Listen, Believe and Be Present: How We Can Support Black Friends
As caring people who value our connections with others, we can hardly tune in to the news without witnessing another Black life lost, another family devastated, another community in mourning. We see mothers pleading for justice, imploring us all to remember the humanity of their daughters and sons. Our hearts break knowing that children are being left without fathers or mothers.
And as our own hearts ache, we know as connectors that these tragedies are much more deeply and personally felt by our Black friends. We want to reach out in support but we may be unsure how to do so.
We talked to Black friends and co-workers as well as their allies to learn what’s helpful and what isn’t, and they offered experiences and resources to help strengthen our connections and equip us to address racism and the incredible harm it causes.
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Turn empathy into real support
In offering care and support, we know the difference between sympathy—simply feeling bad for someone—and empathy, which is truly feeling with someone. Empathy calls for rejecting judgements and using your own experiences to connect with what someone is feeling and saying.
To our Black friends, being an ally—someone not identified as a member of a group who takes action to support that group—means more than offering good thoughts. It means standing beside them for change.
“The power and promise of empathy is that we don’t have to have shared experiences—only the true desire to know each other with respect, no matter how scary it might feel at first.” —Melvina Y.
“Try to understand, even though you may not. Be open to my experience and believe what I am telling you. Just because you don’t think that way doesn’t mean it’s not real.”—Denise J.
Focus on your friend
It is natural to have strong emotions about a topic as complicated as race.
The important thing is to know when and with whom to process those emotions. We heard from Black friends and co-workers who shared that conversations about race with white people can easily end up being about white friends’ uncomfortable feelings. Remember to put the needs of your Black friends first—their safety and well-being are the priority.
“Take yourself and your feelings out of the center of the discussion. If you feel guilty or sad—and that’s understandable because this is hard and complicated—take that to another white friend. Don’t make a Black friend take care of you right now.” —Melvina Y.
“I feel unsupported when I feel like friends don’t seem comfortable discussing race or seem oblivious to the world around them unless they are at the center of it. I feel seen and supported by friends when they listen without defensiveness and acknowledge the experience I am sharing with them, particularly when it deals with race or other ‘hot topics.’” —Jennifer S.
“What I don’t like is when people reach out to me looking for absolution. ‘I’m so sorry about all of this, I feel so bad!’ They are often looking for me to say, ‘It’s not you.’ But you know what, a lot of the time, it is them.” —Pamela D.
Learn about racism
Caring allies need more than compassionate feelings for their Black friends. We must know the issues of racism our friends face so we can take part in conversations that raise awareness and affect change. It’s our responsibility to learn about these issues; we shouldn’t depend on Black friends to raise these topics and educate us.
“I didn’t always feel comfortable talking about race with some of my white friends, because sometimes they just don’t understand things, and I feared they’d end up saying something that would put me off. If a friend is trying to support Black people, it shows up in how they carry themselves. They’re doing their own reading and research and not asking me for resources and not coming to me for absolution.” —Pamela D.
“Allies can stop acting like Black people are supposed to teach white people how to stop being racist. How absurd is that? And very insulting. Allies: You’re smart—own your stuff.”—Jennifer S.
“Good people are actively learning how to be better people their whole lives, and the antiracism journey never ends. That sounded overwhelming at first, but it’s become a comfort. There’s a mentality of ‘every stage of the process is valid, just keep moving forward.’” —Sara Q.
Know what to say and what to avoid
In talking to Black friends and allies, we heard great advice on which words feel supportive and which words, despite the best intentions, do not help at all. The best words, people agree, are those quickly followed by actions that show you meant what you said.
“I feel seen and supported by friends when they recognize and ask me how I’m doing when news in our society could be having an impact on me, like the heart-wrenching killings of unarmed Black people.” —Jennifer S.
“Now is not the time to compare stories like, ‘As a woman, I know how it feels to be discriminated against.’ Acknowledge the reality that you can’t know what it’s like to be Black. You are here to listen.” —Megan H.
