What a time to be Black in America.
As you read this, Black people are disproportionately dying from two pandemics: COVID-19 and racism. After witnessing the recent murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, Black people have had enough. These names are only the recent additions to a long list of names in the Black Lives Matter movement. A movement that is now producing protests and demonstrations around the world; which, again, are disproportionately targeting Black people with arrests, labeling, and violence.
As tensions heighten, I’ve noticed an increase in communications from my non-Black friends who have reached out to show their support. Many of them have asked me the question: what can I do?
In my attempts to respond, I realized that there is more to answering this question than just answering this question. And since it is a question that many non-Black people likely have but might be afraid to ask, I figured I’d take a moment to provide some resources to non-black folks who want to support their Black friends, but simply don’t know where to start.
So, this is to my white (and non-Black) friends. Here’s what I need, and don’t need, from you right now.
I need some space.
We were already in the middle of a global pandemic disproportionately killing our people. Then we were forced to watch our people dying at the hands of police violence and racism. We are angry. We are grieving. We are exhausted. More than anything, we need space. Forcing your thoughts and opinions and emotions on us during this time is another function of white privilege, which suggests that Black people should not even be allowed this moment without having to answer to the white majority. Is it just me, or does this sound eerily similar to the days when enslaved Black people had to get permission from “master” to even grieve the death of a friend or family member in peace? If you feel like you have a right to speak your mind to your Black friend right now, check your privilege.
Forcing your thoughts and opinions and emotions on us during this time is another function of white privilege, which suggests that Black people should not even be allowed this moment, without having to answer to the white majority.
I don’t need your questions.
Instead of asking your Black friend, “How can I help?” ask yourself that same question. Looking for a good place to start? Learn about police violence in America, learn how to be an antiracist, take an active stance against racism, patronize Black businesses, participate in a protest, sign a petition, donate to a bail fund, donate to Black Lives Matter. There is so much needed right now. You don’t need your Black friend to tell you what to do; you just need to do something.
I need to be heard; not debated.
Try not to get defensive when your Black friend speaks to you honestly about her needs. Maybe you have been unintentionally putting her down. Listen. Maybe your social media posts are offensive. Listen. Maybe there is more you could be doing to truly be an ally. Listen. This is not the time to argue the distinction between Black Lives Matter and All Lives Matter. Nor is it the time to mention your cousin who is a police officer and wouldn’t hurt a fly. Now is the time to check your privilege and LISTEN.
You don’t need your Black friend to tell you what to do. You just need to do something.
I don’t need to feel sorry for you.
Don’t call your Black friend to tell her about your emotions, how you’ve been feeling etc. Instead, send short, sincere messages such as: I love you; I support you; I’m thinking of you; I’m here for you. When you tell your Black friend how hard this has been for you, when you call her crying or venting about your anger: you are being a burden. Your Black friend is experiencing unprecedented trauma. She needs to rest, heal, and mourn; comforting you is just more work. She does not need your tears or explanations. She needs your tangible support. She needs your action.
I need you to do your own research.
Chances are, you’ve seen this phrase recently because it’s all around the internet. “It is not the job of the oppressed to teach you about oppression.” When my white friends ask me to help them process everything that’s been going on—that is white privilege. CHECK YOUR PRIVILEGE. Luckily, we live in the age of the internet. Everything we want or need to know is at our fingertips. Do the research. Do the work. Find the resources. Practice the skills. Educate yourself and the people closest to you. And don’t expect praise for doing it. You’re not learning to be an ally to impress your Black friend, you’re learning to be an ally because it’s the right thing to do.
You’re not learning to be an ally to impress your Black friend. You’re learning to be an ally because it’s the right thing to do.
I don’t need your neutrality or silence.
As Desmond Tutu taught us: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” If you feel like you don’t know what to do, don’t be silent. Use your privilege to take action and raise awareness. When you refuse to take a stand, you are telling your Black friend that her lived experience is not valid. When you are silent, you are telling your Black friend that you support the racism she faces every day; the racism that takes Black lives without apology or remorse. If you don’t support those things, don’t be silent. Say something. And say it loud, for your close-minded friends and family in the back.
I need you to consistently do the work.
Work to understand racism, systemic oppression, and the effects of racism and systemic oppression on the Black community. Work to consider and notice the injustices we face every day. Be an ally every day. When you see injustices in the workplace, say something. Do something. Stand up for your Black friend when she’s accused of being “aggressive” in the staff meeting for speaking her mind. Or when she’s accused of not being a “team player” when she then disengages to protect herself. Speak up when your Black coworker is the only person not cc’ed on the email (or her name is spelled wrong in the email). Speak with your Black coworker directly when you have a dispute, instead of going straight to the boss.
When you refuse to take a stand, you are telling your Black friend that her lived experience is not valid. When you are silent, you are telling your Black friend that you support the racism she faces every day; the racism that takes Black lives without apology or remorse. If you don’t support those things, don’t be silent. Say something.
I don’t need you to feel comfortable.
It is hard to recognize unattractive attributes within ourselves. It can feel uncomfortable and unwelcome to acknowledge our faults. But it is necessary. Instead of constantly trying to convince yourself and others that you are not a part of the problem, spend time figuring out how you have been a part of the problem. Stop assuming that what you’re doing is enough. It’s not enough to not be racist. It’s not enough to have Black friends. It’s not enough to feel bad about what’s happening. Take a moment to consider: how have I fallen short? What more can I do?
I need you to repeat after me.
White privilege exists. White fragility exists. Racism is alive and rampant, and it needs to be stopped. Black is beautiful. Black lives matter. If reading any of these statements caused you to feel defensive or immediately say “but”—you have more work to do.
The truth is, it takes work to be a good friend. We make mistakes, say the wrong things, and hurt each other even when we don’t intend to. This can be even more complicated in times like these, when saying the wrong thing could make your Black friend feel isolated and unsure of your principles.
The good news is: you are reading this article. Hopefully that means you care about Black lives. You want to support your Black friends in a way that does not burden or oppress them further. And hopefully, you are willing to do what it takes. As our good friend Olaf taught us: “Some people are worth melting for.” If you love your Black friend and want to support her, it will take some effort, discomfort, and sacrifice. But it will be worth it; worth it to your friend, to you, and to greater society.
We have all been forced to open our eyes to some very harsh realities lately. The question now is, what are we going to do about it? My sincere hope is that we will come together in solidarity and mobilize in constructive ways. But before we can even get there, the real work starts within. Fix your own heart. Open your own eyes. Help others fix their hearts and open their eyes. This is how we change the world.