About a week ago, I called a friend on the East Coast, another black woman working in public radio, to talk about something weird that was happening.
“Hey, are you getting a bunch of texts from random white people asking if you’re okay?” I asked.
“What? No,” she said. “You are?”
I told her that I’d heard from a handful of people, some of whom I hadn’t communicated with for months, saying they couldn’t imagine the pain I must be feeling. That they were here for me if I needed them. I thought maybe this was just a thing people were doing in hyperwoke Oakland.
But then the next day, that friend sent me a screenshot from one of her friends with the same language, “Can’t imagine how black people are feeling. I’m so sorry.” Another friend got a text from someone she hadn’t spoken to in six years that noted that she was “important” and called her “a queen.”
Then, I started seeing more tweets:
In a moment of extreme annoyance (sometime after I was able to count the times this happened on two hands), I typed up this response about how these pals could support an expensive vegan ice-cream habit I’ve developed during the pandemic and henceforth be absolved of any other societal responsibilities. (I did not send it.)
Now, listen, I totally understand the intention. I know they’re trying to help. But on the receiving end, I can’t help but feel like everyone read the same think piece or saw the same MLK meme on social media, and then decided to fire off some words of compassion to every black person in their contacts.
If you’re trying to be an ally, then ask yourself some questions before you do this: What assumptions am I making? What burden am I putting on this friend I care about? Would I normally ask this question? Did I, say, wish this person a happy birthday? What would I do if they really aren’t okay?
The barrage of guilt-tinged texts from white associates did force me to try to nail down the most unanswerable question, So, how am I? I am a complex ball of emotions and am unaware of any word that could capture my mental state. I’m alive and I’m doing my best to live every day. I have been sheltering in place for almost three months. My family is on the opposite side of the country. The only physical contact I’ve had is the accidental brush of a finger or thumb handing over cash at the farmers’ market. I have been cooking delicious meals, singing, going on long walks, and structuring my days to assure I can function. Sometimes I let myself cry all of the tears that live in my ducts, but most of the time I try to ground myself in gratitude knowing that I am extremely privileged to have a stable job I can do safely from my home.
And whatever you think I might be feeling because of the news right now, it’s not new for me this week. I grew up hearing stories about my dad picking cotton in the Jim Crow South, where Klan cross burnings were a regular part of life. My mom has downloaded her memories of scorching days in Texas where there was no water fountain she was permitted to use. Trayvon Martin’s death broke my heart. I’ll never forget the first time I saw the video Philando Castile’s partner livestreamed as he was dying with her 4-year-old daughter in the back seat. I have beautiful black nephews, and my fear for them grows with each birthday. I have been reporting on the link between structural racism and toxic stress and the high rates of death for black moms and black babies for three years. I’ve been crushed by the reports about how many black people are dying from COVID-19.
So if this is the first time you’re asking me how I am, if this is the first time we’ve talked about my existence as a black person in America, you are definitely not the person I’m going to call if I’m not okay. And that is okay! It’s also the reason I don’t need you to check on me now. I have been the only black woman, or one of three black women, in every job I’ve ever had. I have to have a network of support of other black women to be a journalist in public radio. It’s how I’ve survived this week and every single other day.
And I’ve seen the listicles and Twitter threads that say, “Check in on your black friends.” I don’t know that by “friend” they meant a black person in your contacts who you have not spoken to in months or years. It certainly hit home for me when I saw Carvell Wallace’s tweet, “Wow I guess according to my text messages and DMs I’m a lot of people’s one black friend.”
And here’s the thing that shouldn’t have to be said but must always: I do not speak for all black people or all of any people. Maybe some folks are into it. The people I’ve talked to are not.
I’ve talked to a couple of friends who have sent these texts. One has recently gotten very serious about doing anti-racist work, being vocal and having difficult conversations with her parents about the prejudices they hold. She also sent a text, “Thinking of you friend. How are you holding up today?” She’s told me that she wants to learn more and wants feedback on things as she grows, so I called her. I told her that I’m so glad we’re talking regularly during isolation and that I value her support in listening to stories that I produce, but I don’t need these check-ins. I appreciate that she’s acknowledging these events and isn’t oblivious to them. That means a lot. This friend has switched to sending me videos of an herb-thieving bird in her backyard instead and I CANNOT GET ENOUGH! I appreciate my friendship with her more because we had this slightly uncomfortable conversation and came out stronger on the other side. Like with everything in life, the easy thing doesn’t bring sustained change.
So if you want to say something to acknowledge that you’re thinking about me, how about: “Sending you love.” Or whatever! My point is that there is no script for this, and in friendship there shouldn’t have to be.
And then there’s the larger conversation happening in many workplaces reminding managers to “check in on POCs this week.” Again, right intentions, but this ain’t it. Here, I think the ideal thing to do is create a culture where people feel heard and cared for in general, not just during a week of protests and national unrest. It’s great to acknowledge the news of the week and make the connection that it may burden some more than others. But I do not want to feel even more singled out than I already do any time there are talks about diversity, microaggressions, and retention. I’d recommend not making assumptions about the heaviness of the news or how it is impacting them. I hate structural racism and that black people are dying at the hands of police violence. I wish it would stop and I had a pretty good week last week. I am thankful for life, my health, and my safety, and I am doing what I can to make things better.
If a sense of outrage is new for you, welcome. I’ve got low-level outrage stasis going on over here.
I know rejecting the goodwill of others could piss some people off. But I also don’t have the emotional capacity to worry about that right now. I know it could make the people around me feel at a loss. It could make people feel unsure of what to do to make a difference and effect change. If that happens, sit with it for a minute or two. That feeling of exhaustion and overwhelm is what is causing people to take to the streets in protest as I type.
Should you maybe think of me and how I might feel seeing people who look like me lose their lives and to have the video of that moment shared infinitely? Okay. Should my colleagues keep that in mind when they interact with me or give me my assignment for the week? Sure. Check on me out of the blue? Hard pass.
One of the best texts I’ve received (and from a black friend), “Love you. What’s for lunch?”