“Don’t assume that because a law or public institution helped you or another non-Black friend or relative that it has helped or will help Black people.” —Radius B.
Listen and believe
If your friend wants to talk, go into the conversation with an open mind and heart. Make a safe space for your friend to be real with you. Set aside a time and place without distractions (and silence your phone) so you can give your full attention.
“I know a friend really has my back when I feel I can be my whole self around them and if they are not Black, they acknowledge and accept that I am experiencing my life as a Black person. None of that ‘I don’t see color/colorblind’ BS.” —Jennifer S.
“Let me speak freely; just listen. Perception is reality. Stop denying you don’t see racism or unfair treatment of brown and Black people.”—Denise J.
“What might seem to be an unimaginable tragedy to you can be a daily reality for your Black friends. Just because you can’t believe something happened doesn’t mean your friend hasn’t already experienced a similar tragedy.” —Radius B.
“Please, please, please don’t make our lives, our right to live and our safety into the political issue of your choice if that issue harms us. Keep it human.” —Melvina Y.
Show up consistently
Friendships grow when nurtured on a regular basis. We heard from many Black friends that they get flooded with texts when there’s a tragic headline—but then most of those people disappear.
If you want to be there in a meaningful way for your Black friends, you need to be in each other’s lives. You also need to do your own work to be someone they can count on.
“I feel unseen and unsafe when friends don’t recognize racist behavior and can’t or don’t call it out. When you see and hear racist acts and language, call it out and demand that it stops the best you can. It can be in the moment or even after an incident happens. This goes for family, friends, colleagues and strangers.” —Jennifer S.
Be humble—not perfect
Learning and acting as an ally is a lifelong journey, and occasional failure is part of the journey. When you mess up—and we all do—it’s imperative to apologize, learn from your missteps and keep trying to do better. Don’t let fear keep you from important action.
“One thing I feel like I’ve learned is that it’s okay to mess up. It’s scary, because cancel culture makes it feel like it’s not, but I think the important part is more in the response you give after you mess up. Thank people for correcting you, and immediately take action to do better.” —Sara Q.
“An apology doesn’t sound like, ‘I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings’ or ‘You misunderstood me.’ It sounds like, ‘I am sorry that I caused you pain. Thank you for letting me know. I will reflect on my actions and do better in the future.’” —Megan H.
Turn your feelings into action
Many people start the antiracism journey by learning how to support their Black friends directly. As you learn and gain experience, you can use your knowledge and caring heart to inspire change through your loved ones, your job and the place you call home.
- In your family, speak with each other—especially your children—about racism as well as the pain and damage racism causes everyone.
- In your workplace, speak up when you see and hear racist actions that stereotype, hurt and exclude your co-workers.
- In your neighborhood, connect with other antiracist allies to stay committed to affecting change.
- In your community, get involved with social justice efforts and support Black-owned businesses and organizations.
“I don’t expect my children to be immune to color or ‘not to see race.’ What I do expect and hope to instill in any way I can—whether through words or actions or toys we choose—is an appreciation, tolerance and love for all people. I definitely want them to embrace the understanding that a person with dark skin should be valued and appreciated just as any person with light skin.” —Amy T-Y.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all way to be an ally—some non-Black people will position themselves between the police and Black activists at a protest as their allyship. Others may anonymously donate money to Black creators’ Patreons. Some people have the gift of diplomacy and can help educate friends and family. The only wrong way to be an ally is to choose not to be an ally. You’re either complicit in racism or doing something to dismantle it.” —Radius B.
Where to learn more
Read Black journalists
• Eugene Scott
• Jeneé Osterheldt
• Michelle Singletary
Follow Black influencers on social media
• Rachel Cargle
• Ijeoma Oluo
• Ibram X. Kendi
• Leesa Renee Hall
• The Afrofuturist
Talk with your kids about racism
• Ways to talk to kids about race
• Picture books for little ones
• Books by author and illustrator Vashti Harrison
Support the work of people you’re learning from
• Buy their books from Black-owned bookstores
• Attend their workshops
• Support them on Patreon.com
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