What I want my white friends and family to understand this Black History Month
Every year, I’ve tried to do a little something with my Facebook account to mark the occasion, but I’ve always been hesitant, scared even, of doing too much. Of seeming too black. Too proud. Afraid of being perceived as being racist. Afraid that people will come for me in my comments and inbox with all types of craziness and accusations.
This year, I pretty much said, “Forget that crap,” and have made a point of posting and sharing pretty much whatever, though I try not to do anything that will incite a riot in my comments. Still, my heart drops every time I see that a non-black person has commented on my posts because I wonder if it’s the signal of comment and inbox Armageddon.
We’re not even a full two weeks into Black History Month, and I’m feeling all kinds of feelings. So many BIG feelings: Joy, pain, anger, sadness, pride, exhilaration. Today, my feelings came to a head and I deleted the Facebook app from my phone for a while because I couldn’t take seeing some of the things that I was seeing in my News Feed. Then I realized that I needed to continue to post about black history on Facebook if for no one but myself.
But this post isn’t intended to be about my social media activity.
There is a national conversation about race that is unlike anything I’ve experienced in my three decades on this planet. It’s great, because we’re finally trying to pop the festering boil of ugliness that has stained our culture and relationships with one another. As tense as things can be at times, I feel like it’s necessary so that we can make progress with these issues.
It’s also a very difficult time for me as a black woman because I feel like every bit of race related fear, shame, anger, sadness, grief, joy, pride, elation, and happiness is being dug up and laid bare in front of God and everyone on a regular basis.
Whether I talk about it. Whether I post about it. Whether I’m at church or sitting at home alone. This conversation goes on even when I’m silent. I want to be silent, but I feel compelled to speak. I feel guilty for speaking. When I give in to respectability and keep silent, the cry for justice and a hope for a better future for my daughter haunts me until I can no longer ignore it.
White people approach me on a regular basis asking me for information about this issue. I’m regularly asked, “What can I do? What do I need to know?” I usually drop some heavy knowledge and tell people to read, leaving the ‘doing’ part open-ended because I’m afraid to say what I really think is needed.
I have held my tongue (and thumbs) for a long time because I’ve felt the need to protect the feelings of white people. I can’t do that any more. I value you, but I can’t neglect self-care any more. I’m not venting or dumping on you, but I am saying that I can no longer afford to coddle you.
I might lose friends and followers. Some of you might not be able to look me in the face anymore. But I can no longer afford not to say these things.
I have a lot of stuff to get off of my chest, and I hope that it comes out right even if it’s raw.
I need for my white friends and family to understand a few things this Black History Month so that we can all do better and move forward toward racial reconciliation.
1) Being pro-black doesn’t equate to being anti-white. I can love who I am and not hate you. You personally may not view blackness in a negative light, but please trust me when I say that I regularly encounter people/institutions/etc. that do. And it’s painful. Me celebrating my blackness isn’t a plot to throw mud on your whiteness.
The black community is fighting for the liberation of our minds, hearts, psyches, and even our very souls. For generations, we were told that we were fit for little else except for slave labor. For generations, we were told that our speech, customs, hairstyles, music, and every other facet of our culture were inferior. The vestiges of those thought processes and systems are still VERY present in our society. I encounter them daily. Literally. Daily. It’s tiring.
Elevation and celebration of blackness is our way of waging warfare against the oppressive noise. We are building ourselves up and not seeking to tear you down. It has nothing to do with you.
In celebrating my blackness, I’m not asking or expecting you to do anything except celebrate with me or stay out of the way. I don’t need comment or critique of how I celebrate blackness unless my celebration is causing you actual harm.
The fairness doctrine* doesn’t apply in this situation. I’m not obligated to elevate whiteness on my channels any more than you’re obligated to elevate blackness on yours. The only obligation any of us has is to show common human decency. You are not responsible for my or any other black person’s emotional well-being, but you are obligated to act like a decent person.
Be you. Do you. Just don’t do racist junk.
2) Please, stop Jesus Juking my pain. If I had a dollar for every time some (well-meaning) person said something along the lines of, “Racism sucks. That’s why I’m so happy that we can all be one in Jesus,” or “Don’t feel bad about racism! You should find your identity in Christ first!” I’d have enough money to buy all of those things I have ‘Saved for Later’ on Amazon.
Whether you intend to be this way or not, it comes off as, “You’re not acting Godly enough about this.” It also minimizes and glosses over my feelings and my attempts to process a type of pain that you can literally never understand. I appreciate your desire to be helpful, but I need a listening ear and not a sermon. If you think I’m in a bad place, pray for me.
3) Educate yourself. When I say ‘educate yourself,’ I don’t mean to only read things that you agree with or to skim a few articles on a Google search. Actually educate yourself. I cannot tell you everything that you need to know. I cannot possibly inform you of every facet of every issue.
