Since George Floyd’s death and all the events following, Black people have been dealing with a lot. And as more white folks begin to form their own reckoning, their awareness is increasing. That awareness is creating more empathy for the Black folks in their lives, and they want to show solidarity and caring. While checking in may seem like the most natural thing to do, many of us Black folks are having trouble with that kind of communication right now.
There are people who want their white friends to check on them. And that’s fine and valid. People like to know that the people they care about also care about them. But not everyone is feeling that way. I know I’m one of those people who feels very conflicted about my white friends’ check-ins. It’s kind of difficult for a lot of us to answer questions like “How are you?” and subsequent ones that follow. Because right now, for many of us, there’s no clear answer.
I know my white friends mean well. And it’s not that I don’t appreciate them reaching out and checking in. I’d hate for them to think I’m mad at them for being decent human beings. That’s not it at all. It’s just that I don’t have the emotional bandwidth to engage with people right now. I say I’m okay, because realistically, I am. There’s nothing in my bubble that is bad. But I also can’t shut out what’s happening in the world. So while I’m theoretically okay, I’m not really okay.
The thing is, I can’t really put words to my feelings right now. I feel lost, confused, relieved, hopeful. There’s no way for me to know how I’m going to feel from minute to minute anymore. Sometimes I can crack jokes and laugh at memes like everything is fine. A minute later, the lyrics to a song can send uncontrollable waves of sadness through me and I’ll start crying. For someone who tries to be in control of her emotions, this is a weird space to constantly exist in. So when friends are checking in, I honestly don’t always know exactly what I’m feeling, and I usually don’t want to share that, even though it’s the truth.
Asking me how I’m doing puts a lot of pressure on me to give an answer I think you will find acceptable. If I tell the truth and say I’m feeling terrible and life is overwhelming, then I have to deal with your reactions to that. The “I’m so sorry,” or something similar. Let me make it clear: it’s not that I think your reactions are disingenuous. But right now isn’t really the time for me to want to hear how sorry you are or some other platitude. I know you’re saying it because you genuinely have no better answer. You’ve never had to deal with this kind of stuff personally. So of course you’re sorry I’m hurting. I appreciate that. I just don’t know if I can support both of us feeling bad.
So I say I’m okay, or I say that I’m holding up the best I can given how everything is going. It’s not a lie, but it may not always be the most accurate representation of how I’m actually feeling. In those moments, I’m just trying to go with what I think will end the conversation the fastest without directly changing the subject. I don’t want you to think I’m being rude or that I’m not happy you’re checking in on me. But now is really not the best time.
Right now, a lot of your Black friends are feeling complex amounts of feelings. Having to answer any questions is trying. Answering questions about our own emotional well-being is exhausting.
Your Black friends are tired. Our pain is currently on public display for everyone to see and comment on. There is no sort of safe space for us to exist and allow ourselves to really grieve. Everyone wants us to share our feelings publicly so that they can use our pain as a gauge for their own. White people will never truly understand what that feels like. When a white person does something bad, no one expects all of you to respond. However, when a police officer kills a Black person, we’re all expected to speak about it.
We’re running out of ways to express our pain in palatable ways. And frankly, we shouldn’t have to. We can no longer continue to reopen our wounds to get you to understand. That’s what your checking in can feel like. Your concern feels more like you wanting me to cut myself open and pour out all of my feelings. Just for you to then not really know how to handle the truth. No Black person is okay right now. This can’t be surprising. We’re battered and bruised and can no longer pretend to be okay to soothe white guilt.
Honestly, do you really expect us to tell the truth when you ask how we are? Do you really think you can support me if I say that I fear for my elderly father’s life every day? Or how I worry that some fragile white woman will find my older brother threatening simply because he’s 6-foot-four and built like a human redwood tree? That I fear for my nephews’ lives because they’re young black men. How afraid I am that one day I’m going to open Facebook and see that one of my Black male former classmates died at the hand of a white police officer. Do you really have a better response to that other than “I’m sorry”?
Checking in on me only makes one of us feel better in the end. And that person certainly isn’t me. The only thing worse than “How are you?” is “Let me know if you need anything.” Again, you’re putting the responsibility on me to take action. If I’m feeling overwhelmed at the thought of answering a theoretically simple question, how in the world am I going to make the first move to talk to you? That’s far too much pressure on me.
Checking in on your Black friends may seem like the best thing to do right now. And you’re not exactly wrong. But right now we’re hurting, and having to answer your questions about our state of emotional wellbeing isn’t really helping us to feel better. If you truly want to see how we are, just say something like, “I’m thinking of you,” or “sending you love.” You can express your feelings without us feeling that we need to reciprocate anything more than maybe a heart emoji. You can hold space for us without asking any direct questions. And we’d appreciate it.