8 Ways Not to be Someone from which Black People Need Healing
After nineteen months of absolute isolation imposed by COVID-19, I incrementally and grudgingly reentered the world. As soon as I did, I realized why I relished solitude. I had several epiphanies during COVID, chiefly, that I owed my peace to the absence of the microaggressions I would’ve experienced on a daily basis, had we not been isolating. These transgressions, committed by tiki torchers and Women’s Marchers alike, cause harm that’s comparable to the virus that protected me.
So I’ve been thinking. As we all rejoin the land of human integration, I formulated a list of the most frequent offenses that myself and others encounter. Though I’m not one for dispensing free advice, since “allyship” is en vogue, I wrote this for anyone who’s experienced said harm, or those who wish not to cause it. A beginner’s guide if you will, for the “purported” ally.
- Stop expecting me to educate you — I’m not a Ph.D.
My mother raised me to be many things, but entitled to ignorance wasn’t one of them. Pre-google, which was the entirety of my childhood, when I didn’t understand a word, the context of an event, etc., I had to read these things called dictionaries and encyclopedias. If I didn’t know something about a particular country, pre-Wikipedia, we used a website called “CIA World Factbook” where we could find information. So if I could do that in 1999, what’s stopping you today?
There are very few circumstances where people feel so comfortable, if not entitled, to a dangerous level of unfettered ignorance, than to the learning of the Black Diasporic experience. Yes dear, people used to throw feces and urine on Black children when they tried to integrate the schools — many of them are still alive, and so are the children they raised. Yes dear, Black women in the United States have hospital mortality rates akin to those in developing countries. Doctors dismiss their pain to the point that it kills them. Yes dear, racism is so pervasive in U.S. public schools that there’s a growing movement of Black Americans homeschooling their children. Yes dear, all of those videos that you needed to see of extrajudicial killings of Black Americans are not a new phenomenon, the only thing that’s new are the cameras.
But whatever the issue, whether it be education, housing, or social justice, there’s far more research available and accessible today than there was twenty years ago. Google and Google Scholar are free. Youtube, replete with documentaries, is free. Libraries are free — and rumor has it, they still have books. You can borrow them in-person, or online. Audiobooks as well.
So the next time you see a Black person and an issue is raised of which you have little erudition, first — admit that. Show some integrity and humility. Second, if that person isn’t offering to educate you, then educate yourself. I never applied for a Ph.D. program because I knew I didn’t want to be a teacher, your lethargy will not force one upon me.
Speaking of academia….
2. Don’t ask Black people to review your papers, I’m not a T.A.
This is problematic for several reasons. First, if you are asked to write a research paper, that demonstrates you have an aptitude for, well, writing and research. Unless you’re in primary school, you’ve established yourself as someone who can acquire, verify, and articulate information. This means you should have the skill set to check your sources, tone of a piece, and examine different perspectives of that piece. That’s what we call critical thinking. If you’re in an academic program and you lack such qualities, it sounds like the only thing you’ve ever learned is how to take an exam.
But to the point, if you’ve written about the subjugation of a group of people, why would you ask someone who is currently living that experience to review your research? If someone has been trafficked, why would you ask them to read a paper about human trafficking? If someone was abused, why would you ask them to read a paper about abuse? And if you’re writing a paper about the different facets of discrimination against Black people, why would you think I’d want to “check” your paper before you complete it? I’m a bit removed from academics, but is that not the role of a teaching assistant? Why would I want to read about the abuse and discrimination of which I am currently navigating? And here’s a pro-tip: if you wouldn’t ask another group of people who’ve experienced harm to review your academic research in the same context but feel indifferent in asking Black people to do so…sit with that. Independently. Ask yourself why.
Now, for those supposed critical thinkers…
3. “Debating” people’s lived experiences is emotional terrorism.
I earned a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. When I say this, most sane people don’t argue with me. How can they? I was there, I took the classes, and I walked across the stage. I know my own lived experience. Now if I switch, “I studied political science in university” to “I experienced racism and discrimination in university” or discuss experiencing racism in any other context, all facts are now dubious and must be interrogated. “Maybe that’s not what happened…” “Maybe that’s not what the person intended.” “Maybe you need to understand their ignorance or they didn’t know better.”
