By Ivanna Johnson-McMurry, on behalf of Race and active in the First Mennonite Church
Lately I’ve been fielding correspondence and other communications from friends, and I use that term with great latitude—because, can you really consider someone a friend if you haven’t spoken with them in over fifteen years, and all you really share are an alumna connection, and/or a passing interest or hobby?
These conversations, from people who I’ve known during various periods in my life and who, in most cases, aren’t familiar with one another, but are all white, typically start like this:
“Hey Ivy, I know we haven’t talked in a long time, but I have been thinking over some things…in light of George Floyd, um…and other injustices that Black people have faced historically, and I wanted to get your opinion on a few things… books I’ve been reading…and I’d like to know if you would let me know if there has ever been a time where I’ve made you to feel unsafe, uncomfortable… or if I have been unkind or rude… to you, and I’d like to rectify this”, or some variation thereof.
The first email I received was over two months ago, and caught me completely off guard, essentially because I’d deliberately removed this person from my memory and hoped that this person had done the same for me. However, there they were in my inbox, as if we’d just been in class together last week, and they wanted to know if they could copy my notes. I have now deduced that this is the quintessential problem with using the same email address since high school and will work immediately to rectify this.
After about the fourth correspondence, I seriously thought I was being pranked, as I took a heavy inhale, and let out an involuntary sigh, with the invisible force of a deep ocean current. I read intently, as this person pled their case about their personal growth, wanting to be a better person, and a hollow apology asking for forgiveness and to right any wrong that they may have committed against me—even if they couldn’t remember it, as if it were my job to re-traumatize myself, remind them of their transgression and provide absolution—I am not a priest, if anyone was wondering.
Over the past two months as I ruminate over these exchanges, while a paroxysm of rage envelops me, even if in the moment, I demonstrate the grace and class that my Mama bestowed upon me since birth, lest she rise from her grave, Thriller style, whilst clutching her pearls to give me a firm talking to. These exchanges remind me that this is typical of white entitlement. White people operate from an innate confidence that society bestows upon them from birth, a confidence so profound that has them believing Black people are expected to endure endless quantities of abuse and return to it over and over again, and be grateful for the experience.
If this current moment has made you self-conscious of your past behavior as it relates to an old friend, colleague and/or acquaintance who is Black, and you feel compelled to reach out to them and clear the air, I implore you, don’t. Instead, invest in either a journal, a therapist, or both. Black people are not interested in providing laborious emotional effort to appease your guilt, shame or embarrassment, we provided free labor to white people for centuries and received a horrible return on our investment.
It’s high time white people start doing their own work. This work doesn’t end with having read the latest book by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and sprinkling “white fragility”, “anti-racism”, and/or “white privilege” into your conversations to let other white people know how “woke” you are (and, please for the love of all things sacred, stop using the term “woke”). I can assure you not wanting to be a racist is not enough—racism is an unavoidable consequence of growing up in a country founded and sustained by racism. The real work is re-patterning and challenging lifelong social conditioning—a job that never ends. This work will require you to stop discrediting, dismissing and denying the collective and individual experiences of Black people. Denial is how many families, organizations, and sometimes entire communities handle their unwillingness to deal with the consequences of facing the truth. This work demands that white people stop peddling Black suffering as noble rather than a ritual abuse of patriarchy and racism.
While you are doing that work, Black people will continue to do what they have always done: fight lies with the truth, which can be an uphill battle when the liars own all the printing presses and megaphones.
You can thank us later, preferably in the form of reparations.