Since the spate of murders by police of unarmed Black men, we are finally engaging in one of the most emotionally charged dialogues in this country, one we’ve long dreaded and therefore shirked: Americans are talking about race, and doing so as honestly as we can. But we can no longer avoid it after witnessing over and over the blatant inequality of policing and the failure to prosecute the officers who murdered Mike Brown and Eric Garner, which has made it painfully obvious that our nation has deliberately failed to uphold its laws to protect all citizens equally.
But even after all these years, ours remains a segregated society. Seventy-five percent of White people don’t have non-White friends, and even on social media, racial segregation is alive and well. But Facebook does provide a refuge for candid, often brutal conversations about racial issues.
And what we’re seeing from this digital discourse is that many White people have little sense of the daily lives of Black Americans: the constant terrorizing and harassment, the fact that police do anything but serve and protect, and Black people’s ongoing fear for their lives. And so the level of insensitivity and cluelessness, defensiveness and outright racist comments may not be so surprising, especially at the outset, and not everyone is going to be open to being enlightened.
Facebook has been dubbed “Racebook” because it provides a platform where people of different backgrounds can gain more intimate access to each other’s thoughts, feelings, and perspectives. This kind of virtual space offers the potential for greater understanding and empathy for one another’s lives. But one thing that my interracial cohort of friends, colleagues, and I have noticed is that a significant number of White people, especially women—are commenting and sending private messages to challenge and sometimes attack Black people for expressing and speaking truths about our realities.
I’m not talking about the obvious cases of overt racism, but something much more nuanced: the White women who are more or less on our side, but who don’t know their place in the conversation. As a result, their comments are often more presumptuous, who say things like they don’t “see race,” they’re not the enemy, or they’re feeling hurt and attacked.
Now, I’ve had invectives hurled at me by trolls in the comment sections on news commentary I’ve written, on my Twitter feed, and in my personal email box over the last two weeks. They’ve called me a “racist,” “a black cunt,” “whore,” “whiny bitch,” “coward,” “warmonger,” “terrorist,” and about a dozen variations of nigger. And most of that kind of hate comes from White men, some of whom hide behind fake profile photos of George W. Bush or Nazi salutes. They are aggressive, arrogant, and occasionally even physically threatening.
But believe it or not, I find less benign the more subtle stuff I get on Facebook, because of what it reveals. The specter of White denial and hostility troubles me more because I chose to curate my world with White “friends” whom I respect, care about, and whose opinions I value. And racist “friends of friends” who are six degrees of separation from the Ku Klux Klan add an additional disturbing layer. How could you be friends with that person?
When I, or one of my Black friends, write something about race on our walls that gets their panties in a wad, some White women complain, chastise, unfriend, or block us. These acts become another way to assert White power and the privileges emanating from White supremacy. We recognize this as “Whitesplaining”—a microaggression that shows up as an attempt to override our lived experiences with their logic steeped in privilege and entitlement.
Their words and reactions are not only revealing, they remind us that institutional and systemic racism is so deeply ingrained in every aspect of thought, belief, policy, and social norms in America that it is recognized as something perfectly normal—too normal to be openly challenged most of the time.
I’m not saying that all of my White friends are overtly racist. We’re not talking about people who go to Klan meetings, burn crosses on lawns, hang people from trees, or slur us with the n-word. Nor am I lumping all White women together. Like most Black folks, my life and my Facebook world include ride-or-die White folks who get the issues, understand racism for what it is and how it works, acknowledge their privilege, and are often committed to trying to make things better. They provide an example of what is possible and keep us from the temptation of feeling that all White folks are hopelessly racist.
We interact with White women who are mothers of Black adoptees and biracial children who express the same kind of angst and anger as Black moms. And we are encouraged by authentic anti-racist White folks who call out White privilege and whitesplaining—they deserve our thanks and appreciation.
One of my White female friends, a mother of two adopted Black children, shared with me that she was told by at least two White women who struggle with her incessant posts about White privilege that she is “not cultivating peace,” that she needs to see both sides better. In other words, they want her to shut up and post what they think she should post.
She’s also been offered endless Fox News sound bites about Black-on-Black crime, about the way Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Mike Brown, and Tamir Rice should not have been doing what they were doing (e.g., walking in the street, playing with a toy gun); that “they deserved what they got,” and that the people who were rioting in Ferguson were lawless “animals.” This revealed to her that folks in her Facebook world never stopped to consider the depths of the rage and sadness of a community.
She also said that she gets other White people saying that they are “tired of being told White people are bad,” and asking, “Why do you hate White people?”
Most of these comments, she said, render her speechless. She sees them as designed to assert dominance, and to make the person grieving have to justify their grief, or to make the person they don’t respect prove their worth. Rather than simply listen, they deflect the hard conversation and try to redirect it to align with their way of thinking.
