We can’t commiserate

One scenario I’ve encountered more than I’d like, as the Black acquaintance of many kind-hearted white folks waking up to the reality of racism, is the attempt to form a bond of solidarity over my personal, ongoing trauma. If that sentence seems awkward and wrong, that might be due to the clumsiness of the situation I’m trying to describe. I suspect these conversations spring partially from empathy and from distress over a specific evil conscientiously privileged people and myself now commonly hate (white supremacy) and partially from the same anxiety that seems to guide performative allyship in all its forms—namely the fear of being identified as part of the problem and an overwhelming desire to prove oneself to be one of the good guys. It’s as if we live under the constant threat of being thrown into a game of racism tag, and white friends talking to this Black woman suddenly remember, at random, that they must establish, beyond a shadow of a doubt, they are emphatically not it.

Performative allyship reflex (a phrase I admittedly coined for this think piece) shows up in many uncomfortable ways, from random remarks about favorite Black personalities (sports players and singers are high on the list) to out-of-place recountings of personal acts of anti-racist heroism to literal declarations of, “I just love your people!”

But the kind I’m writing about today packs a particularly painful punch, and this is how it unfolds: To prove their recognition of racism as a permeating presence poisoning our everyday interactions, or to prove how it bothers them as much as it bothers me, or maybe just to process a heaviness they aren’t used to sitting with, well-meaning white connections share a disturbing event with me so that we can react together. “My uncle said x,y,z, and I was just so mortified.” Or, “I can’t believe so-and-so thinks they can say the N-word.” Or even, “Did you hear about that recent murder (fill in any case of police brutality)? The dash cam video was just so awful I couldn’t watch.”

It’s hard to explain what I feel when I’m thrown into these conversations, often without warning. For one, I’m an introvert who processes heavy feelings in isolation, often through writing, and rarely face-to-face (a situation I have repeatedly found to be frustrating at best and often downright damaging). In fact, my first line of defense when interacting with a world constantly dehumanizing me, creating, compounding, dissecting, or minimizing my most essential and life-defining pain is that mask Paul Laurence Dunbar* speaks about:

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

And that’s just my baseline. After reading a news story about a child in New England who was lynched by his peers, when white acquaintance Joe asks me how I’m doing, the mask stays firmly in place while I smile and bring up the weather, pretending I’m not stuffing down secondhand trauma. But if Joe goes on to bring up said horrific event, processing his own reaction with me, confiding that a brown friend once told him she was threatened with lynching and reflecting on how upsetting it has been for him to realize this violence is real and closer than he thought, my grasp on the mask becomes desperate. Underneath it, my triggers send waves of adrenaline coursing through my limbs while Joe gazes imploringly at me, waiting to see how his offering of commiseration will be received.

But we can’t commiserate. I’m not shocked nor even simply miserable, nor helpless in realizing white supremacy still rules the land. I know it viscerally, in every fiber of my body. I have experienced it in ways I can never unlearn and ways which he will never comprehend, no matter how hard he tries.

I suspect Joe feels these confessions make us closer, imagining we are experiencing similar emotional reactions over a specific appalling event. But, of course, I don’t feel closer to him at all. I see myself and my children in that noose, while he sees his neighbor. Our reactions are worlds apart, and on top of that, I’m deeply hurt (though unsurprised) that he is more concerned with my approval of his allyship, or with processing his own journey of racial consciousness—using me as a sounding board—then he is concerned for my well-being in this constant onslaught of psychological violence.

Empathy is a poignant teaching tool, and I recognize that a first step in the process of empathy is relating personally familiar, lived experiences with the experiences of others. When someone you know is going through grief, a natural reaction is to remember how you felt when you lost a loved one. But if you haven’t lost a loved one, how much space should you and your experiences take up in a conversation with a widow burying her spouse? Would you mention a neighbor who lost recently their mother? Would you bring up your most recent abstract musings on death and its ripple effect? Or how embarrassed you are by your insensitive uncle who doesn’t think grief is real?

Yet, when it comes to race-based trauma carried by people of color (POC), we are often expected to hold space for the experiences of observers, following their cues, rather than leading discussions about our own pain at our pace and at moments of our choosing, when we feel safe. I can only speak for myself when I say this dynamic not only complicates my personal healing process but often makes it difficult to form deeper, more meaningful relationships with white connections who seem to want them.

A sense of safety is paramount to trust, and trust is the foundation of any measure of healthy intimacy, including friendship. We can’t commiserate over the impact of racism when the impact we experience is fundamentally different, but I believe it is possible to dialogue in a way that creates and fortifies healthy connections if we can establish safety and trust. To do so, we must put aside the performance and build on the understanding that POC carry substantial trauma—trauma very different from non-POC—and that discussions connected with our trauma happen when we want them to, in a way that is empowering for us. Let the people with the trauma initiate. Let us set the pace and the boundaries, and then respect them.

*The Dunbar poem quoted is titled “We Wear the Mask” and can be read in its entirety here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44203/we-wear-the-mask


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3 thoughts on “We can’t commiserate

  1. Very angry black women need to be backed up by very angry white women, this is the key if not resolving white supremacy, at least burying it. Now 50 years after the death of Dr. King and so absolutely disgusted at the racism that is still going on in the United States and New England is on the top tier of this– I am indeed a very angry, albeit mature, white woman !

  2. Thank you for this, I needed to hear it. Now, I’m weighing whether an apology would compound the injury… And yeah. Of course it would. Not apologizing seems so cowardly, but it’s better than re-opening a wound I inflicted just to resolve my guilt.

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