What should I expect from my white friends when I’m broken up about racism?
I mulled over this with a white woman from my church as we sat on a bus stop bench in Washington Heights, smells of the Cubano sandwich clasped in my hands curling into the cold air around us. Shock greeted me when I found myself opening up to her about topics I hadn’t even brought up with my close friends, and it revealed to me just how much I need to talk about this: race and my white friends. For a few days, I had kept these questions to myself and saturated in articles and ranting, grieving Facebook posts. I found myself messaging and calling my black and Latino friends at every threshold point when I felt overwhelmed; desperate for affirmation that the well of pain I was sinking into was real, I needed the presence of people who just got it. If the well breached open in my heart was pouring out, I simply didn’t have enough buckets in hand to share out so white people could see and understand.
In many ways, I still don’t. People outside of the groups targeted by Trump’s campaign underestimate the breadth of hurt that those vulnerable communities are experiencing, and that the hurt issues from sources far deeper than this recent election. The tears, the protests–even the tongue-in-cheek black memes are symptoms rather than the crux of the matter. The election results tapped into a submerged current of grief and fear that has had little room to surface throughout our history as a nation.
It’s the current of 1492 and Standing Rock. It’s the current of slavery and sharecropping and sundown towns and mass incarceration. It’s the current of the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese internment camps. It’s the current of the Mexican-American Wars and Operation Wetback. There have always been walls built to contain and maintain this legacy of suffering. The visible walls planned only mirror those closeted out of convenience.
Grief is not convenient. It doesn’t wait for you to catch up, nor does it fall into any timetable of denial, anger, and acceptance. I realize this as I sit in my office, that same tension churning in my gut, refusing to leave. I’m not the embodiment of the tragedy mask from Greek plays–it’s not like I’m tearing my shirt and weeping every few minutes (bring out the ashes!). I’m not a walking waterfall. But while I laugh, crack jokes, and work like any other day, the emotions and thoughts related to race spring forth in the most unexpected moments, often without any specific trigger. How do I articulate the kind of sorrow that isn’t tied to just one thing but ALL of it, all the horrors and unnameables like cuts bleeding together?
The hurt becomes personal and national when I acknowledge that I am not used to being prioritized. My pain has not been catalogued or considered in policies proposed, nor has my peoples’ suffering garnered consistent actions of solidarity that translate into more than sympathetic reblogged articles and safety pins. There are, of course, people pursuing other avenues of standing with their marginalized neighbors, and I am grateful for those allies; I remain mindful, though, of the lingering hesitation on the part of white allies to step closer to the messiness that is racial pain.
I don’t necessarily blame them. (I don’t really want to deal with it either). I think of the guilt that comes with the realization that your skin buys you safety. I think of the confusion and anxiety hinging conversations with friends of color, the fear of screwing up and being seen as racist. I think of the awkward silences where the “right” words won’t come when the world unravels again after another police shooting. The gap between white and black realities looms large, and if white people haven’t learned how to bridge it, stagnation results, despite the best intentions.
Frustration sets in as I navigate through my expectations of my white friends and whether those expectations are fair or not. When another race-related event turns up, I find myself waiting for them to reach out to me. I don’t need a full conversation or a therapy session with them–just a text asking if I’m okay. I find myself yearning for their acknowledgement that the racism underlying both the daily realities and big, mainstream-worthy headlines affects me in a different way. Then I have to inevitably sort through those thoughts and question if I’m really asking for their recognition of my hurt or for their permission to express it.
What I didn’t realize when I was younger is that interracial friendships require this kind of thinking process. There’s an additional layer of effort needed to foster mutual understanding and empathy. As much as I wish they could be, interracial friendships are not organic or easy because subtle power dynamics and unspoken assumptions weave into those interpersonal interactions. We still have to deal with white privilege in our friend-space. As a person of color, I wonder if I am conditioned to shield my white friends from the visceral way I experience race and reinforce their comfort level instead. Is it a matter of relegating my need for support in this area to secondary status or merely saving it for conversations with friends of color–people I don’t have to explain myself to? It might be both.
Talking about race with white people is draining. Real talk here, and I know my brothers and sisters of color may feel this. Pulling back my smile and explaining how this election is making me re-live the discomfort of being called “exotic” as a kid AND the self-consciousness of being one of 1-2 brown people in a classroom AND the rage at how many black people have been shot by police officers this year AND the anxiety I feel when white colleagues and friends rant about Trump when I’m sitting there on the verge of tears and not knowing how to respond…it’s hard to parse it out. There’s no one-conversation-wonder that can fix this, and I don’t expect my white friends to have all the answers.
