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Before You Check In On Your Black Friend, Read This

Photo: KEREM YUCEL/AFP/Getty Images.
"Effective allyship... is rooted in the needs of those most affected." These powerful words were spoken by activist and community organizer Leslie Mac, whose work is grounded in helping white people become better allies, during an earlier interview with Refinery29. One thing white and non-POC allies can do right now — among a plethora of others — is to check in on their Black friends and their Black coworkers. "They’re likely still hurting, still confused, still exhausted," writes Roy S. Johnson on Al.com. "They’ll appreciate hearing from you." But there are a few things to consider before reaching out.
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Alfiee Breland-Noble, PhD, psychologist, author, founder of mental health nonprofit the AAKOMA Project and host of the podcast "Couched in Color with Dr. Alfiee," says there is a correct way to reach out, and the first step is to take your cultural differences into account.
"If we've been friends or a coworker to this person for a long time, we should already have some clues about how they like to be engaged if we are paying attention," Dr. Breland-Noble says. "Some of the challenge sometimes is we work with people, but we don't take the time to try to learn across cultures. So when a crisis time arises, we don't have any bandwidth or any knowledge to inform how we'd engage that person."
But don't mindlessly reach out to your Black contacts. First, ask yourself: Is it appropriate for me to reach out to this person? "It's very different to be checking in on someone who you don't have a current adult relationship with besides being Facebook friends," says Moraya Seeger DeGeare, MA, licensed marriage and family therapist and co-owner of BFF Therapy in Beacon, NY. "If it's your close friend that you're checking in on that you talk to all the time, I hope that you're checking in on them anyway all the time and that they're checking in on you."
If you're tempted to reach out to a Black person who you have no real relationship with, press pause. There are other ways you can support Black people right now, from donating money to speaking up to the people who are in your life. It's also a good time to ask yourself why you have no or very few relationships with people of color.
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Other good questions to ask yourself before reaching out: Is sending this message an action rooted in tokenism? Why are you doing it? For yourself, for you to feel like you've "made an effort"? Or is it really for the sake of your Black friend and their wellbeing?
Once you've established that it's appropriate for you to reach out, Dr. Breland-Noble says it's essential for your words or message to come from a place of understanding. "If you're a white person, you want to try to understand how you might be feeling if you were in the kind of crisis that your black colleague or friend is in right now," she explains. "What would I want to hear?" Dr. Breland-Noble also points out that if they were really our friends — if they were really coworkers that we valued — we would always be coming from a space of trying to understand, whether in a crisis or not.
Dr. Breland-Noble highlighted a few specific phrases or actions to avoid at all costs. Never approach your Black coworkers from a place of white guilt or meekness or fear, she says. What that looks like: Saying things like, "I don't even know what to say right now," or "I feel so guilty for my privilege."
While it may not be your intention, these types of statements implicitly ask your Black coworkers to comfort you. And that's not the goal. As Mariel Buquè, PhD, a trauma therapist, previously told Refinery29: “There are many times when well-intended and well-meaning white people, who I know truly care for me, make statements of white guilt, or express that they don’t know what to do.... [effectively placing a] heavy burden of their own guilt and shame upon a person that's already in grief and in trauma."
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Along those same lines, avoid asking your Black coworkers or friends to educate you on how to help Black communities, says DeGeare. She suggests considering, "What are you actually expecting back from this person? If you’re expecting them to do more work with you around that, you need to probably not do that. Don’t send it, don’t ask questions,” DeGeare says. “It’s that laziness in this that’s creating this really toxic environment around these casual check-ins on your Black friends.” You may want to keep your message brief and to the point. "Sending a novel... if I was really going to respond to that and help educate you in this moment, you’re asking for an hour or two hours of my time,” DeGeare adds.
Another phrase to steer clear from? 'I can't imagine what you're feeling'. "For some reason, I hate that," says Dr. Breland-Noble. "No, you can't. I don't need you to tell me that. I know you can't."
Instead, acknowledge the pain the Black people in your lives are experiencing, let the person you're speaking to know that you want to be a support to them, specifically, and give that person the power to tell you exactly how they want to be engaged.
You can start out with a sincere apology. "Say, 'I'm so sorry for what you must be experiencing right now.' Because you don't know what they're experiencing. But you know it's something, and you know it's not good," Dr. Breland-Noble explains.
"Then, 'I want to be a support to you. I will wait for you to tell me how I can do that in the best way,'" she continues. "And then you have to wait." That gives coworkers an opening and permission to tell you exactly what they need or want from you — whether it's a significant amount of support, or to be left alone for a while.
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Don't assume you know what your coworker wants. "Ultimately, we have to be super careful that we don't project our personal feelings or what we think that other person would want. That we don't just come from that place. Treat people as you want to be treated with the added context that there are going to be some differences," Dr. Breland-Noble says.
We'd hope it goes without saying, but if you give Black coworkers the space to tell you what they need from you, you must be ready to give them what they ask for. That begins with space and time. Right now, it would be appropriate to say something along the lines of, "I know this must be a difficult day for you. No one has an expectation that you're going to be in this meeting today, or any other work-related commitment, for that matter."
Then, and this is key, follow through on those words. Saying you want to help means nothing if you don't take the actions to actually help — whether that means temporarily reassigning your Black coworkers' workloads to give them the ability to take time off, refraining from pinging them with work-related issues for a few days, or giving them a platform for speaking up within your organization, if that's what they're asking for.
The Creative Collective NYC tweeted out a helpful thread of questions that aren't "How are you?" that you can pose to your Black friends and colleagues if they choose to open up a dialogue. Some of the questions include: Have you been sleeping?"; "How do you need to be supported in this moment?"; and "What feelings are you experiencing the most right now?"
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To truly be an effective ally, it isn't enough to only reach out when there's a new trending hashtag on Twitter or a crisis that rocks our country.
"What Black people are feeling right now isn't just about George Floyd," explains Dr. Breland-Noble. "It is about the cumulative effect of all of these things dating back to Emmett Till. Dating back to the 20s, the 30s, when the NAACP would hang banners that say, 'A man was lynched today'. That's what it is. We have to be knowledgeable, somewhat, about that history too so we don't make a misstep of going to a person and assuming it's just about the last four weeks. It's about so much more than that."
To help bring attention to the police killing of George Floyd, you can sign the Change.org petition here, or donate to local organizations like Black Vision Collective or Reclaim the Block via the Minnesota Freedom Fund here.

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