I’m more than happy to share with you what I know and point you to resources, but I can’t be your only source of information on this issue. It’s best to engage this topic when you’re not in your feelings about the latest racial controversy and seeking to justify your position.
4) Recognize that, while we might have being American in common, I come from a different culture than you. I come from a different culture that has different customs, values, language, and thought than you. We are different in a lot of significant ways. That’s 100% ok. There is no good or bad. There is no correct or incorrect. I don’t expect you to know everything about my culture, but I do expect you to practice cultural sensitivity and cultural awareness.
I try to be culturally sensitive and culturally aware, but I’m not always successful in navigating your culture; please don’t hold that against me. I make mistakes because there are some things that I don’t always understand.
Becoming educated about my (and other) cultures not only makes you a more well-rounded person, it will also help you understand and be able to intelligently discuss some of the issues that are happening in America that involve race.
5) When I share my experiences with racism and prejudice, please stop centering your own narrative. Would you go to someone’s funeral and interrupt the services because you’re mad that the eulogy didn’t mention your Uncle Steve who died 20 years ago? No. That person’s funeral isn’t about your Uncle Steve. Would you go to a funeral and tell the family about all the bad things their deceased loved one did to you? No, because it’s not the time or place to do so.
In the same way, when I (or any other person of color) share on this very personal topic, it’s utterly insensitive to shift the topic to your own experiences. It feels rude and hurtful when you take up space by sharing your own experiences when you weren’t invited to do so. This isn’t just in ‘the race discussion’ but it’s everyone in every facet of life. (Really, can we stop this? I’m trying hard to stop doing this.)
I’m truly sorry if you feel that you’ve been treated with anything other than kindness by any person of color because of your race. It’s not ok.
With that said, when you center your own narrative it’s rude and hurtful because often your contribution to the conversation feels like an effort to clear your own conscience or to silence me, both of which, in effect, ignores and erases my experiences and pain. This might not be your intention, but it’s still triggering because I’ve had countless experiences where people have butted in and centered themselves with self-serving motives.
I understand that hearing me and/or other people of color sharing about our experiences with racism and prejudice might make you feel uncomfortable. Maybe you even feel implicated. Sharing your experience may serve as a way that you can ease any tension that you might be feeling by ‘proving’ that it’s not just white people who are prejudiced. But if this is your intention, it is the absolute wrong reason to share. Competing in the Oppression Olympics is not only fruitless; it is tacky and disrespectful to assuage your conscience at the expense of another receiving healing from their pain grief and shame.
If you need to share something that’s hurting you or if you really need to process your own trauma, initiate your own conversation rather than taking up space somewhere else.
If you feel like you have to defend yourself when you weren’t being mentioned specifically, if you feel that you have do defend white people as a whole, or if you feel that you have to remind me (or others by extension) that black people are also prejudiced, then it’s probably best not to say anything at all because approaching the topic from a place of defensiveness and accusation will take the conversation nowhere.
If you aren’t feeling any type of way and you just wanted to share a story that you thought was similar in nature, it’s probably best to keep it to yourself. It’s not that I don’t want to hear what you have to say, but what you have to say isn’t what is appropriate or needed.
Don’t make my experiences about you when they’re not about you. I will call you out by name if my experience involves you. We have a saying in the black community that addresses this very issue: If it don’t apply, move on by.
It’s absolutely fine if you disagree with me. We don’t have to see eye to eye on everything. But it’s never okay for you center your opinion in a way that minimizes or deletes my experiences or feelings.
6) Others’ wrong behavior doesn’t negate my pain. Statements like, “Both sides do it,” does not justify the large-scale problems that my people and I have continued to experience nor does it negate the need for injustices to be addressed. Don’t dismiss (“Black people do it to white people all the time!”), or normalize (“Everyone says or does such and such.”) problematic behavior.
7) You don’t have to fear color. Saying that you ‘don’t see color’ is actually rather offensive. I understand what you’re trying to say, so I usually don’t make a stink about it, but that doesn’t stop me from cringing.
My skin, my hair, my Negro nose (though I don’t have Jackson 5 nostrils) is part of who I am. The things that make me a Black American are part of who I am. Don’t be uncomfortable with my blackness. Don’t shame me for loving the things that make me black, which goes deeper than the color of my skin.
8) Racial trauma is a real thing, but I’m also not a victim. To understand the concept of racial trauma, you have to understand and accept three fundamental truths about black people: 1) We orient ourselves in time and space through not only our own temporal experiences, but also through the experiences of those from whom we are descended and our community as a whole 2) We learn and disseminate knowledge through the telling of stories and the use of examples 3) We are a collectivistic culture, which means that we orient ourselves based on the wishes and needs of our community.