My amazement at the mental contortions people do to justify bigotry will never cease. How can you deny the facts of the lived experience of another, that transpired in your absence? And even if you were present, no two human beings experience the world in the same capacity. More so, why are you so eager to refute the experience in question? Really interrogate that. A reminder: if you wouldn’t deny that experience of someone else but do so of Black people, examine that full stop.
More importantly, to paraphrase Ijeoma Oluo, no person is required to be understanding or forgiving of someone who harmed them. No one. Stop asking Black people for “understanding” while they’re being stabbed, bleeding from the stab wound, or having the sutures removed — figuratively and otherwise.
So if someone tells you, “I experienced ‘x’, this was the intent and impact,” unless you’re acting in an official adjudicative capacity, take their recount of events at face value unless you have a substantive, cogent, and tangible reason not to. This is not the time to flex the debate skills that gave you a trophy for your kitchen cabinet. If that’s difficult for you, what you should debate is whether you have the requisite empathy to see the individuals in question as full human beings. That person was sharing vulnerability with you and questioning the veracity of their experience will cause further harm. Maybe it’s not you don’t know anyone who has experienced racism, maybe it’s that people listen very closely when you’re speaking and realize you’re not a safe confidant to share that information.
And for those who exacerbate harm through personal relationships…
4. You are not Black by romantic osmosis. Stop objectifying black bodies.
“If I had a dollar every time…,” is a tired American idiom. However, if I had one dollar for every person who felt their intimate relationship with a Black person gave them license to commit transgressions against that group or speak as if they were a member of that community, I would have a large sum of money.
I’m specifically addressing people who use their proximity to Blackness, through intimate relations or otherwise, as a currency to say and do things that they know they cannot and should not do. Like tearing off a ticket at a carnival, “I have negro X, as such I will do Y.”
Stop. Stop using Black people to barter social currency and acceptance to give offense, and attempt to mitigate said offense because of your relationship to a specific Black person. I no longer have the capacity to give examples of this despicable behavior, but if you need to say, “I’m married to/have a black friend/my ex was Black” to justify the premise of your statement, you likely shouldn’t be making that statement. Further, you should investigate why your license to make the statement is predicated upon your relationship with this individual, as opposed to the argument standing on its own. Instead of deflecting, apologize. Lastly, another friendly reminder…if you don’t do that with other groups…
Thinking about it, the entire issue of people saying things that they shouldn’t…
5. Why do you and your friends so desperately want to say the N-word?
I know non-Black people who I’m pretty sure use the N-word more than Klu Klux Klan members. I have no interest in a protracted debate regarding who’s allowed to say this word, but a brief synopsis: just because you hear something in music, doesn’t mean you should repeat it. Just because you hear other people say it around you or to you, that doesn’t mean you should use it or say it to others. But it was Akala, the scholar, author, rapper, and poet, who brilliantly recalibrated my thinking on this issue in an Oxford Union lecture. It’s not who can and cannot say the word, it’s why do you so desperately want to?
There are plenty of words in the English language that I wouldn’t use for a variety of reasons. “Gyp,” a popular American English word to say someone cheated you, is a slur against the Gypsy*/Roma/Traveler community. After learning that, the word disappeared from my vocabulary. At that point, I’d never met a Roma person. That didn’t matter. All that mattered was that I was using a term that could harm someone, whether I knew them or not was irrelevant. There are other ways to express that someone stole your money, and they’re not derived from the name of a persecuted community.
The N-word elicits a visceral reaction of pain and hurt for so many people. Why do you feel compelled to use this word when you’re not part of the demographic who was set to reclaim it? Why must this word be in your vocabulary? Whether Black people should use it among each other is a different conversation — if you don’t understand why, see section 1. Otherwise, please examine why it’s so important that this word remain in your lexicon and why you like it so. And as always, if you wouldn’t defend the use of an equally offensive term for another group by members not in that group, but defend your use of the N-word…unpack that.
6. It’s not my fault, nor responsibility that you don’t know many Black people. But dissect why you’ve been able to move through the world and only see people who look like you, and how that’s affected your worldview.
Opinions may vary, but when you see your first Black person in 3-D, that does not give you license to treat them like an encyclopedia. This follows closely with section one but on a much broader scale. We are all products of our environments, for better, worse, and somewhere in between. One individual cannot represent millions, scattered across several continents. Nor should they be asked to. Don’t bombard me with questions or examine me like I’m a science experiment because you’ve never seen “one” of me. Don’t touch my hair, my facial features, or any part of me — I am not an animal in a zoo.
