I’m part of an intimate group of friends from a truly diverse set of backgrounds and life experiences. This particular group is comprised of two lesbians, a black woman, a Hispanic male, a Jewish woman (my wife) and me.
A few days ago, at the start of Black History Month, one of the (white) women asked if it was appropriate to throw a Juneteenth celebration, which is a lesser-known celebration that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States (June 19, 1865).
The black woman in our group – her best friend – told her ‘no.’
Why? Because…well, it’s complicated. Unpacking your role as a white person who cares about the plight of black people, but doesn’t really understand the rules of the road, is tough. And awkward at times, uncomfortable at others.
If you’re a white person, throwing a Juneteenth celebration is a lot like wanting to be in the NBA: your intentions are good, but you probably don’t belong there. In fact, there are a lot of things about understanding and supporting our black peers that may be confusing.
An incomplete list: Questions about hair, experiences with law enforcement, rap music, Affirmative Action, anything about the NFL, skin care, and perhaps, dancing skills.
And those are the easy ones. The truth is, there are parts of the black experience that no amount of research or good intentions will ever make clear to us. We’ll never know what a second glance feels like inside black skin, or what the questions of identity render inside a body that identifies with peers who get gunned down by police, or get picked first in pick-up basketball under the assumption that it’s a compliment.
So despite our best intentions, we feel like imposters because we lack a comprehensive understanding, though it’s one we’ll never obtain despite our efforts. We care deeply about what a Juneteenth celebration might mean to a black peer, yet can’t reconcile our feelings of inadequacy when we’re told it’s not for us.
I can’t speak for everyone, but I struggle with it myself. Is it fair for me to be told that I’m not allowed to help in certain ways? That some of my questions aren’t appropriate, and that the answers are sometimes ones I don’t like?
The answer is, no, it isn’t fair. But it’s also none of my damn business. And in a world where we expect clear answers to every question, that’s a tough pill to swallow. But again – it’s none of my damn business.
What I have inferred, perhaps incompletely, is that the black experience in our country, and its occasional exclusion of others, is about autonomy. About ownership and control over an identity that has always been inextricably twined to a power structure held by a white hand.
White people get pissed off about that sometimes. “Slavery wasn’t my fault” or “I’m not a racist” feel like our rights at times, true as those sentiments may be. But it also ignores that a modern black person doesn’t have to be a lynching victim anymore than a white person needs to be a KKK member to acknowledge that our experiences are still rooted in histories that we can’t dissociate ourselves from.
That’s not our fault, but it is our inherited responsibility to understand it. No, you’re not a racist, but your experience in this world is different even if you didn’t ask for it to be. You don’t have to feel bad about it. But yes, you do have to understand it if you care about your black peers as much as you say you do.
It’s not an easy pill to swallow when you’re told something isn’t for you, particularly when you care about the group that’s telling you as much. But it’s not about you. It’s about them. It’s about autonomy, about control over their black experiences, and often more importantly, their black bodies.
If you’re not sure how to support your black peers, respecting that – even if you don’t understand it – is a good place to start.
And I’m trying.