The days after George Floyd’s death felt dark and lonely. As the graphic viral video circulated, my Black peers came together online, poured their hearts out, and called for change. But many non-Black people I know continued business as usual on Instagram with the usual memes and self-promotion.
The response — or lack thereof — triggered so many questions. How am I supposed to feel when a portion of my Instagram timeline is filled with pictures of barbecues and hikes, while the rest is posts of people acknowledging their privilege and showing up for Black people? How am I supposed to react when the guy I’ve been hooking up with sends me a tone-deaf photo of his breakfast while our city is literally on fire? The contrast between those who cared and those who didn't was striking. It reminded me of the times throughout my childhood that proved I was different, only this time it wasn't subtle.
I grew up outnumbered by white people in my hometown, South Plainfield, New Jersey. My parents chose to raise me there instead of the predominantly Black neighborhood where they were born and raised so I’d have better opportunities to be successful, according to them. Culturally, it’s affected every part of my life, from the way I abandon Black Vernacular English for “proper” grammar, to the way I’ve sewn hair extensions onto my head to fit European beauty standards.
For most of my life, I’ve been acutely aware of my difference. And any time I’m not, I’m soon reminded through micro aggressions — like when I was teased by a white classmate who referred to the braids in my hair as French fries. Or when I’m uncomfortably complimented by adults who exclaim, “You’re so well-spoken!” or “Your hair is so cool! Can I touch it?”
In high school, a white girl complained about affirmative action while we all applied to our dream universities. That same girl asked me to decode Black slang for her. Her privilege was on full display. I even had acquaintances casually use the n-word in front of me and quickly follow it up with “No offense!” I tolerated it because I didn’t have the confidence or the language to speak up for myself. I accepted that they didn’t know any better and were a product of our anti-Black, racist society.
My closest and longest friendships are with white women. My favorite teachers have been white. I have dated white men. When I was younger, I wanted to be treated just like my white friends, who were never referred to by their race. But as I grew older, and with the tension and protests triggered by the most recent killings of unarmed Black men and women, it has become especially important to me to be seen, appreciated, and respected for who I am — completely. I want my Blackness to be recognized. There’s no me without my Blackness.
While I’m grateful for the supportive and self-aware white friends I have, I’m even more aware of the others who are silent in the wake of systemic oppression. And I find myself questioning the level of genuine support.
For instance, on “Blackout Tuesday” — a day meant to pause regular posts and draw attention to Black voices — I saw people acknowledge their white privilege and pledge to be better listeners and allies. I wanted to indulge in the relief of finally being acknowledged by corporations, brands, and some social media friends, but I was skeptical. Did people really want to use their resources to make an impact, or was it performative? And now, weeks after Blackout Tuesday, are people still doing the work offline, or does it start and end on the internet? Are they speaking out because it’s “trendy” to not be racist? Even as the Black Lives Matter movement has become mainstream, some white people I once considered friends still haven’t said anything.
There is no one way to react when your community is in peril and the people you care about don’t seem to care about you. It’s clear that while my encounters with race have evolved in college and my adult years, that’s not the case for everyone. I don’t know what’s fair to ask of non-Black people in my life during this time, but I know it’s not fair to me to have to consider their feelings at a time like this. I only know there is an unease settling in my body in direct response to their silence and failure to take action.
I want to see tangible allyship. Real allyship is starting an uncomfortable dialogue. It’s showing up at rallies and protests. It’s donating to organizations that directly impact Black lives or the families of victims. If you’re a creative, it’s shining a light on inequity through your work. It’s accountability.
I’ve heard the argument that it’s better to say nothing than to speak on a subject in which you have no expertise. That’s just a tired excuse to opt out of the conversation. Silence is apathy. Silence is complacency. At a time when our president is unleashing the military on citizens practicing their constitutional rights, silence is violence.
I have to remind myself that the ignorance and inaction of others is not my burden to carry. It’s not my responsibility to rebut the “all lives matter” posts or to personally teach others about our plight. No matter how many infographics, explanatory videos, or call-to-actions by their favorite celebrities, some people will remain committed to their ignorance.
For me, the most effective way to overcome the conflict of white silence is to feel my way through it, one emotion at a time. In doing so, I affirm that my rage, anger, and disappointment are all acceptable pathways to healing.