5 Things Black People Don’t Owe White People While Coping with Being Black in
Updated: Mar 14, 2021
We are in the midst of a Global Pandemic—a global pandemic that has disproportionately impacted Black communities. Over the past few months, we have experienced consecutive instances of police brutality and violence against Black bodies. Black people are collectively mourning the unfair and untimely deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Nina Pop, and George Floyd. We are also dealing with the day-to-day harm caused by the archetypal ‘Karens’ in our workplaces and communities, who represent weaponized whiteness.
All of this is a lot. It is heavy. It is trauma.
Trauma, more broadly defined, refers to an emotional wound caused by one or a series of multiple events that may cause lasting, negative effects on a person. As with any response to trauma, we should expect: a range of emotions, intense or unpredictable feelings—anxiety, overwhelm, irritability; sensitivity to environmental factors—triggers; strained interper
sonal relationships—disengagement, withdrawal, disagreements; and stress-related physical symptoms.
As Black people experience this moment in time, and more specifically navigate race-based trauma, and collectively cope with being Black in America, I would like to offer some advice for leaders, white people, and other non-Black people seeking to be allies, advocates, champions…or just supportive during this time. In my experience, even those most well-intentioned can have unrealistic and subsequently harmful expectations for how Black people should ‘show up,’ or ‘be’ during times like these. These expectations are oftentimes rooted in lack of awareness of power and privilege and the physiological impact of systemic and interpersonal racism. Likewise, I hope this is equally affirming to Black people who are coping and navigating this time how they may choose.
Here are five things leaders, white people, and other non-Black allies should not expect from Black people as we cope with being Black in America — put differently, these are not things we owe:
(1) Immediate Grace and Forgiveness
It has become commonplace after an incident involving racial injustice that Black people be expected to exude an immediate posture of grace and forgiveness—specifically toward their white counterparts or (even worse) those who perpetuated the act of violence against them.
This narrative is typically in service of white comfort (or discomfort), without any sense of accountability or retribution. In some spaces, this expectation is rooted in the Christian principle of forgiveness. It is oftentimes applied without attention to nuance or equal attention to the Christian principles of repentance and restoration. It is a very unrealistic and harmful to expect Black people to ‘bounce back’ immediately from experiencing trauma, especially when just being Black in America is a daily exercise of grace, understanding, forgiveness. It is not an option when choosing to occupy and thrive in white spaces.
Black people do not owe immediate grace and forgiveness when they are grieving and coping with the trauma inflicted by ongoing instances of racial injustice.
(2) Finding Common Ground
In our well-intentioned strides to facilitate and create space for dialogue around race — and more specifically in response to acts of racial injustice — we might be tempted to expect finding ‘common ground’ as a realistic outcome. I get it—shared understanding should be the ultimate goal of any dialogue. Common ground suggests both ‘sides’ have equal weight and validity. There is no middle ground when it comes to affirming, understanding, and acting to dismantle racism. Common ground requires both sides to model mutual empathy, which could be difficult in practice—particularly as one works through their own feelings and trauma.
White folks must lean into empathy and compassion in ways that account for the emotional toll and deficit their Black colleagues could be experiencing. Black and white peoples’ roles in finding common ground are not the same in discussions on race, just like our roles and experiences in navigating racism are not the same. The burden must be shared equitably, not equally. In instances of life and death, overt and covert forms of racism—indifference and inaction are unacceptable. Indifference and inaction literally kill. Get rid of expectations around finding common ground and strive for interrogating one’s own complicity and indifference.
(3) Uncompensated Sharing of Experiences and Feelings
Black people should not be expected to share their experiences, stories and truths in service of educating white people right now. Certainly, there is value in mutually beneficial, cross-cultural reciprocal learning …AND given our current environment, this expectation can perpetuate emotional labor, ultimately compounding trauma. While I do see the value in inviting Black people to share their truth, it should not be an expectation (an invitation should not be conflated with expectation); nor should it be stigmatized when one chooses not to accept. As organizations rush to create spaces for employees-at-large to discuss recent events, they must honor and prioritize the experiences, willingness, and psychological safety of those most impacted. We should not set expectations for Black people who are not getting paid for it, to commit to the emotional labor of educating white people on race, racism, their experiences. Compensate for emotional labor, hire a skilled practitioner and facilitator, and leverage the resources (like this one) that are available and literally at our fingertips.
(4) More Time and Patience
Yes, equity and inclusion work is a journey, ongoing, and takes time. While processing and working through this moment in time, Black people may not be inclined to accept responses that suggest ‘we just need more time’ to make change, or ‘be patient’—particularly from those in power, with resources and status. While ‘the journey’ and necessity to be patient is a reality many Black people are well aware of (in the context of society at large and within our organizations), it is also a reality that becomes draining, even frightening. Lives have been impacted and lost while on this ‘journey.’ We must acknowledge this.
That said, If you are a Black person, in a space where you are overwhelmed by the lack of progress—and it is beginning to take an emotional, physical, mental toll on you—it is absolutely OK to set up a boundary in service of yourself. It is absolutely okay to remove yourself from situations, from people, from environments where you feel like they are not doing the work fast enough. Furthermore, we should not suggest narratives that stigmatize setting boundaries and removing ourselves from environments that are not doing the work quick enough, especially if you have the flexibility and privilege and can do so. We don’t have to stay in environments or feel bad for leaving environments because they don’t serve our humanity and who we are.
This is not the moment to tone-police behavior or verbal expression. Black people should not feel compelled or expected to mask or temper real and valid emotions in service of white comfort. One’s humanity or the extent to which their pain is seen as valid should not be dependent upon their education, credentials, dialect, communication style, dress or other factors used to qualify one’s proximity to whiteness, or respectability. I cringed when I heard people use Chris Cooper’s education, interests and hobbies (as a birdwatcher), dialect, dress and composure as reasons why Amy Cooper was wrong in her interpretation of him as a Black man. Even if he did not go to college, speak the ‘proper’ English, exude emotional restraint in his speech, she’d still be wrong—he’d still be deserving. Black people are deserving and our humanity should be validated even when we don’t fit within society’s dominant norms of acceptability.
As Black people work through this moment in time, we do not owe (though we may choose to offer) grace and forgiveness, common ground, uncompensated sharing of our experiences and truths, time and patience, and respectability …But if you (leader, white person, non-Black ally) are so blessed to experience any of these things, please honor it as the beautiful gift (and the unearned privilege) that it is.
Note: I originally wrote this post for The Winters Group's Inclusion Solution blog .. but the way my shared abundance mindset is set up... :-)