Overall, I love that my town has come together to support one another in terms of meetings, rallies, protests, and vigils, where folks from all walks and races and ages come together to demonstrate support for Black folks navigating the complex terrain of survival in this country. I tend to deal with my grief and anger in much more private ways despite my status updates, but it is encouraging to see that folks want to come together and do something. But the reality is, in a couple-few weeks, most of us will be back in the familiar tread both online and off as obligations and normal patterns return.
So what can we all do moving forward even after the memes and hashtags die down, if it isn’t say, as major as attending a march, but in our private lives when we want to engage our friends and colleagues about race matters, specifically when we talk about systemic racism or police brutality to people? I know folks' hearts are in the right place. And I know my friends and colleagues and acquaintances mean well. And don't get me wrong, I am not upset with anyone who didn't realize they might have made me feel awkward. I'm hurting. You're hurting. Maybe for different reasons, but I know many of us are still at a loss in how to start moving towards healing when cultural differences have never been so glaring. That said, based on my work as an educator and activist over the last seventeen years, I have made a non-exhaustive list of suggestions for engaging folks in your personal life moving forward:
Timing is everything. People deal with grief and mourning and anger in very different ways. Immediately following a widely publicized tragedy, if you see someone you think you would like to have an exchange with in order to demonstrate sympathy or solidarity, it is good to ask that person if they want to engage with you. While the torrents of messages, phone calls, and in-person encounters have been appreciated, I am often overwhelmed and don’t know how to respond to people when they immediately spill all their feels, especially if I don’t know them that well or at all. While I am trying to figure out and prioritize my own needs, I don’t know that I am entirely equipped to address someone else’s too.
Coming at someone with a supportive stance that does not put pressure on them to engage immediately is very useful in terms of the healing process. If you want to have a dialogue with someone but aren’t sure when is the right time, allow me to suggest saying something like, “I just want you to know that I support you and if you feel like getting anything off your chest or want to talk about what has happened, say the word.” And then back off. Either that person will choose to engage you or not. But overwhelming them immediately with unsolicited contact that involves talking about your experiences and your perspective on matters at length might backfire and push someone into retreat or a defensive stance. It also highlights your inability to be unselfish. Someone else’s need to heal on their own for a bit should not be surmounted by your desire to talk to them.
Patience is also everything. Say someone does choose to take you up on an offer to have a conversation about racial issues in this country. So many of us have had different experiences, we have learned to adapt our worldview accordingly. So, if you think by demonstrating sympathy that the person you’re speaking with is going to immediately be ready to hold hands and sing songs and share candy and stuff just because you opened up to them, well, don’t be surprised if that’s not immediately the case. This country suffers from systemic psychosis which took hundreds of years to put into place so unity ain’t gonna happen overnight. The results of your efforts may not manifest on the spot, but don’t give up. People process things in their own time and even if you have all the good intentions in the world, your perspective just might be met with suspicion, mistrust, or silence. But that doesn’t mean you give up trying. It just means the other person might need some time and space to mull over what you’ve said and how to respond. It is not necessarily our job to convince people that our way is the right way so much as to figure out how we all can become better neighbors despite our cultural differences. While you’re waiting on their answer, there are libraries, websites, and support groups in abundance. Continue to educate yourself about statistics, facts, organizations, and trained professionals who are in place to help facilitate these dialogues, as well as other ways you can contribute your progressive energy.
Don’t squeeze me so tight the stuffing comes out. Lately, the hugs I've been given been turnin’ into tears and then stories and later, I emerge even more exhausted and depleted. When someone sees me and the first thing they do is burst into tears or give me a too-long, too-hard hug, I mean…I was just here to buy cereal. And there is something to be said about not being that person who is so wrapped up in their own difficult emotions they are spreading them to someone who is probably already in pain. This is case by case of course depending on who and where you are, and some people may not mind at all, but but I would say ask yourself first and foremost, is this contact supposed to make me feel better or them?
So, again, this is tricky terrain, but if you do initiate contact through an email or text or a hug, you can provide a brief, strong, supportive moment and then let that person go. Nobody is going to equate how long and hard you hug or talk or how often you touch base with them to how much you care. And even though you are feeling emotional, try not to dominate the moment with how you’re feeling and what you want to talk about. If you don’t want to guess, just ask if they're ready to engage, “Do you mind if I give you a hug?” or, “Do you feel like talking?” or, “Would you feel like having some company?” If they say yes, try to restrain any impulse to dominate the conversation. Again, your feelings of vulnerability are not necessarily timed like everyone else's and your impulse to connect might push someone into overwhelmed retreat. Or, the person might just say, no, or, not right now. Accept that’s how they feel, don’t take it personally, and move on. Don’t worry. They likely won’t forget that you demonstrated compassion.