But these types of down-for-the-cause White women, like my friends, are few and far between. More commonly, we find ourselves trying to have discussions where we seem to be talking at, but never to, and certainly never with each other.
Too often, when I’m using my fiber-optic space to share, vent, rant, and process the realities of being Black in America, I’m faced with White people responding with comments and private messages that I’m attacking, disappointing, angering, or hurting them. Or, they use patronizing language like, “Stacey, you’re much smarter than this,” or “I thought you were a more reasonable person.”
How do I let them know that when I say things like “White supremacy needs to be destroyed,” that I’m not talking about personally destroying them? How do I not become frustrated at those who jump in to debate and discredit what Black people are experiencing, in our own threads?
This is especially evident in these times, as Black people are struggling with the very real and present terror for the lives of our sons, our brothers, our partners, our sisters, daughters, mothers, ourselves. The whole world is watching the growing #ICantBreathe and #BlackLivesMatter movements, and Facebook is one of the few spaces where we can process our trauma in community.
And in that process of questioning and expressing and comparing notes, many of my Black friends and I have encountered White women pushing back with anger, disappointment, and sometimes even fiber-optic tears. Some of my Black friends say they usually don’t argue. They’ve pretty much weeded out racists and racism apologists from their timelines because they mess up their blood pressure. But the very moment you challenge their foolishness, it is “cue the white woman tears.”
As my Black female friends explained, this is how a conversation typically plays out on Facebook: Some White women start out by assuring us that they’re not racist. They say they’re colorblind. They’ll claim you're personally attacking them (rather than their irrational ideas about race).
Then they say that we’re being “inflammatory” or “divisive,” and making racism worse. Then, many say they feel personally wounded, attacked by our posts, and then come more tears.
Then comes the waiting for us to comfort and reassure them that they’re not bad people. And finally, they thank us for enlightening them, and ask what they can do to end racism.
It’s stressful enough that Black people have to see endless posts documenting racism, our fears, and stress related to the fact that a Black person is killed by the police every 28 hours. So when our White friends venture into our space to challenge our lived reality with their subjective responses, we’re left stewing in frustration. Why do some White women feel the need to express their disappointment and emotional pushback, and contest the points Black people are making? It’s as if they’re trying to overpower our reality, our pain, and our anger with their own.
On another level, there are those White people who reflexively comment on our threads with responses about Black-on-Black crime, with links to FBI statistics, purporting to provide context for their argument that we Black people harm each other more than White police officers harm us. Often, they parrot right-wing pundits or hit back with comments about how Black-on-Black crime overrules these slaughters at the hands of White police. “But, but, but Stacey, Black people are more likely to kill each other.”
And then I have to say something like, “But, but, but Katie, what if Arabs said to White people, ‘You know, White people kill more White people than ISIS or Al Qaeda’?”
Or they complain about how exhausting it is to hear about all this race stuff. Others are just silent. And we’re left, already stressed and exhausted from these nonstop attacks, being pushed to explain our reality and justify our emotions to people who aren’t even trying to meet us halfway on the bridge of understanding.
My message to those women is: Don’t come crying on my thread or my inbox with privilege you refuse to acknowledge.
Stop asking us to respond to and navigate your digital attacks and meltdowns. We can’t afford to use the energy we need to find solutions to save our own lives while arguing with or trying to educate you when you push back with resistance to even acknowledging what is real and true in our lives.
Some of my Black friends I talked to for this column have said they’ve been forced to limit the White people in their Facebook world, not because they don’t like or value them, but because these dynamics are too much to handle in these times.
In one discussion of Brown and Garner, one of my Black friends recalled that one of her White friends said that she was “tapping out” of a race discussion because the conversation was becoming “unproductive.” Black people don’t have that luxury to be able to tap out when things feel uncomfortable or tiresome.
Sometimes we’re accused of being “race baiters” and deliberately trying to make good White women feel bad for no reason.
Here’s what we need White women to understand, because we do want them engaged and part of this movement.
We’re struggling just to figure out how to get through the day without a loved one being gunned down for simply being outside while Black.
We use the social media space to share and process news, emotion, philosophy, political views, and tips on how to survive another day. This is our reality. When we welcome you into the space where we share this reality, we’re simply asking that you be respectful and NOT reflexively try to debate or discredit our truths or turn the spotlight onto how we are wronging you.
We need you as sisters, as friends, as colleagues, and as allies in a struggle that impacts all of us.
We need you to listen, rather than trying to assert dominance or challenging us to prove our worth. We need you to stop deflecting the hard conversation and join us in trying to have it in an honest, authentic, and respectful way.
Our lives and the things we express are obviously not always identical or compatible, but they continue to impact each other’s daily existence in profound ways. If you’re willing to meet us halfway, there just might be hope after all.
But please, stop crying in my inbox because, quite frankly, I’m all out of Kleenex, boo. I used them to wipe away my own tears after each of these tragic killings.
Stacey Patton is this week's guest columnist for "What's Going On."