I wonder sometimes about that anxiety I’ve heard some of them express about this–whether they fear that one more race crisis will tip me and I’ll finally be just done indulging the white stumbling into racial awareness. However, the problem often is that I love them so much that their absence in times of crisis, their unknowing silences sting. I can’t make considering friends of color during times of racial stress a reflex. I can’t connect the synapses in their brains so they realize: Oh, this horrible racially-charged thing happened. Maybe my black friend needs me. I could reach out and tell them what I need. I usually do. But sometimes I’m all stubborn, wounded will, and I don’t want to. I want to see them make the first move towards me. I’m wretched over wrongs they don’t have to consider daily by virtue of their skin color, and I don’t know how to open their eyes to see me. There are people I call home, but when I am too tired to knock, will they still welcome me in?
As an American community, as the Church, we need to take the trauma of race-related stress more seriously when people of color are hurting around us. It’s not enough to survey the body we are mourning and tell us to pray. It’s not enough to see us protesting and tell us to calm down and move forward. Each person experiences racial stress differently, and our reactions and needs vary. We challenge our white friends and allies to take the time to walk alongside us through the debris so your actions reflect your intentions to love us well.
So if my white friends want to shoulder this race pain with me, what next…?
This week, I attended a training centered on supporting people with disabilities, and it convicted me to educate myself about the privilege I hold as an able-bodied person. I don’t have to think about issues of dependency or transportation or the stigma of mental illness, but I need to exert effort beyond obligation to care for those who do. It’s more than”feeling bad” about other people’s oppression–it’s taking ownership of that oppression for yourself and acknowledging that being part of the pain also involves being part of the struggle to reconcile the brokenness with the vision of shalom, of a restored global community that Jesus offers us.
Pursuing the biblical discipline of caring for our neighbors, in this case, neighbors experiencing racial stress involves daily practice. A million articles exist on how to go about this, but here’s what I can share with my white friends:
- Check-in with your friends of color and ask them what they need from you. Sometimes…it’s nothing in that moment, but ask anyway.
- Make space. Sharing your friend’s pain doesn’t equate to you dominating conversations about it. Affirm my struggle without needing to rationalize it.
- Stop trying to prove yourself. I don’t need to know how “not racist” you are. I love you. You can take responsibility for your thoughts and actions when I tell you they are hurtful without fretting that I’ll stop pursuing our friendship. We are not each other’s race-projects.
- Educate yourself about my pain. You can’t rely only on my personal anecdotes to examine the systemic racism that compromises the welfare of my communities. Listen to others’ stories, read books, watch documentaries, think to podcasts from preachers with a different skin color than yours.
- Explore the concept that expressions of racial pain are not a personal attack. There are times when I am angry and frustrated at white people because my communities of color are hurting as a consequence of their collective inaction or ignorance. You don’t need to distance yourself from “being white,” but instead I encourage you to explore the tensions you’re feeling when I say “white people” and why you’re feeling them.
- Own Whiteness. It’s not about getting paralyzed by guilt over it, but rather understanding how the construct of it shapes our society and causes dissonance between our experiences. Continually re-evaluate your biases, your assumptions, your perceptions of people of color and their experiences, and update your knowledge base so you are equipped to engage with racial injustice and its impact on your loved ones.
- Get messy. Racism is screwed up, and dismantling the institutions founded on it requires your participation. Go to a Black Lives Matter event. Protest with me. Call local representatives to challenge unjust policies. Defend me and people like me with your white friends and neighbors. Complicate their narrative and how they view my skin.
I can only speak from my experience, but I own my trauma and label it as such. I own that the racial brokenness in my country twists up my emotions, shades my daily life, and that the signs of this reality prod at that open wound. Sometimes it enrages me; sometimes I sprint into activism. Sometimes all I can do to cope with the hurt is laugh at Thanksgiving viral videos and toss banter at my little sister to normalize the ups and downs of it all (us Dominicans are good at that). Each day being black, being Latina will be different, and it’s a comfort to know I have a community around me that strives to affirm that.
I’ve been re-watching classic Star Trek episodes lately, and there is a phrase in the Vulcan language that resonates with me: Tushah nash-veh k’du. I grieve with thee. I feel the solemn weight of those words because they convey a sense of shared loss, a dwelling space centered on the pain and all the redemptive hope and exhausted heart wrapped up in it. In the moments when my emotional capacity to reach out to my white friends dwindles, I desire that space to unload my weariness without feeling pressured to BS it or rush to reassure them. I don’t need their attention to feel whole or even to cement my worth-God reminds me of that-but I want them, I want you (if you’re reading this) in this with me because it’s an inescapable part of my reality.
We want our white friends and allies to inform themselves on our racial trauma and seek resources beyond personal stories so they can also share what they learn to those white people we don’t reach. We still live in a world where their voices hold more credibility than ours in those spaces–and believe me, we will change that. But right now, I need my white friends to acknowledge what I’m experiencing as trauma, something complex and deeply-rooted and manifested in ways even I don’t fully understand. Social worker that I am, I call it trauma-informed care, and I believe God calls us as a Church to model that with brothers and sisters of color and other marginalized communities.
I won’t always be in a headspace to reach out, but the invitation remains: Sit with me as Job’s friends once did, but not to fix me or say God must have a reason, but sit with me and mourn the rubble and the dead. We will continue to rebuild together when morning comes.