An Open Letter to My Non-Black Friends, but White Folks Especially
by Robert Babs
PLEASE DON’T MESSAGE ME ABOUT HOW BAD YOU FEEL AND HOW YOU’RE “THERE FOR ME” IN ALL OF THIS MADNESS
When it comes to the many difficulties life relentlessly throws at us, we all process and grieve differently. Over several hours, early on a Saturday morning, seated at my dining table, I did some thinking. Then I did some crying. Then wrote some words, which may have included more crying, but not as much.
Within the span of a few hours on the previous Friday afternoon, two very dear friends wrote to me regarding the most recent, seemingly meaningless murders of Black men in our country. Both of these friends are white women, not Black and, most notably, not Black men. However, they are the type who know how to responsibly participate in social discourse while solidly staying in their lanes. I’ve had several white women over the years try to explain to me what it means to be a Black man in America, these particular friends aren’t the kind of contemptible women who would even think to do such a thing. They’re two of the most wonderful friends I’ve ever had and could ever hope to have.
The first message opened with:
“Hey, your story made me realize that I forget to check up on you when the world hears about another Black person being killed.”
The second with:
“I have not explicitly checked in with you about shit in the news. Which probably makes me an absolutely garbage friend, and I’m really sorry.”
My immediate response was something to the effect of, “Oof, please don’t.”
These friends just wanted to make sure I got all the love I needed. Honestly, though, I don’t want that kind of attention. To quote Quinta Brunson’s, May 26th Twitter post, it’s “A constant emotional war,” and as such seemingly unwinnable. What would ‘winning’ even mean in this situation?
Being black is having a good day and then seeing another black person was killed for no reason. then you have to think about/talk about that all day. or don’t and numb yourself. It’s a constant emotional war.
— quinta brunson (@quintabrunson) May 26, 2020
The words of Ijeoma Oluo have probably done the most in the last few weeks to help me process my feelings and figure out how to communicate them:
“White People: whatever outrage and sadness you are feeling — pouring it all out on social to your Black friends won’t make them feel connected to you, it just places the burden of your feelings on top of their own. […] BE USEFUL. […] Don’t make us swim through your tears while we fight.”
Allies: Now is the time to be in the service of Black liberation.
Limit your response to what is of real, tangible help to us. Give money, call your reps, protect Black people at protests, elevate our work and voices.
Don’t make us swim through your tears while we fight.
— Ijeoma Oluo (@IjeomaOluo) May 30, 2020
If that’s not clear enough, check out this great comic by Maureen “Marzi” Wilson which provides a very evocative picture of the ineffectiveness of white tears while combating Black oppression.
We just want to be left alone, and with each other, to deal with our thoughts and grief. If we want support, we’ll reach out. I’d never be mad at someone for checking in, and I’m quite certain others would feel the same way because after all, it’s usually done out of love and concern. But you must understand how a flurry of “I see you and care for you” messages from all our non-Black friends every time this happens can be a bit much.
In a recent Instagram post, Dr. Quinton Morris outlined how Black folks have been tirelessly, exhaustively, perilously, [**insert continuous list of taxing adverbs here**] fighting this fight our whole lives. Our parents have. Our aunts and uncles have. Our grandparents definitely have. And the struggle is not likely to end anytime soon.
We do need your help.
We don’t want words, we want action, we want change. If you want to be helpful:
- Share information, but don’t share the videos of our brothers and sisters being slaughtered. I don’t need to hear from you about how bad things are. I don’t need you to send me articles.
- If this is your first time dealing with these issues, ask yourself, “how am I just now realizing how bad things are for others?” Remember and acknowledge that it’s not our responsibility nor our obligation to educate you. WE ARE TIRED. There are plenty of resources out there.
- Talk with other white people in your life. Now is the time to address and, if you can, correct the injustices and harmful behavior around you, especially those committed by people closest to you. That means telling grandma she needs to stop saying “the Blacks,” “colored people,” or “minorities.”
- If they want and have the emotional capacity to do so, talk with the Black people in your life after you’ve done some research on your own. Most will give you time if we believe you’ll actually listen.
- Effort and acknowledgment go a long way with POCs, but don’t go looking for validation. Take a back seat. Don’t be so eager and trigger-happy to try to prove how “in solidarity”, “outraged”, “non-racist”, etc. you are. Lip service is meaningless.
- Don’t share/post vitriol about cops/the justice system/the government. Reasoned criticism is far more effective than “burn it all down!”
- Ease up on the virtue signaling. You’ll never convince anyone of anything by yelling at them except that you don’t know how to have a discussion. Same with ‘white knight-ing’, it’s great that you’re an ally, but don’t speak for us. We can do it ourselves.
- USE YOUR PRIVILEGE: racial, gender, academic, financial, social, whatever you’ve got. If you have a platform, use it, but not to ‘reassure’ everyone within reach of your ‘woke-ness.’ Signal-blast Black voices who may not have the same bandwidth for getting their message and ideas out. Share them.
- If there aren’t any Black folks in your circles, why not? Why is crisis the only time you notice this lack?
- If you don’t understand when to use ‘People of Color’ and when to use ‘Black,’ do some research. Be specific. Say “Black” when you are talking about Black issues or Black people. Black is not a bad word.
- Share and donate to people doing the work. Examples: Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County, Minnesota Freedom Fund, and other local bail funds in aid of protesters who have been arrested.
Speak up and take action, but in ways that actually make a difference and more than just when something terrible happens. There are resources readily available, use them.
Remember: Black folks aren’t a monolith; we feel differently about different things. I’m speaking only for myself, and am grateful for inspiration from people like Francesca Ramsey. I hope this proves as useful to read as it was cathartic for me to write. A longer version of this letter is also available online.
Robert Babs is a Seattle arts administrator, nonprofit manager, speaker, educator, violist, son, brother, nephew, cousin, friend, colleague, QPOC in America just trying his best