the U.S. Capitol, openly conveying the desire to kidnap sitting congressmen and senators and overthrow the government in order to change the outcome of a valid U.S. election, appeared to exercise a level of fearlessness that equally shocked and terrified me.

DM: So the freedom to act fearlessly looks different depending on your status: white or Black, minority or majority, powerful or powerless.

EM: It’s the fundamental challenge of racial justice and historical reckoning that we’re facing in this country today. What is the truth? What are the facts? How do we move forward when our country’s political leadership and media are so divergent on what constitutes the truth? The purpose of social justice is not to supplant white with Black, majority with minority, or powerful with powerless. It’s simply the recognition and acknowledgement of the humanity of all American citizens.

DM: So: freedom is lack of fear, and racism keeps us unfree by inciting fear of one another based upon things like skin color. How do we get to freedom when we’re so distant and so afraid of one another?

EM: We’re having a truly engaging conversation about that right now in our Employee Resource Group. What is the critical thinking we need to do around the topic of race? We have to provide context and set the table to have engaging discussions around topics like the meaning of anti-racism. These conversations require critical thinking and acknowledgement of facts, but most important, a level of trust between people engaged in what could be a very emotional and risky discussion. But isn’t that what good leaders do? Create space and an environment where stakeholders can have tough, challenging, imperfect conversations and ultimately find common ground to solve problems together.

DM: So freedom—the lack of fear—to speak out, and maybe hear yourself say something awkward, is an important part of that challenge?

EM: Yes. In our last ERG conversation, we dove right into the topic of slavery, and the lack of acknowledgment of the structural racism that occurred post-Civil War and that resulted in a number of terrible consequences for Black communities across the country. Honestly, it was an exhausting conversation for our Black employees, but one that we prepared for and were ready to engage authentically with our fellow resource-group members. We were very acutely aware of [researcher] Brené Brown’s insight that shame is not a weapon for racial justice. You can’t shame people into progress. Oftentimes, when you get into these conversations, people feel ashamed of what happened over our 246 years of slavery as an institution in America. They feel ashamed of what happened during the Jim Crow era. Part of today’s critical thinking that enables authentic conversations about race is simply acknowledging that people today are not responsible for those historical decisions. But it is equally important to acknowledge and reflect upon the consequences and impact of those decisions—we can’t simply “get over” them.

As a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, I know that the ideals of our Constitution are not a zero-sum game. It is only when we force ourselves to think of our ideals as limited resources, when we succumb to the fear of false equivalences, when we choose not to acknowledge the humanity of our fellow citizens, that we lose an incredible opportunity to engage, debate, and learn from our imperfect history.

DM: Freedom equals no fear, which may be impossible. But does the goal of no fear itself offer a kind of freedom—that “new way of seeing” that Simone urged?

EM: I mean, no fear: What an aspiration! But the path to embracing this “new way of seeing” requires trudging through fear echo chambers, reflecting upon the consequence of decades of mistrust, and occasionally suppressing the emotional baggage of our lived experiences. There are equal parts risk and courage in having those conversations. But the worst thing we can do is not have them with people that we care about. That’s my fear.


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