What this means practically is that: 1) Generations later; I still feel actual grief and a sense of loss from slavery. In contrast, the plight of Native Americans makes me feel hurt and angry for them, but I don’t feel any real connection to what happened. 2) I feel the pain of trauma that I’ve not directly experienced because of the way that my people share history, culture, and knowledge 3) When a black person accomplishes something, there is a sense of accomplishment and celebration in the community because it feels like ‘we’ did it.
I’m not some poor unfortunate soul who has had all of these awful experiences. I’m not to be pitied. The blood of a people who were stolen from their homelands and refused to succumb to death, beatings, rape, poverty, incarceration, and every other disadvantage runs through my veins. I’m going to be alright.
9) I share my experiences because it is cathartic. Experiencing racism and prejudice is a traumatic and dehumanizing experience. Sharing my experiences and the stories of my ancestors and loved ones helps me (and others by extension) to take control of my own narrative and to break off the hurt and shame. It is an act of resistance against the violence of the past and recurring warfare that I have to slog through as a black woman. It’s grieving. It’s hoping.
The best thing you can do for me, and for just about any other black person you know, is to give us space for this process. Elevate my liberation rather than centering your own experiences or defending your righteousness.
One of the best examples of this that I have experienced was a roundtable that I participated in with the leadership of my church. The (predominantly white) leadership gave several black leaders within the ministry the chance to share our stories. They listened and only asked a few clarifying questions.
Giving space doesn’t have to be a formal thing. It can be as simple as letting me gripe about how the Ancestry.com commercials are triggering for me because finding my history isn’t as simple as clicking a bunch of green leaves without judging, centering, or minimizing the issue and the pain that’s felt.
10) Navigating racial trauma is exhausting. It’s darn near impossible for me to completely disengage with the conversation on race in this country. The past several years has amplified this fact. I don’t have the luxury of tapping out of the conversation or only talking about it when the latest incident hits my News Feed.
There are things that trigger memories of past trauma. Current events can be the source of new trauma or act as a trigger.
Everyone handles things that feel hurtful or are traumatic in different ways. What I need, what my fellow black people need, is to be able to work through all of this in the way that brings the most liberation to our hearts.
If you are unwilling to constructively contribute to my manumission, then I ask that you kindly allow others to fill that space. What this means practically is this: If you feel it’s your place to be defensive, instruct me on the “sins” of my own community, center your own views, shout down or oversimplify things like #BlackLivesMatter, and other such behavior, then you are NOT helping one bit and your voice isn’t needed on those topics. We’re still cool either way.
Constructively contributing to my liberation (and the liberation of other black people) is: listening, helping me find language to express my feelings, allowing me to name my oppression so that I may be set free from it, speaking up for me (but not speaking for me), educating yourself, educating your community, allowing me to mess up.
Contributing to my liberation doesn’t mean that you have to agree with and bless everything that I say and do; it’s having the sensitivity and self-awareness to understand that this issue won’t be solved unless we both do work.
11) Protecting your feelings is exhausting. I have to bear the burden of racial trauma AND make sure that I don’t hurt your feelings in doing so. I’ve had so many people blow up at me, accuse me, and respond hatefully toward me when I’ve discussed my experiences in a frank, emotionally honest way. It’s unfair to expect me to be responsible for your emotional well being as well as my own.
Naming the things that are hurtful and oppressive (like I’m doing with this post) creates a space for healing, and eventually liberation, to come. I cannot heal, black people cannot heal, our nation CAN. NOT. HEAL. without this. It’s not about badmouthing white people; it’s about divesting in the mindsets and systems of oppression by investing in healing and wholeness for everyone involved.
If naming my oppression bothers you, I challenge you to examine why and to approach me in a calm, rational manner if you still feel the need to discuss it. Shouting about reverse racism serves no one. Pulling out a bunch of asinine counterpoints and straw men serves no one. Being defensive serves no one. Doing everything mentioned in previous points serves no one.
The topic of race in America is a thorny issue in our society. It’s ok if you do not understand. I’ll do the best I can to enlighten you. It’s not ok for you to be obtuse (annoyingly and willfully insensitive or slow to understand), defensive, or abusive.
The goal should be to move the conversation forward. Moving the conversation forward doesn’t mean that we end on the note, “Black people good; white people bad,” or that we oversimplify so that everyone can feel good about themselves. Moving the conversation forward means that we can reason together and seek to understand one another even if we disagree.
I dream of the day when the different races in this country can be reconciled to one another. I dream of the day when we can call out and uplift the treasure that exists in every tribe and people group without fear of offense, exclusion, or erasure.
We need reconciliation for these things to come to pass.
I believe that when true racial reconciliation takes place, we will be able to enjoy our common ground while celebrating all of the wonderful things that make us different. There will be no need to question the sincerity because we will possess a genuine love for one another that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things.
*Because I KNOW that someone will take this the wrong way: This was a clever way of saying what I went on to say in the next few sentences. I’m not saying that I don’t actually have to be fair.