A Psychotherapist On How To Be There For Your Black Friends Right Now
Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
With protests and conversations around racism sweeping across the world, many people might be rightfully concerned about the well-being of their black loved ones right now. But how can you express your concern or offer support to those close to you in these emotionally charged times?
We spoke to Shadeen Francis, LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist specializing in both relationships and social justice, on the best ways to check in and support your black friends right now.
Avoid just asking, "How are you?"
"Reaching out to ask 'how are you' is rarely a productive conversation starter," Francis explains. "And it can put extra pressure on your black friends to describe their pain to you in an already overwhelming and traumatic time. Racism isn't new, and for black people's pain to be suddenly spotlighted once there is national outcry, doesn't make the check-in feels supportive. It just acts as a contrast to all the times in the past their pain wasn't acknowledged."
Assume your black friends aren't doing well and are coping as best as they can, she says. Instead, try sending a message simply letting them know you're thinking of them.
"If you are thinking of them, it is enough to let them know that," she says. "Acknowledge that you see the violence and that you wanted to let them know you see them."
Don't make it about you.
Don't reach out to your black friends to pour out all your own feelings about how overwhelmed, heartbroken, frustrated, or infuriated you are about the situation. The black people in your life are likely dealing with their own feelings about it—in addition to the feelings of being themselves targeted by racist violence and hate. Assume they don't have the space to support you and your feelings right now.
Francis also says to avoid reaching out to them just to share what you're doing to dismantle racism or to apologize that racism exists, which may imply that your black friends should be grateful to you or praise you for what you're doing. Remember that you shouldn't be doing anti-racism work for applause or approval; you're doing it simply because it's the right thing to do, whether or not you personally receive anything for it in return.
Don't expect a response.
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"Be clear that you are not expecting a response back, and then return to doing the work," says Francis.
Black people are getting inundated with messages and information about what's happening around the world right now, and it can be extremely overwhelming. If you're reaching out, let them know that there's no pressure for them to pay attention to you right now if they don't have the space or capacity. The point is simply to let them know that you're there if they do need you.
Leave the door open for them to talk more about it with you if they want, but don't ask them to participate in a conversation unless they elect to.
Additionally, asking questions like "What can I do?" may "feel like an ask for more labor from a person who is already tired," Francis adds. Instead, you can try asking: Can I do something for you right now?
Or if possible, leave an offer on the table of what you would like to do to help that they can accept if they need it.
Focus on listening and validating their feelings.
If your friend responds and seems interested in engaging in a conversation with you or receiving support from you, Francis recommends focusing primarily on listening.
"It is important to lead with listening because there is a lot to learn about another person's experience of race, and until you listen, you cannot understand," she says. "Empathy is the process of being able to connect with the emotional experience of another person. While this is hard to do for identities we do not hold (we cannot truly know how it feels to be another race or gender or orientation, etc.), we can listen for the emotion words used."
Listening and empathy might look like reiterating and validating the emotions your friend is expressing to you. For example, Francis recommends lines like That sounds like a terrifying experience.
"You don't have to pretend to know what to do about systemic racism," she adds. "In the moment you can focus on supporting and nurturing your partner as they work through their feelings."
A few types of responses to avoid when your black friends are sharing their experiences, according to Francis:
- Forced optimism ("look on the bright side")
- Making it about you ("I think/I feel/that happened to me once")
- Blaming ("that wouldn't have happened if you...")
- Denying ("that doesn't sound like him; I can't believe that")
Keep doing the work.
"Your actions will matter more than your words," Francis says.
Supporting your black friends emotionally is important. Actually taking direct action to support social change is equally if not more important.
Here are some concrete ways to support the black people in your life you love and actively fight for racial equity and justice:
- Learn from racial justice educators and pay them for their work.
- Read books by black authors and activists.
- Attend or support your local protests.
- Donate to racial justice organizations and causes (here's a regularly updated list).
- Sign petitions and contact your local officials to ask for change (find instructions here).
- Share social media posts from black educators and activists.
- Teach your kids and others about racism.
- Address racist comments you hear from your friends and loved ones.
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