Dear Black People, Stop Expecting White Folks to Feel Your Pain

We concentrate too much energy on seeking validation and empathy from white people—but we need that energy to protect ourselves.

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Three more Black people have been killed by police, and predictably, each corpse is being blamed for his own death.   

Tyree King, a 13-year-old boy killed by a cop in Columbus, Ohio, while holding a BB gun. The family hired an independent medical examiner who determined that King was shot in the back, likely while trying to flee police.

Keith Scott in Charlotte, North Carolina, a man sitting in his truck as he waited for his son’s elementary school bus to arrive after a day of learning. Cops claim to have seen a gun and marijuana in his car, and ordered him to get out of the vehicle. His wife pleaded with the police, letting them know her husband had a traumatic brain injury and was not a threat to anyone. As he exited the car, slowly walking backwards with his hands by his sides, an officer opened fire killing him in front of his wife and the world to see. 

Terence Crutcher, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, was seeking police assistance for his stalled car. He was shot and killed by Officer Betty Shelby, who in the aftermath told detectives, “I was never so scared in my life as in that moment right then.” Fear of a Black man appears to be part of the culture of the Tulsa Police Department. An officer in a helicopter hovering hundreds of feet above the scene described Crutcher as a “big bad dude,” taking racial profiling to a new height.

And these are just the latest set of examples, a single branch in America’s white supremacist tree. Its roots are deep and its effects are immense. 

Almost on repeat, the Black community has responded with marches, protests, and endless public conversation. Despite the persistent struggle for justice and freedom, this moment has also highlighted a level of weariness, a growing level cynicism as we calculate the odds of “justice.” At what cost?

The mounting grief, rage, and PTSD are taking a toll on Black America. And social media makes it even harder for us to maintain our health in the face of such naked hatred and oppression. While new media technologies provide tools of organizing and protest, shining a spotlight on the persistent violence experienced by our community, it is a toxic environment where Black Death is on loop and callousness and denial are as constant as the efforts to blame Black people for their own deaths. 

The struggle is oh-so-very-real. It has even led to the concept of “Calling in Black” to work. Evelyn from the Internets, in a video that has subsequently gone viral, suggests the need “for a solid day to reaffirm my humanity to myself … The specifics might differ but watching the same narrative play out over and over and over … again takes a toll. Sometimes I need a minute.”

In Silicon Valley, Black tech workers, whose battles against racism are daily, also brought the concept of “Calling in Black” to the workplace with a few mildly encouraging results. Erica Baker, an engineer at Slack, is one of many Black workers who have been vocal about diversity issues in Silicon Valley. Writing that she felt she needed to seclude herself from coworkers after the death of Alton Sterling: “Sometimes, I don’t want to deal with the emotional weight of having to explain my feelings to someone who couldn’t possibly understand them, no matter how hard they tried,” she wrote.

Slack CEO and founder Stewart Butterfield fully encouraged Baker to take the time to process. “You, or anyone else, can call in Black any day,” Butterfield told Baker; Baker wrote about his reaction to her Medium post.

The psychological and spiritual impact of the assault on Black life can be seen in the academy. I’ve written about graduate students feeling the emotional toll of White indifference in the classroom, questioning whether their pursuit of doctoral degrees even matters. In the piece “After Ferguson Some Black Academics Wonder: Does Pursuing a Ph.D. Matter, one doctoral student told me: “It’s not just that reading about Ferguson (and encountering the vitriol that comes with it) takes a lot of time and emotional energy away from doing research. For those attending predominantly White institutions, the business-as-usual feeling of a new semester and the isolation of being ‘the only one’ in a department makes the stress even more acute.”

As we wrestle with these very real dilemmas, there is no question that we need to be practicing all kinds of self-care these days. But what has me concerned is how some Black folks’ desire that White people feel and share our pain, grief, rage and trauma runs counter to our individual and collective emotional health. What we do not need to be doing is running around hugging cops during riots, and transmitting those videos on social media to ensure that white people understand that we come in peace. We’re being assaulted. Murdered. Denied sanctuary even in death. For the mere fact of being Black. We don’t need to go any higher when white cops have gone so low.

Why do we expect empathy from White folks? Why do we get upset about White awkwardness, indifference, hostility, and silence about Black death? 

Every time there’s a police shooting that stokes racial tensions, I see people on social media expressing their disappointment about going into mostly White workplaces where their White colleagues remain silent, refusing to even acknowledge this growing source of trauma, grief, and rage. I see Black people who complain about scrolling through their Facebook timelines where their White friends are posting photos of their daily lives as if nothing has happened. No acknowledgement. No outrage. No grief. No solidarity. No sympathy, empathy or even a “tsk, tsk, ain’t that a shame.”

