Another video of a Black person has gone viral, which means it’s time for infographics! New hashtags! Maybe even a holiday that (kind of) recognises Black liberation. And you my friend? You have questions. They might be straightforward, like “what does BLM stand for?” or they might be more complex like “If we defund the police, what should the solution be?” You want to ask someone you trust would know the answer— so you turn the nearest Black person and prepare to fire away. But before you do, stop. Think. And then, don’t.
I know what you’re thinking; “everybody always says ask questions, stay informed, get information from reliable sources, but now you’re telling me not to ask any of the Black people in my life. What am I supposed to do then?” Your frustration, and confusion, is valid. So, why should you stop asking your Black friends all your questions about racism, and what should you do instead?
Humans, not search engines
You might have lots of questions, but that doesn’t mean that every Black person has lots of answers. While Black people have a different vantage point because they have experienced racism first hand, it doesn’t mean they can tell you what Critical Race Theory means or why it shouldn’t be banned in schools. In fact, while Black people might have experience dealing with racism, both on an individual and a systemic level, it doesn’t mean that they have the language to talk about it in an academic sense, or in a way that is easy to describe to you. If you live in the United States, you are aware of the pitfalls of the education system— one where we’re taught that some slave owners were nice, segregation ended in the 1980’s and the Black Panther party was a terrorist organisation. You were taught the same mistruths they were. Unless they sought out additional information, and I mean really looked for it, they might not have the answers to the questions that you’re looking for. To many, it’s a gut reaction to injustice, and can’t be answered in a nice neat response, or they just might not have the answer at all, especially not the one that you’re specifically looking for. And honestly, there’s a good chance they don’t want to go find it. There’s an even greater chance that they don’t want to then teach about it.
There’s this idea that by being Black you are not only automatically qualified to teach, but always willing to. It’s almost like an obligation— if you want people to fight with you, you have to always be willing and available to educate. But that’s not a normal way to live, and the feeling that Black people have to be “on” and ready to educate all the time is invasive and rooted in privilege. Even if they’re fighting for the end of systemic racism, they might not want to have that conversation with you while checking out at the grocery store. They might not want to have that conversation with you at all. And they’re not obligated to.
The emotional toll
A large reason why people feel like Black folk are so qualified to talk about racism, is because of their lived experience dealing with it, and that’s fair. Sometimes, the best way to learn is to go straight to the source. However, these experiences are not just stock experiences that people live through and then teach about like a robot trucking through life. They take an emotional toll on each and every Black person, every time an incident happens. Every time another video goes viral, it becomes a chance for the world to get a first hand look at the racism we thought no longer existed. But Black people know it’s still here because we still feel it. So instead, we see our sisters, our brothers, our aunts, or granddad.
Often when a question is asked, especially unprompted, it can be jarring to say the least, and triggering for those with firsthand experiences. Constantly reliving trauma for the sake of educating others, isn’t a sustainable way to live. Lived experiences are not just your opportunity to learn.
You still have questions, so let’s find answers
So, all of this is great, but it doesn’t answer what you should actually do if you have a question. The answer might seem a little contradictory, but it’s true— it’s okay to ask your Black friend. But there are some stipulations to that.
First, do research on your own. In addition to the overall exhaustion of reliving difficult experiences when answering complicated questions, it’s just annoying to have to answer the same easy question a dozen times when Google exists. You don’t know what BLM stands for? Google it. Want to learn more about AAVE? Google it. Taking those initial steps on your own will save time, and energy, for those around you in case you think of something that isn’t so easy to look up.
When that time comes, where you feel like you’re ready to move on to more complex discussions, Google again. Instead of looking for answers though, look for resources. No Black person is obligated to teach, but many choose to because they like to (I’m one of those people.) There are thousands of resources that exist to help answer your questions. Black people have been having these conversations amongst ourselves, and tried to include the world in them, for generations. Books have been written, articles published, documentaries released, and interviews undertaken that will help you find what you’re looking for, and very likely then some.
When all that’s done, if you’re still thinking about it, although it seems a little contradictory, it is okay to ask your Black friend. Emphasis on “friend”…Not your coworker on a random Tuesday or the grocery store clerk you’ve met once. Someone you know and are close enough to that they feel comfortable talking about this with you. Ask if they feel up to having these talks, and go in with an open mind that’s willing to learn and not be defensive (there’s nothing worse than trying to help someone who asked for it and then being told you’re wrong.) If you don’t have that person, it’s okay! Seek out people who are willing to work, whether it’s online or in a diversity seminar. They’re out there.
Learning is hard, and learning when you don’t know where to turn is even harder. But to make progress, so we can stop having Black Lives Matter spirit week every six months, it’s going to take some hard things. But as long as you’re willing to put in the work, you will likely find people to work with you along the way.