The last few months have been riddled with the word “uncertainty”—an email was not an email if it did not address the “uncertain times” that the coronavirus pandemic spewed upon us this past winter, right before giving you 40% off All Shoes and Tops. A targeted ad on Instagram wasn’t effectively targeted if it didn’t acknowledge the unease you must be experiencing during these “uncertain times,” and how 10% off a wine subscription jussssst might quell those concerns. But alas, coronavirus is no longer the headlining act in the treacherous music festival that is 2020.
Around the same time we were basking in our uncertainty as to when we’d be able to go on Hinge dates again, Breonna Taylor, a Black woman in Louisville, was in her own home, unarmed, suffering eight bullets from the police. Less than a month before that, Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man, was jogging in his own neighborhood in Georgia and was hunted and killed by two white men who thought he “looked suspicious.” And finally, as if guided by theatrics, Act III occurred on May 25, Memorial Day. The day George Floyd, a Black man, was kneeled on and subsequently killed by the police, while Amy Cooper was a few states east calling the cops on Christian Cooper, a Black man in New York, who did absolutely nothing but ask her to follow the rules. What ensued, as I’m sure you are currently living, has been weeks of (justified) civil unrest. People are waking up. People are paying attention. People are acting. And while much of the narrative surrounding these times still remains uncertain, there is one thing of which I can be absolutely sure: your Black friends are not okay.
I typically steer clear of generalizations, but this one I resolutely stand by. The Black people in your life are experiencing a pain that uniquely aches. The ache emanates in the form of grief, confusion, guilt, laughter, tears, anger, pride, power, defeat. The ache is physical, emotional, cerebral. The ache is for the present, the ache is for the past. The ache is silent, the ache is deafening. The ache is personal, the ache is collective. The ache is difficult to put into words, but I can assure you, the ache is there—it always is. But this time, these last few weeks, that ache is particularly onerous.
So this is me, your Black friend—one of them, at least—taking a break from the Real Housewives of Atlanta virtual reunion (which is actually very, very good) to urge you to please stop sending weird texts ending with a Black fist emoji to the Black person you met once at a coffee shop three years ago, and start supporting the Black people in your life in ways that are constructive.
Disclaimer: Some of the things on this list may hurt your feelings—I did not write this with your feelings in mind. Apologies in advance. But I urge you to consider that if the worst hurt you experience in this dialogue is your feelings, perhaps, in the grand scheme of things, you’re ultimately doing okay.
Check In On Your Black Friends Selflessly and With Intention
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I think it’s great that you want to check in on your Black friends right now—I really do. In fact, I think it would be irresponsible and, frankly, shortsighted to not reach out to someone you call a friend who is currently living in a world where the cultural dialogue rests on the question of whether or not their existence is valid. But when you check in on them, I ask that you do so selflessly and with intention.
First, let’s talk about a selfless check-in. I once had a friend send me a hand-written birthday card that spent exactly one line wishing me a happy birthday, and then two paragraphs telling me how enlightened she now was and how much she’d grown as a person in the four months we hadn’t spoken. It became immediately clear that this “birthday card” was entirely for her, not me (and why we hadn’t spoken for four months). This is not the time to self-flagellate, and tell your Black friends that you’re a bad, bad, sick, twisted white person who is not worthy of love or happiness. I mean, I don’t know you, maybe all those things are true, but this is not the time to put that weight on your Black friend. This is not the time for your guilt. This is not the time for you to apologize for that one racist thing you laughed at six years ago in their presence. Trust me, that time will come. But right now, the birthday card is for your Black friend, not you. The check-ins I’ve received that have felt the most genuine have been the ones that are the most concise: “I love you. I am here for you. I am thinking of you. I am fighting for you. I will do better.”
Now, let’s talk checking in with intention. Three years ago, my mom died. I had tons of well meaning friends send texts asking, “How are you doing?” And if I were honest with them, I would have said: “Lol well, my mom’s still dead, so not great!” It is not particularly effective to ask your Black friend how they are doing right now. I’m giving you the answer key for this one: not great! So, with that in mind, think about a more constructive, intentional way to check in on your friend’s well-being. “Have you eaten today? I’d be happy to make/send something your way. Know that I’m here if you ever want to talk, cry, scream, take a walk, drink some wine, dance, sit silently, whatever.”
Give Them an Emotional Six Feet of Distance
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All my work. All my life. I’ve always tried to figure out how I work with what I got. How I serve the community I’m from. How I serve the future to come. It ain’t in silence. It won’t happen with silence. So everything I do is a stretch towards freedom. For my daughter. For your sons. For all of our children. #artjustice #artsctivism #mentor #protest #poeticprotest #donate #blm #bailoutnyc
Once you check in on your Black friends, please, for the love of chilled white wine, leave them alone. I’m not asking you to be silent, I’m simply asking you to be quiet. Give them a moment—many moments—to process. To breathe. To be exonerated of the burden of having to reply to a text. Further (wrap those feelings up), your Black friends don’t want to talk to YOU right now. If your Black friends want to talk, they probably want to talk to their Black friends or their other friends of color who get it. Again, this isn’t me telling you not to reach out; but once you do, expect some quiet from your Black friends. And start to get comfortable with that quiet. If you’ve checked in effectively, they know where to find you if and when they’re ready.