Unless you’re from a country unaffected by the transatlantic slave trade, please examine how you’ve moved through your entire life without seeing descendants of individuals whose presence were outcome determinative to the trajectory of your country. Also, examine why you were raised in an area without any Black people — and what policy violence facilitated that outcome. It’s not a coincidence that everyone in your community looks like you, or that no one in your community looks like me. Refer to section one, and find out why.
But just as importantly, how did interacting without a substantive part of your nation’s population affect your mindset on race, culture, and history? How and why are your decisions formed, and what information are they based upon? And how were you able to move through life, presumably upwards, without interacting with this demographic? Could the same be said in reverse? If not, why not?
When you meet people from different backgrounds and form a rapport, that of course leads to opportunities to ask them questions about their lives and experiences. But if you’re truly interested in compensating for decades of cultural isolation, bond with people as individuals and become someone that which they feel safe enough to share their stories. Don’t bombard them with your ignorance and force them to compensate for your myopic upbringing. It’s unfair, insensitive, and downright ignorant. Especially if this is information you can acquire on your own.
And even if you don’t mean to do harm….
7. Intent does not equal impact.
If one goes for a joyride and injures someone, or worse, a judge may consider your intentions in sentencing, but this does not negate the impact of your behavior. You did not intend to harm someone; this doesn’t change the fact that you did. This logic is applicable in all aspects of life.
There’s something quite perverse about the apathy of harming Black people, intentionally or otherwise. Someone didn’t mean to trigger you, as such they feel entitled to absolution when doing so. I’m genuinely at the point of, if you don’t care about hurting Black people, just say that. Further, just as perniciously, when the responsibility shifts to console becomes that of the person who was harmed, and not the person who did harm. I have repeatedly been in situations when someone does something deplorable and when confronted become “overwhelmed” with emotion, and the people who were injured are expected to comfort them. We’re not doing that nonsense anymore. I’ll let you sit there and cry those Academy Award tears until they conveniently dry up.
If you consider yourself a somewhat decent human being, I don’t know why you wouldn’t immediately apologize for hurting someone. You can do that and explain your viewpoint. It goes something like this, “I’m sorry what I said offended you, this is what I meant.” Now, if you’re not backing down from your stance, whatever it may be, then you have to own that you’ve caused harm and the ensuing results. But don’t expect to cause harm and still be someone’s friend.
8. Black is not interchangeable with “people of color.”
All Black people are people of color but not all people of color are Black. We don’t all have the same experiences, and those distinctions are important. Additionally, there’s an extraordinary amount of anti-Blackness perpetuated by and within other minority groups. I cannot tell you how many times a first-generation American with heritage from [insert *multiple* countries here] has looked me square in the face and said, “yeah, my parents told me to never bring home a Black [insert desired gender here], but they’re really nice,” or “my parents and family are racist against Black people because [insert idiotic excuse here] and that’s just the way they are.” More insultingly, I’m expected not to be offended. Because people can always find humanity in racists, less so in those being subjected to racism.
Racist people are by definition, not “good” people. Racist people can do good things, but that does not make them good people with bad qualities — they are bad people, with good qualities. Jeffrey Dahmer, the American serial killer and rapist who terrorized, murdered, and maimed seventeen men, allegedly dined with his grandmother every Sunday. We would all agree Jeffrey Dahmer was a bad person, and among other things, had great affection for one family member. It’s harder to argue he was a good person, who occasionally did bad things. Human beings are complex — treating people equally is not.
Racism on a micro and macro level leads to food insecurity, housing discrimination, disparity in health outcomes, and death. The Jeffrey Dahmer analogy is not hyperbolic. Racism kills, every single day. And if you think you’re a progressive, liberal, or open-minded person, please don’t humor yourself by believing you can dismantle larger systems of oppression if you can’t confront your parents at a dinner table. It would be laughable if it weren’t so tragic.
In conclusion, that’s my introductory guidebook if you will, tips and tricks to not be an obtuse ignoramus — for lack of a better term. Though some of this piece is written with a cheeky tone, please understand the cumulative effect of being on the receiving end of these indignities. People repeat the harmful “strong Black woman” trope. I’ve never met her. But I do know women who’ve built a coat of armor for survival, because they’re surrounded by people from which they need protection. We are exhausted — I know I am.
And lastly…Happy Black History Month!