While there are many reasons for white silence, we should reevaluate this yearning for White outrage, White action, and White complicity. Refusal to stand on the right side of history, and stand up in the face about racial violence, is something they will need to account for during their lives. 

At the same time, we need to move beyond the idea that White silence is about ignorance, fear, a lack of courage, or not knowing how to talk about racism. The lack of collective White outrage over one more police shooting reveals that for White America, Blue lives are more important than Black lives. Let’s be real, the existence of whiteness is predicated on the power of the police.  For all too many, conservative and liberal alike, shaped by their privilege, entitlement, and power to let those go on our behalf, the police are their friends and fixtures within their communities. Bottom line: They believe that these police actions are required to keep them safe from the looming threat of Black danger.

Research reveals that White people still trust the police, and believe that the police won’t use excessive force. Because they have difficult jobs—they have to deal with “dangerous criminals”—most Whites approve when police get physical with suspects. Not surprisingly, young Whites believe that Black Lives Matters encourages violence against police. White people believe that Black people feel less pain than they do. And no amount of religious tolerance contributes to White America seeing our side because White Christians don’t believe Black experiences with police are inherently violent.

In a moment where the police have endorsed openly racist Donald Trump, who sees stop-and-frisk and more police as a solution to everything, should we be surprised that White America isn’t saying our names unless paired with “thug” or some other racial slur? Do we need any clearer messages than that?

As one blogger’s research showed, “I then realized that the vast majority of White Americans could not empathize with brown people at a very basic level. For most White Americans, the death and violence of thousands of brown bodies was just part of some abstract ethical argument to position oneself as morally superior to the United States. For most White Americans, brown people dying just meant flickers on the television screen about something happening far away. They didn’t feel the overwhelming anger and sadness they would normally feel when someone they know dies without reason. They couldn’t see the full reality of what death means, when the people who die are brown. Most white people just don’t see us as humans.”

If we need more evidence, check this blog post from a White man, “An Open Letter to People of Color,” in which he warns Blacks not to trust Whites:



“Every single one of us is racist, it’s something we were born and raised into, we were and are consistently indoctrinated into white supremacy. Indifference and apathy towards systemic racism and its horrific results is not just more comfortable, it is incentivized; we are actively rewarded by white supremacy in it’s many forms for ignoring people of color and their cries for injustice.

Our bones are riddled with it, it’s everywhere.

We were taught the history of our nation through textbooks written by White men with a vested interest in how the story was and is being told. So we think that MLK Jr. is the patron saint of polite black folks (to be invoked against the angry ones), peanut butter is the extent of black excellence, and according to the newest textbooks, slaves were just unpaid interns.

We were brought up being given medicine designed for us by white men, men who historically tortured black women and murdered black babies to found gynecology, men who performed surgeries on black people without any anesthesia and no precautions because it was believe that black people can not feel pain.

And you wonder why we do not sympathize when black children are gunned down by police?”


Brain research studies have shown that most White people lack empathy for brown people: A 2010 study by the University of Toronto-Scarborough found that when brown people die through violence, most White people’s brains don’t register the human connection between our bodies and their bodies. They have the ability to put themselves into White people’s shoes to understand the stories and feel the emotions of sadness, laughter, and pride of other White people. But they rarely or never have to imagine themselves as us. 

White people “didn’t feel the overwhelming anger and sadness they would normally feel when someone they know dies without reason. They couldn’t see the full reality of what death means, when the people who die are brown,” the study’s authors concluded.

So, with these surveys on police trust, studies on the racial empathy gap, all the everyday nasty vitriol from conservative pundits, politicians, trolls, and research, why do so many Black folks keep expecting—and needing—White people to feel our pain?

We know, but seem not to want to accept that most White people, even the most liberal, don’t view or accept us as fully human. We keep looking to White people for affirmation—in fact, we’re often more worried about how we get along with White people than we are how to get along with each other and get along in life.

I’m calling for a Black Emotional Divestment movement that helps us to detach from the addiction to White validation and the fantasy of White empathy. Because waiting for White empathy is harmful to us—it is yet another emotional burden for Black folks to bear as we fear for our lives and the lives of those we love.

Too many of us believe White folks love us and have faith that they will see us as equally human. Even if they did, White folks love themselves more, and they believe the excesses of the police help keep them safe at our expense.

But the community’s highest priority has to be summoning its own energies and emotional resources to protect ourselves for the sake of our survival. We need to yank our energetic connections away from the attachment to craving White validation and care for our families and ourselves. We need to stop sleeping so much with White folks on our mind and figure out how to navigate and survive these endless attacks and the impact on our mental, emotional and physical health. Even if we can’t guarantee safety in the face of police attacks, we need to circle our wagons on and turn in the right direction to keep affirming our own humanity and living our lives in a way that we’re thinking, feeling, and acting in our own self-interest for our benefit.   

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