Do Something for Them Without Them Having to Ask
I have always hated the solicitation: “Let me know if there is anything I can do to help.” Now, that is partly because I have been gifted with the horrific disease of recoiling at the thought of asking anyone for help (my two therapists and I are working through this). But also, and perhaps more aptly, I’ve always found that in times of extreme grief and mental turmoil, it takes a lot of emotional intelligence to know exactly what kind of help you need. I’ll return to my mother’s death a few years ago. A couple of days after my mom died, I remember coming home to find that my roommate had done all of my laundry for me. This was particularly moving because if she would have asked me “hey, how can I help you right now?” I would have never said: “Um, you can do my gross laundry that’s been sitting on my floor for six weeks!” Not only would I have never said that, the thought of “needing to do laundry” would have never crossed my mind. So, instead of asking your Black friends what you can do to help them right now, which puts the onus on them to have to find the emotional intelligence to try to figure it out, anticipate their basic needs and try to cater to them. Do their laundry, order them food, make them a sandwich, bring them a glass of water. You are smart and capable! If you really want to help your Black friends right now, you can think of some things to do for them without them having to ask.
Support Their Mental Health
As I’m sure you can imagine, your Black friends’ mental health is particularly vulnerable right now. Many of your friends are experiencing situational upsets to their mental stability that may have been triggered by the events of the last few weeks; others may have been battling preexisting mental health conditions that have only been further exacerbated by the current social climate. A friend of mine reached out to me a couple of days ago and asked if he could pay the copay for one of my virtual therapy sessions. This felt particularly constructive because not only was he recognizing that my mental state was fragile, he offered to do something tangible to contribute to my mental wellness. So if you’re looking to direct your efforts towards supporting your friends’ mental health, offer to help pay for a therapy session if they’re seeing a therapist; offer to pay for a month of Liberate, a meditation app created by BIPOC for BIPOC; music is therapy for so many people in the Black community, so offer to pay for a month of their music streaming service. A great way to constructively support your Black friends is to effectively support their mental health.
Speak Up So Your Black Friends Don’t Have To
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Last week, my place of work sent a mass email to all of its employees addressing the “current events” to state that their official stance was: “racism is unacceptable.” Pause for applause. (I hope you read that last sentence with the seething sarcasm in which it was written.) Upon receiving this email, my mind went to two places: 1) there is absolutely nothing of substance here—it is 2020, I sincerely hope I work for a company that “condemns racism” and 2) Great! Now I have to respond to this incredibly vapid statement because if I don’t, no one else will. What I’m asking is that you be that “no one else” for your Black friend, in this case, your Black colleague. As my newfound guiding light, Audre Lorde, said, “ the responsibility of the oppressed to teach the oppressors their mistakes.” You have no idea how exhausting, depleting, and quite frankly, trite it is to routinely have to enlighten others on the whys. Why you can’t say the n-word, why you can’t touch my hair, why mixing me up with the only other Black girl in the room is inherently racist. At this point, you know the answers to those whys. So, if you received a bullsh*t email like I did this week, you respond so your Black colleagues don’t have to. If you see a post that says “All Lives Matter,” you engage, so your Black friends don’t have to. Give us a break—we’ve been fighting this fight for 400 years. We’re tired.
Support Black Livelihood
I want you to ask yourself a question: “How am I uplifting Black voices and Black lives in weeks when they are not violently slain in the streets?” If you can’t answer this question, or if your answer is “by listening to Kanye West,” I urge you to spend some time with this point, specifically. Supporting Black Lives Matter does not end with fighting the systemic violence against and murder of black bodies; it must also include uplifting and empowering us while we’re alive. An enormously constructive trend I’ve been seeing on social media is white professionals using their platforms and privilege to open the gates for Black creatives. Editors, writers, and casting directors are making themselves and their colleagues directly accessible to Black creatives who historically encounter enormous barriers of entry. If you hold the keys or know someone who holds the keys to the gates to your profession, share them with a Black person. Writing a screenplay? Can the main character be Black? Probably! Hiring? Can that executive be Black? YES. And to answer your grandfather’s next question: no, this is not a “handout”—this is merely leveling the playing field in a game Black people were never intended to play. Also remember that supporting Black livelihood means supporting Black businesses! Here’s a list of Black-owned companies you can support right now.
Understand That You Cannot Understand—But Like, Try!
I’ve been seeing this graphic make its way around the realm that is social media: it usually consists of a Black and white hand being held (lol), with the caption “I understand that I cannot understand.” And while these words are absolutely correct—there is no way that any non-Black person could ever understand the unsurmountable weight that comes with being a Black body in America—simply saying you “can’t understand” is reductive and effectively absolves you from the task of having to learn. This ideal, while well-meaning, is passive, and gleans no commitment to action. Which leads me to my last point…
Do The Work
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Absolutely nothing else on this list is of any importance if you are not committing yourself to doing the work. Your check-in texts, your Venmo gifts, your Black Lives Matter T-shirts are just futile gestures in an empty vacuum of performative allyship if you are not holding yourself accountable and doing the work. “The work,” “the work,” what do your Black friends mean when we keep talking about “the work?” “The work” is committing yourself to learning about the structural, deliberate, and systemic nature of racism that was thrust upon your friend as soon as they entered this world as a Black body. “The work” is learning that from an early age, your friend has had to learn how to navigate as a Black body in a white world as a means of, at least, fitting in, and at most, survival. “The work” is looking within; looking at your own actions, your own belief and value systems, and recognizing that, whether consciously or not, you have not only been complicit in, but have benefitted from and contributed to, a world that was designed to suppress Black lives. Luckily for you, there are mountains upon mountains of books, documentaries, theory, podcasts, accessible to you right now that unpack the 400 years of systemic racism in America, starting at day 1. Know that the work is arduous. The work has no finish line. The work will probably hurt your feelings. But the work is what is required of you if you want to constructively support your Black friends.
Images: Maverick Pictures / Shutterstock.com; rachel.cargle, mobrowne, wastefreemarie, officialmillennialblack / Instagram