On a recent call, a friend and I were catching up when our conversation veered into the Black Lives Matter movement and the rollercoaster of emotions we’ve experienced as protests have broken out across the nation in response to the murder of George Floyd.
Her boss had just scheduled a mandatory all-hands meeting meant to be a “safe space” for her and other Black employees to share their feelings and brainstorm solutions for addressing this issue within the company. We both groaned at the thought. We knew she couldn’t really unleash all of the disappointment, exhaustion, and outrage she was feeling on her coworkers — not without fearing professional repercussions once the outrage had died down. My friend wrote out her thoughts in bulleted notes in advance, taking great care to soften her language by turning words like “fury” into “frustration” and including a message of hope that betrayed her true sense of despair. She did what many Black employees feel forced to do: make their experience palatable for a fragile white audience. It’s invisible labor that shields white people from the extent of our pain – and I’m ashamed to admit that, throughout my career, I too have strategically measured the professional cost of speaking candidly and openly about my feelings about white supremacy and the plight of Black people in America.
That’s all changed in the last couple of weeks. I’ve become more vocal on social media, sharing clips that focus not only on the injustice, hypocrisy, and cruelty Black folks have had to endure, but also the obliviousness and complicity of white people to this reality. In the past, I’ve worried so much about the implications of making the white people around me uncomfortable. Would my posting affect how my white coworkers work with me? If they didn’t respond, did it mean I went too far? Would they think I’m just another angry Black woman with a chip on her shoulder? — that sometimes I just chose silence. But I’ve realized that the stakes are too high now, as the pandemic and the death of George Floyd have continued to reveal the stark inequities that exist in this country.
It’s time to prioritize the dire concerns of my Black community over the comfort of the white people around me, no matter the cost.
I’m undoing conditioning that started when I was a kid, as a method of survival when I was one of only a few Black students in an all-white school in Indianapolis. If I made my white classmates comfortable, I thought, maybe they would forget that I didn’t belong there. I straightened my hair, listened to more pop music, shopped at The Gap and learned how to speak, dress, and behave in a manner that would delight the white people around me.
At home, things were different. I grew up in a pro-Black household, where my mother made sure I understood that my history and Black identity did not begin with slavery or end with the Civil Rights Movement. We read books about ancient African kings and queens; I memorized the "I Have A Dream Speech" at 10 years old; and if my teacher assigned a report on an astronaut, I knew mine would be on Mae Jemison. But this information was not necessarily meant to be shared, but rather to fortify me as I entered all-white spaces, serving as my armor against white supremacy.
In the workplace, though I have always pushed for greater diversity both in the office and in our content, I made sure to tread lightly when discussing race relations, hoping that “playing the game” would eventually place me in a position to create opportunities for other Black women where we've historically been excluded. But despite my armor, the emotional burden of being one of few Black women was often too much. In 2016, the day after Philando Castile was murdered by a police officer during a routine traffic stop in front of his girlfriend and small child, I struggled to focus at work. Meanwhile, white colleagues continued to buzz around the office, going about business as usual. Compelled to do something, I wrote an article highlighting the work of an organization promoting Black Lives Matter, but I refused to take on the emotional labor of facilitating any forums or discussions within my office. It felt like leadership’s responsibility to set the tone around this issue and deliver a message of support for their black employees. Later that evening, after most people had gone home, I dropped by the office of a fellow Black colleague and broke down in tears of frustration as we talked about the strain of carrying the immense weight of this tragedy while smiling and nodding at white colleagues who were chatting about vacation plans or other more frivolous concerns. Sometimes I wondered, had I made my white colleagues so comfortable, that they had somehow forgotten I was Black? I realize now that prioritizing white comfort had actually had a numbing rather than transformative effect.
What’s become clear is that racial progress and white comfort cannot exist in tandem. Recent stories by former employees of companies like Refinery 29, Reformation, and Condé Nast’s Bon Appétit highlight the extent to which black women feel silenced in majority white workplaces, all too aware of the precariousness of their positions if they were to be labeled difficult. More often than not, Black women are given entry into white spaces but not allowed to spread their wings or display their most authentic selves. It’s understood that we should merely feel lucky to have our jobs at all. This is the power and ruin of white supremacy. But now that many are openly protesting, there are signs that we may finally be heard.
I don’t condone the looting and violence that’s happening, but it seems to have gotten white people’s attention, as the uprisings reach their neighborhoods. I hope every white person knows that whatever injustice or fear they might feel is only a shadow of what Black people have carried with them their entire lives. It’s why we march. It’s why we protest. It’s the message we’ve been trying to convey.
I am no longer considering the comfort of white people at the expense of the critical mission of justice. I’m committing to being more courageous in speaking the unflinching truth about my own lived experiences, risking all of the consequences that may come, in an effort to feed the revolution. To my white friends and colleagues who are facing real discomfort for the first time, I say: Welcome, the water’s warm. I encourage you to embrace the unpleasantness that will come from hearing these jarring truths from Black people, and rather than get defensive, leverage your own privilege to defend their right to speak publicly without consequences.
I know that this difficult time is signaling our becoming. I hope that when this is all over, we’ll look back at this time with clarity – understanding that this journey was vital to maintaining and appreciating the new, more just, society we birthed.
Jenae Holloway is a Vogue contributor living in Brooklyn.