If you find yourself saying “I” a lot when talking to someone who’s been marginalized, you may soon find yourself the only voice in the room. A lot of the conversations I’ve been having that start off as sympathetic quickly turn into chapters excerpted from the other person’s life-story or their philosophies about what needs to change and how. I understand this person is trying to convey their bewilderment or eagerness to initiate change in a moment of shared pain, but it’s probably not a good idea to go around over-sharing if someone did not ask you your thoughts on the matter. One, if you are a member of a group that has inherited a legacy of imperialism and oppression, this is an example of marginalizing voices in real time. Your need to share your thoughts about all the things could end up dominating the conversation when what we really need more of is the other side of the story. We can all be more interrogative with phrases like, “What do you think about X?” or “What does Y mean personally to you?” or “From what I understand, Z is the case, but I’m not sure I understand it all. What has been your experience?” And really try and listen. Without both fingers stuck in your ears while you’re still talking. And talking. And talking. Especially if you are unlearned or untrained with regard to what you are talking about.
One voice does not represent all voices. This should go without saying, but while there are commonly shared set of experiences in a given cultural group, not everyone has had the exact same experience or take on matters. For instance, I know Anglo people who have been hassled more by authority figures and cops than I. I know Black folks who have only had positive encounters with cops. So, this should go without saying, but if a person chooses to open up about their perspective with you, they are not the ambassador for their race, gender, sexual orientation, belief-system, etc. They can only be their own ambassador unless perhaps, if they are elected into a position to speak for a group of people. So starting off conversations with, “I mean, you’re Black. How come Black people don’t ____________?” is a surefire way to shut down a productive dialogue.
Don’t make assumptions. Don't tell me how to feel. Don't tell me what I should be doing to process. Don’t tell me what to do to make a difference. Don’t tell me how to do it and who to do it with or to. Don’t tell me to smile. Don’t assume because if I am smiling that I'm okay. You know what? Just don’t assume anything about me based on your own observations. Odds are, you probably don’t have the whole story. If you want to contribute, coming from a place of, “Is there anything you need from me?” can be much more productive than coming from a place of “Here’s what I need from you.”
Also, if you are a manager or supervisor or a person in a leadership position who has the ability to call a staff meeting, in order to create a safe, supportive space at work for your employees who may have had representatives of their cultural group murdered in the past week very publicly, even if they haven’t said anything, don’t assume they are fine. Especially in food services and retail. Also in administrative jobs. By saying something like, “I know this week has been tough for all of us to watch the news, so if anyone needs a few minutes to tap out over the next several days, just let me know,” without singling anyone out, this could go a long way towards helping someone who is hurting recognize that their humanity is valued in addition to how well they perform in their professional lives. The two are not mutually exclusive.
Own your own narrative. I find that I am more impressed with someone who wants to get involved when they say, “I don’t know your experience because this has been mine, but I want to learn. Where do I start?” or “I recognize that this is my worldview because of my upbringing, which could potentially have a harmful effect on others and I would like to help change that the best way I can,” rather than use my narrative to bolster their own credibility as committed to the struggle. In other words, don’t single anyone out to co-sign on your activism because that smacks of tokenism. Also, if you are an organizer and happen to be Anglo and the majority of your crew is Anglo, but you want to approach someone Black, you don’t necessarily need to name-drop the other Black people who you've worked with or who have agreed to participate to solicit someone else’s involvement or validate your own. Additionally, words like “diversity” are negative triggers to many people of color because they’ve been hijacked by bureaucrats and administrators as lip-service, but words like “inclusivity” typically mean a commitment to leveling the playing field for everyone.
In the end, all of the above suggestions are generalized and would need to be adapted or elaborated upon case-by-case. We’re all going to fumble and mess up a little bit because compassion in real time is a new muscle for many of us. It’s easy to click “Like” on a status update or retweet or re-post something we agree with. It’s much more difficult to know when and how to initiate compassion with real live people standing in front of us. There are resources, counselors and advocates, all around that are trained to help you facilitate or engage in dialogue with others who are different from you as well as people who share your cultural history. I definitely suggest you find out who they are and reach out to them if you don't know where to start. We all may be winging the semantics of how to interact with one another, but as far as I'm concerned, people who are open-minded and behave with the understanding that we are all in this together are always appreciated.