For non-Black people during today’s modern-day civil rights revolution, being an ally is one of the most important things that you can do to show your support. By using your privilege at protests, educating yourself, and checking in on your Black friends, you help contribute to the crucial Black Lives Matter movement. But, using your voice as an ally can at times be approached in the wrong way – no matter the intention – and runs the risk of regressing the actual change that you hope to ignite.
When well-meaning messages poured into my phone from my non-Black friends and acquaintances, I generally felt appreciated during this difficult time. I had a lot of well-intended support on a topic that I understand can be uncomfortable to approach. At the same time, though, I also read words from people I love that made me feel even more overwhelmed and frustrated. After talking to other Black people about it, I found that I wasn’t alone.
I received multiple messages out of the blue from people that stated how angry they were about the injustices of police brutality. It left me in a somewhat awkward position.
Before sending a paragraph about how terrible racism is, the least one can do is ask if your Black friend has the mental space to talk about it at the moment. I know that many allies are probably angry too, but imagine how Black people feel. I won’t be praising anyone for stating the obvious that, yes, racism – something I’ve experienced my entire life – is indeed bad. Is this some sort of weird plea to prove your anti-racism? If we’re friends, I probably already know that you aren’t racist. Use that anger and funnel it into actual activism.
Political science scholar Lisa Tankeh told me that she knows this feeling all too well.
“In a way, it feels like non-Black people are trying to take the guilt and shame that they feel from these racist times and throw that emotional baggage on me,” she said. “Right now a lot of Black people don’t have the mental space to hold that and it can honestly just add on to the pain that we’re already feeling.”
Tankeh also advises allies to only contact the Black people that they’re actually close with. She said that hearing from acquaintances that you rarely talk to can sometimes feel forced, tone-deaf, and inappropriate.
Another common message that I’ve received during this time is the one that refers to me as some sort of moral compass on all things Black-related. Some people asked me what was the point of looting, how to best contribute to the cause, or why policemen as a whole were under fire.
As great as it is that people are curious, I am only one Black woman. I do not hold every answer to every question about race. Frankly, I’m not a google search engine. I do not want to – nor should I feel obligated to – educate someone on how to be anti-racist, especially when there is an overabundance of accessible material in the world that these same people can use to teach themselves. It is not my job to be a personal fact-checker on inequality. Treating me as such during this time of distress is nothing short of insensitive. Not to mention that this kind of behavior invalidates all of the other components and feelings that make me human during such a difficult time for my community and I.
Tankeh agreed that there’s no excuse for this either. As a first-generation immigrant from Cameroon, she told me that upon her arrival to the U.S, she committed herself to learn Black American history on her own.
“It speaks to a certain level of privilege that some people think that they need to be hand-held through educating themselves about racism,” Tankeh said.
And future teacher/dancer Chelsea Greene told me that she also wishes people would stop saying certain redundant phrases to her because sometimes it feels as if messages are copied and pasted to all Black people. She asks allies to imagine just how many similar messages we receive each day.
“Stop saying, ‘I am so sorry this is happening to you.’ I don’t want you to apologize to me. I want you to take action and you don’t have to tell me what that action is. Just do it,” Greene said.
She added that the most helpful messages during this time have been from allies who she knows fight racism on a day-to-day basis, and not just when all fifty states are protesting. Greene recommends non-Black people to be casual in their messaging and to write with empathy.
I advise allies to consider this example: You know how every commercial since the start of Coronavirus has been a combination of the same “we’re here for you” type of content that also insensitively suggests we buy their products at the end? I don’t know about you, but there’s only so much somber piano music and ingenuity that I want to see on my television every day.
This is probably how your Black friend feels with an overabundance of the same well-intended, but tone-deaf messages in their inboxes. Spare them the awkwardness and be a good ally.