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On Sorrowful Whites

There is more than a week left in June and I’m anxious for this month to be over. We were already dealing with a global pandemic that has kept us inside for more than three months and all the death and devastation that crisis has caused. Then we entered June with several painful reminders of the ways that white supremacy, anti-blackness and racist violence cause harm to black bodies. 

George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Ahmaud Arbery. Countless others whose names and faces didn’t make the news but whose lives mattered.

Then came the protests—a wave of outrage demanding racial justice and accountability for police officers who use unjustified and excessive force. Some of those protests were met with more police violence. But people have continued to hit the streets. It has been beautiful and powerful to witness. We’ve even started having broad national conversations about restructuring models of public safety. 

This transformation should feel exhilarating. And to a certain extent, it does. Yet, there has also been another outcome from all of this that has left me beyond tired and, frankly, really cranky. 

My texts, emails, and DMs across every social media platform are now filled with sorrowful white people reaching out to check on me. 

“I don’t know what to say, but I’m thinking of you.”

“I know this is really hard for you… Black Lives Matter!”

“I’m horrified and can’t believe this is happening. What can I do to make this better?”

It’s overwhelming. And if I’m honest, sometimes, it’s unwelcome. 

Now before you think I’m cold-hearted or can’t recognize sympathy when people offer it to me—I can assure you, this is not the case. Some of these messages have come from people I consider friends. Those messages of love and solidarity are deeply meaningful.  The white folks that I am in close relationships with already do a fair amount of thinking and talking about race. They know not to ask me to teach them anything. They may ask for a resource or two but they do their own learning and are working for change in their own ways. My college roommate wrote, “Please don’t write back if you’re not feeling it right now. Just know I’m thinking of you and love you and will continue to fight anti-Blackness and white supremacy in this oppressive world we live in.” 

We text often and she’s my forever friend. Her message was exactly what I needed to hear. 

But I’ve also heard from white people I haven’t talked to in 15 years or more. People I haven’t seen since high school, college, or graduate school. People I worked with once and didn’t like very much. People I have zero connection to in 2020. These are people I’m pretty sure have no Black friends to reach out to, so they suddenly remembered they knew me. These messages are awkward and uncomfortable.  

Across social media, white people are being bombarded with messages telling them to check on the Black people in their lives. And they are doing it with gusto. But let’s be real, some of them are doing what author and Zen priest, Rev. angel Kyodo williams refers to as a “negro grab.” 

As Williams wrote in a recent Instagram post, those social media memes are meant for people that have actual relationships with Black people. 

I couldn’t agree more. But it’s also worth noting how differently we understand cross-race relationships. I have had many white women in my life who considered me as a close friend while I simply thought of them as acquaintances or work colleagues. Yes, we were friendly. But so much of that was out of necessity because developing positive relationships with these women, most of whom oversaw my work, was critical to my professional success. These relationships were based in unequal power dynamics from the outset, mirroring a phenomenon that Black women have experienced for decades. 

Throughout our history of domestic work, white women and girls often referred to us as “family” even though we were clearly their employees. As a result, we have always trod lightly because we are dependent on them for a paycheck. But we know what the real deal is. If you have seen Hulu’s miniseries, Little Fires Everywhere, there is a great scene with Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon that speaks to this. In a heated exchange between their two characters, Washington says to Witherspoon, “White women always want to be friends with their maid…I was never your friend.” 

Black women are discerning in all manner of ways and our friendships are no exception.  If you’ve not met my husband, if you haven’t been to my house, if we haven’t socialized outside of work, if we haven’t had any personal communication in the last 5 years, I probably don’t consider you a friend. 

Of course, this doesn’t mean that sorrowful white people who are just coming to the party won’t reach out and negro grab. At this moment, they are also trying to find ways to feel empowered and useful. Instead of messages to random Black women, a better use of their time would be to donate to the Movement for Black Lives, patronize Black-owned businesses or pay the Black women online whose work they’ve learned from. But they will likely still try to connect, no matter how awkward it is, because social media and articles all across the Internet are telling them to do so. 

Just remember, though, no matter how much they reach out: you aren’t actually obligated to answer.

 

 

 

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