By Shereá Denise
#BlackLivesMatter is no longer being treated as an expression to be fearful of. There are fewer and fewer people reiterating that all lives matter. Major businesses and corporations have disseminated countless emails and newsletters about their plans to address issues of diversity, police brutality, and racism.
While others are ecstatic at the so-called acceptance of the principle that our lives do - in fact - matter, I have been watching the series of events that have occurred from the time of the murder of Mike Brown to the murder of George Floyd with a rather large amount of skepticism. I am not certain that Americans all of a sudden get it. In part, I think that the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing some people to sit with the topic they have been avoiding, racism.
When speaking with some of my like-minded Twitter followers about the sudden increase in realizations about the systems that govern this country and the systemic racism and white privilege that exists at the root of those systems, I asked whether they felt that the COVID-19 pandemic was in any way involved in people’s sudden shift in understanding the plight of Black people in the United States. My two favorite responses were:
“COVID-19 (the human humbling) exposed issues around access to healthcare, lack of jobs/job security, and assistance in a time of economic crisis. Issues that have plagued the [African American] community for years. And it’s all the fault of the government. 40 million ppl are home & feeling it.”
“With nothing else to turn to to watch or attend the world had to pay attention. Or had nothing else to pay attention to. The whispers they had been hearing for years became a cacophony that they wanted to drown out themselves.”
I am happy that people are paying attention and I do not want to discredit any progress that is being made, but I question the root of the progress and whether or not it will be long-term. Are people merely saying the right things right now because we are all paying an odd amount of attention to one another? Do people feel obligated to say something? Do they feel like there is an uncomfortable silence where all Black people are waiting on all white people (or maybe all people period) to pick a side?
Oddly enough, as all of the statements are being made and the posts are being loved and shared, it is not The Movement itself, but the idea of Black guilt, that has really taken up residence in my head for the last few days. Maybe because of all of the social media posts of my friends and acquaintances participating in marches. Maybe because I now recognize the confines of my career path and what that means in terms of protesting alongside my fellow community members. Though I share a wealth of information and have been supporting The Movement in various ways as an individual all along, I am not always sure that what I am doing is enough.
I attempted to research the concept of Black guilt because I am quite sure that this is not something that I am experiencing on my own. There are not too many definitions of Black guilt readily available on the internet and the concept tends to be pushed into the background so that conversations about white guilt can take place. Shocking. The closest thing I could find to an actual definition for Black guilt was on Urban Dictionary. Also shocking. According to Urban Dictionary, Black guilt exists “[w]hen a black person feels they have to support everything black fearing they are a bad black person and don’t stand up to racism.”
I believe, Black guilt is the feeling (had by a Black person) that you are not doing enough for the Black Community, particularly in times of unrest. I equate this feeling to the guilt that Black women or Women of Color often feel when they have to take a break or when they choose to rest rather than being “productive.” Black people are always pushed and pulled in multiple directions. We are always in a space of double consciousness. We are always fully aware of the fact that - no matter who we are or where we are - non-Black people look at us as an example of or as the spokesperson for the Black race. During times of racial unrest and societal discord, people turn Black folks into their Therapists, their sounding boards, their moral compass, and their conscience. To be clear, non-Black people are not the only ones who do this. It comes from all sides. Your Black relative who does not typically associate with Black people will look to you for a Black History lesson about how things got to this point and what needs to be done next. And people often expect us to solve or offer solutions that will calm the tension and (for lack of a better way to say it) make things great again. Only in America do we look to the oppressed people to throw off their oppression in order to make things more bearable for the rest of society.
While everyone else is making us their therapists, conscience, and history teachers, we are all re-learning (yet again) how to navigate these times for ourselves as well. We are looking for assurance that it does not make us a traitor to our race because we do not show up to every protest. We are trying to walk the balance between keeping our jobs and advocating to burn shit down. For those of us who work with a large number of white people, we are also trying to process the grief of what is happening to and in our communities while still being semi-approachable on a daily basis.
Black guilt looks like knowing that your voice is needed, but not being sure if what you are lending your voice to is enough. Black guilt looks like being unable to truly be joyful about accolades and accomplishments in an era where others are dying with knees on their necks. Black guilt looks like feeling bad for checking out, not watching/reading the news, and not constantly posting, reading, or talking about Black lives and social justice. Black guilt might even look like feeling like we are not permitted to be angry about anything other than the murders of the George Floyd’s and Breonna Taylor’s of the world right now. Perhaps it goes even deeper to feeling ashamed to identify as a Woman of Color due to your mixed heritage in a society where the phrase “of color” has recently become synonymous with being dismissive and intrusive.
After thinking about Black guilt and attempting to process where I feel like that guilt comes from, I had to ask myself a series of questions, many of which I am still sitting with: How do we (as a collective) counter this feeling? How do I (as an individual) counter this feeling? Is it society or the Black Community that imposes this guilt on me? Is it me imposing this guilt on myself?
Perhaps the answers to these questions will show up as we begin to give ourselves permission to feel a wide range of emotions and to do what is necessary to walk the line between being informed and being consumed, between being engaged and being on the front lines, between being aware and still being human.
“some are posting on social media
some are protesting in the streets
some are donating silently
some are educating themselves
some are having tough conversations with friends and family
a revolution has many lanes - be kind to yourself and to others who are traveling in the same direction
just keep your foot on the gas”
*This article was originally published by The Validity Journal.