Since the death of George Floyd in my home state, my life has been upended. In the beginning, my phone was buzzing off the hook. My friends, my family, colleagues, acquaintances — even the lunch lady and teachers at my kids’ school — were all checking in. What’s more, they were all asking for advice: What can they do to help? How do they talk to their kids about racism? What action can they take today?
The onslaught of questions lasted for about two weeks — then it went radio silent. People stopped reaching out and they seemed to just move on with their lives.
I haven’t moved on. I have been asking myself: How can I keep my family safe; how did I get nominated for the task of giving advice to everyone; why have they now seemed to stop caring?
I grew up in Minnesota, outside of its big cities, in a town called St. Cloud about 1.5 hours from Minneapolis. I am biracial and adopted, raised by white parents who are best described as '60s-era hippies, in an all-white town. I cannot emphasize “all white” enough. I can distinctly remember the first time I met another Black person, beyond my biracial siblings. I was in the fifth grade and was terrified by the encounter. The only thing I knew about Black people was what I had seen on the news. Let’s just say it was not a holistic representation.
The burden of blackness
The few years I attended a predominantly Black high school, I felt like an outsider. This feeling of not knowing where I fit has been present my entire life. As an adult, my personal network is diverse but I largely work with white people. My parents, oldest sibling and extended family are white, my husband’s family is Black, and mine is one of just two Black families in my entire neighborhood.
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In my professional life, my race always feels like an exercise in others’ conveniences. I am white enough that people are comfortable with me, as long as I don’t call too much attention to my obvious blackness. I am seen as Black when they need me to speak to the “Black experience” — as if I could possibly explain all thoughts and opinions of an entire race of individuals. I am still the same outsider that I’ve been my whole life. The burden has not been lifted; I am still aware that I do not have the privilege of fitting in just by sheer existence.
And, honestly, since the death of George Floyd, that burden bag has been overflowing. I did not know George Floyd or his family. I am not an expert on racial justice, or a policymaker or even a community organizer. I do not have any special training or qualifications other than the skin I was born in, but after his death I became the sudden, primary source for answers to urgent advice-seeking questions on race relations because, it turns out, I may be the one Black friend to countless white people in my life.
Of course, I've always felt pressure to make sure my family is well represented. We are chiefly aware that we need to set the tone — that the onus is on us to positively influence many people’s opinion about all Black people, marriages and families everywhere. However, I’ve never felt like I was under a microscope as acutely as this before.
Good intentions are not enough
The people turning to me to help them navigate this countrywide awakening were transferring their good intentions, lack of understanding or maybe their guilt, onto me. But then it stopped. They stopped asking, they stopped posting, and I have to ask myself whether they stopped caring.
At first, when I couldn’t keep up with the messages, I started sending a canned response: "My family is OK. Thank you for checking on us. Here are some simple actions you can take," which included suggesting a few organizations where people could donate supplies to businesses and people impacted by generations of racism and inequalities ignited by yet another unjust killing of a Black man.
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I also set up a quick list of fundraising opportunities where people could direct resources. Shortly after sharing, I started to receive new questions: Could they just give money instead? I was even asked, if someone is not comfortable driving to Minneapolis to make donations, could I do it for them?
Suddenly, everyone’s one Black friend found herself not just dishing out advice, but now managing a fundraiser and donation collection and the procurement, transport and delivery of loads of supplies to donate to support Black people in Minneapolis.
I know that intentions are generally good, and that they were trying but didn’t have all the answers. I don’t have all the answers, either. But we did not fix it. All this rage, all of these good intentions, all of the fundraisers and protests haven’t resulted in systemic change. And the difference between me and my white friends is that my life can’t just go back to normal.
Now, after the original uproar, I am asking myself, where did everyone go? Do they still care? Is it now my responsibility to restart the conversations? To keep the conversation going? To try to fix this?
Keep anti-racism momentum going
I’ve had a little time to process the sadness of it all, the increased worry I feel about raising my children and the anxiety I feel when my adult Black son and my Black husband leave our home.
I don’t know how to keep the momentum going. But there is a lot of work to be done, and what I can offer, as perhaps your one Black friend, is how to help in this moment:
►Change begins within yourself, and it takes work. I appreciate that people would seek my advice on what to do and how to educate their children, but there is no “easy” or succinct answer I can send via a phone call or text message that will solve generations of inequality and oppression. And the work can’t be done in a couple of weeks or in the month of February. Use the resources at your disposal. Read and put what you learn into practice on an ongoing basis.
►You have to do your own work. Expecting something to be handed to you is exercising privilege. Make the effort. Buy your own supplies. Drive them to where Black people are. See Black people. Talk to them. Face your fears and shut down stereotypes. If you really want to create change, you need to be brave. Don’t ask your one Black friend to be brave for you.
►Finally, that friendship you have with that one Black friend? Make sure it is real and you are an equal contributor — checking in with no agenda, celebrating wins, supporting losses, and showing up not out of obligation, guilt or pandering but out of love. Make sure you’re investing in the friendship to form the kind of trust that true friends have, so you can talk unguarded on all topics, including race, justice and perspective.
Real friends put in the work instead of springing out of the woodwork when tragedy happens. Real friends share burdens and try to lighten the load — not add to it. Real friends recognize you as an individual and not the voice or representative for an entire race or experience. Real friends know having one Black friend is not enough.
Kelli Williams lives in Minnesota and runs Williams Brand Consultancy, an independent marketing consultancy providing strategic marketing services.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: For an anti-racist society, be a real friend to your one Black friend