When I was in high school, I was the only black person in a lot of my classes. In fact, my freshman English class referred to me as the speck in the cotton. About 20 years after we graduated, I got a Facebook message from one of my classmates apologizing for being so racist. I accepted both his apology and his friend request. A few years later, as I was planning a reunion with some of my oldest friends ( When I speak of my oldest friends, they are the ones I met in college. I could count my high school friends on one hand, and one of them is dead), I heard from this classmate again. Apparently, he had moved to the town where I went to undergrad, and wanted to meet up. I told him that my friends and I were doing a pub crawl downtown, and he could meet us for a drink. My friend Jessica and I started the party that day. He met us at a local beer garden. As he sat down, he chose to ask me a most interesting question: What was it like to be the only black person in our class? My answer shocked him. Remember, Jess and I were already a couple drinks in, and the truth popped out before I could stop it. I said, “To be honest, by senior year, I hated you all.”
He was taken aback, horrified in fact. “I just can’t imagine you hating me,” he stammered.
I made a few half hearted attempts to cover, but even in 2014, my supply of givable fucks was running dangerously low. Jess, being a true Southern Lady swooped in to try to salvage the situation, but despite her efforts, he left after the first beer. On the plus side, he paid for our drinks. I mean…White Guilt should benefit someone, right? I think of it as a down payment on reparations.
In the last few days, my DMs have been full of so many apologies from white friends; some for past behavior, some on behalf of white people in general. White friends, allies, what I’m about to say, know that I say it with love: STOP IT. Stop it right now, this very second. JUST. STOP.
I know you mean well, believe me I know it, but admit it, on some small level inside you’re doing this for yourself. You’re doing this to feel a little less bad about all the things that have been done to people who look like me by people who look like you. You want to feel less bad about that racist joke you laughed at. You want to feel less bad about that time I heard you say the word nigger. You just want to feel less bad.
You want to wave a flag to let me know that you’re one of the good ones. One of the good ones. I need you to sit with that phrase for a moment. One of the good ones. Some of us have spent half our lives trying to show that we’re one of the good ones. I’m here to tell you: Stockholm Syndrome is real, and it’s a bitch and a half.
Please understand that your apology is just one more thing we have to deal with, one more emotional weight to lift when you are already too damn tired. It’s just one more thing we have to do. Let me tell you a story: My father was abusive; to my mother, to my brother, to me. To all of his wives before, and definitely to his wives after. When I was 9 years old, we made the decision to leave. I say we because it was we. I was 9, my brother was 11, and my mother sat us down and talked to us as adults. She explained that we could either be happily middle class and live in fear or be poor and free. We chose freedom. In spite of everything, she insisted we still visit my father. When he could no longer physically hurt me, his new tactic was emotional abuse. When I was 18, I visited him, and all he could talk about was how fat I was, how my A and B report card wasn’t good enough, and how I should have gone to a real college. That’s the last time I ever saw my father. It was 1994. Since then, he has had a couple more wives. The last one shot him. (Karma) In the last few years, he’s become ill, and needs in home care. He might actually be dying. Not too long ago, one of his caretakers contacted me because he wanted to get back in touch with me and apologize. I said I wasn’t interested.
Some of you might think me cruel, but let me explain: Deathbed apologies are meaningless because they are about one thing: Absolution. I’m not a priest. I don’t have that power. More than that, it’s not my job. His apology doesn’t erase the memory of being huddled on top of the bathroom sink, pressed against the mirror, because I believe my father is literally going to kill me. It doesn’t erase the bruises and scars. It doesn’t negate the fact that my childhood ended at 9 years old. I say to you, white allies, the same thing I said to him: It’s not my place to absolve you. Your apology means nothing. ABSOLUTELY nothing. 3 bucks and your apology will buy a subway fare. One way. You know what means something? Changed behavior. Doing better.
Right now, you’re asking, “How can I do better?”
Allow me to tell you another story: When I was in middle school, I used to let the popular girls copy my homework, and they let me sit with them. They didn’t like me, but I was okay with that. Stockholm Syndrome. Sigh.
My point, white friends, is that the time for me letting you copy my homework is long past. The internet is a big place. Search for anti-racism resources. DON’T ask your black friends to help you find them. Some of them will, but once again, they’re tired. Why give them extra work to do?
I’m not saying not to check in your black friends. What I am saying is if you do, make sure that the focus is on them, and not your feelings. A few tips:
1. Don’t apologize. It takes too much emotional energy, and we’re going through enough already.
2. Don’t start with “How are you doing” unless you are prepared to make that a multiple choice question. It doesn’t matter what options you choose, the answer is most likely D- All of the above.
3. Somewhere in your message, include the phrase, “I know there’s a lot going on right now. You don’t have to respond.”
4. This is the hardest part: If you do #3, and they leave you on read, don’t get in your feelings and make this about you and your feelings. THAT would be the true definition of an ally.