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'Reaching out' to a Black friend about racism? Here's what experts want you to know

Are you really asking, "Can you signal back to me that I’m a good white person?"
TODAY Illustration / Getty Images

After the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department in May, Jodi-Ann Burey’s phone wouldn't stop buzzing with texts, emails and even LinkedIn messages from white people.

As a Black woman, Burey was having a hard enough time coping with the constant news of anti-Black violence, from Floyd to Breonna Taylor. And yet, under the pretense of “reaching out,” countless acquaintances — and some who barely qualified as such — implicitly demanded that Burey, 34, expend further emotional energy to reassure them.

“'Holy hell, our country’s racist. I’m a white person, am I racist?'” she told TODAY over Zoom, characterizing the nature of the messages. “'No, I know a Black person. Let me find this Black person and be in community with them so that I don’t have to feel so bad.'”

Burey’s frustration spurred her friends Caitlin Lombardi and Elizabeth Jarvie, both white women with work experience in civil rights, to begin a free service called My Karen Translator. Its purpose is simple: educating “Karens" — the term used on social media for white women who target people of color for engaging in everyday acts — so racial minorities don’t have to. Because to them, Karen signifies far more than the self-important woman who asks to speak to the manager. Rather, the moniker refers to the “centuries-old hysteria over white women’s perceived safety or comfort that has been weaponized to kill people,” said Lombardi.

In response to interactions with Karens submitted by people of color, the service provides a list of the “white normative, white-centric, white supremacist” tendencies on display. A submission of a classic reach-out text, for example, was judged to be "out of the blue, performative, opportunistic" and "focused on intent rather than impact."

While the impulse to send a text to a person of color might seem like an appropriate and well-intentioned response to racism, its impact can be harmful. TODAY spoke to anti-racism experts about how this phenomenon supports white supremacy — and what white people should do instead.

What’s in a ‘reach out’?

With all of the discourse about checking in on your Black friends during times of heightened racial injustice, the line between doing that and doing something “Karen-like” might be tricky to navigate. But if you’re drafting a message to someone you haven’t talked to in years, or someone who’s at best a work buddy, then it’s likely the latter.

A key feature of the reach-out is that it “desires an intimacy that is inappropriate,” Dana Crawford, a psychologist who specializes in bias reduction, told TODAY over Zoom. After all, you wouldn’t try to talk to a colleague about the intimate details of their personal life; a conversation about racial violence with a Black acquaintance is just as personal and can be an intrusion into a period of grieving.

Straight from the Instagram of My Karen Translator, a message in question might go something like this: “Hey, I know it’s been a while. I just wanted to let you know I’ve been crying all week. It’s all just so sad and I hope I’ve never done anything to hurt you. I am sure I have blindspots but I would never want to be racist.”

Grace Hagen, a white facilitator and organizer with Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training, said that these sentiments often reflect a belief that racism is mostly over, mostly just in the South and mostly an individual issue — all tactics that preclude self-reflection and growth. To many white people, racism is a distant, vague idea that they couldn’t possibly be complicit in.

“There’s a lot of signaling that goes into the texts. Like, ‘I’m a good one; don’t be mad at me,’” she said. “Because (racial injustice) brings up feelings of discomfort and guilt and shock. So what can, on the surface, seem like a reach-out to check-in can actually be, ‘Can you signal back to me that I’m a good white person?’”

How it’s harmful

To Michael Russell, a Black organizer and facilitator at Crossroads, the Karen-like reach-outs can be summed up in one word: exhausting.

“What we feel that they are asking is, ‘How can you help me to navigate this relationship space?” he said. “In all of us, there are questions about, ‘Why now?’”

After all, Russell is 65 years old, which means decades of navigating racial dynamics — and the perpetrators of the reach-outs have been friends with him for many years. “You haven’t thought to ask me what’s been going on with me negotiating that space before,” he continued. "White people, whiteness, says that (Black people) have to provide the heavy lifting because they don’t know what’s going on here.”

This highlights what is, perhaps, the biggest problem with the messages: By centering white people’s sadness and anxiety, they demand emotional and intellectual labor from people who are experiencing racial trauma — and for the sake of people who are not.

“It’s just reifying the system,” said Hagen. “It’s reifying the thing that I’ve been socialized into — as have generations of white people before me — to expect comfort and to be comfortable and to be comforted.”

According to Crawford, placing the burden of offering comfort and education on Black people has a very real psychological impact.

Much of the research in cross-cultural healing highlights “this tendency of white people to ask Black people to take care of them, to take care of their learning, to be responsible to help me,” she said. “As a result of internalized racism, a lot of Black people engage in caretaking behaviors.”

So when a white person calls up a Black person to confirm that something they did wasn’t racist, they’re forcing the Black person to make a choice: Be honest and confront them or validate them to save psychological energy. Similarly, crying about racism to a Black person signals a need to be taken care of “rather than being responsible for your own emotional and cognitive functioning,” Crawford said.

What to do instead

Rather than sending that text, Russell suggests three steps that white people can take to further the fight against racial injustice.

  1. Stand back and listen. Let the individual do what he or she needs to do, he explained. "And let me show you what I need you to do.”
  2. Learn to take care of yourself and your emotions, making sure to not place that burden on Black people.
  3. Do the necessary research. By research, Russell means a few things. Of course, white people should read up on the plentiful — not to mention easily accessible — information on how race and power operate in America writ large. But he also emphasizes the importance of “personal research,” or delving into your own personal history. “Take a look back and see all the opportunities where you disengaged or engaged in such a way to provide yourself with absolute comfort and insulation,” he said. “And know that’s the place where you also were creating your own complicity.”

At the same time, Hagen pointed out that there are no hard-and-fast rules about how, when and whether to reach out to a Black friend after very public instances of anti-Black violence. In many cases, not saying anything can also be hurtful — paradoxically, it's another tactic that white people use to preserve their comfort.

“I think that there can be ways (of reaching out) that say, ‘I love you, no need to respond to this. Let me know if you need anything,’” she said. “Which doesn’t center whiteness… It acknowledges that a devastating traumatic thing has happened. And I'm not going to pretend it hasn't.”

Similarly, Crawford recommends that white people really consider how they can be helpful to the person whom they’re contacting — and only after they’ve evaluated the context of the relationship and decided that it’s appropriate to do so at all.

“It might be something like, ‘Hey, I've been seeing all of the news; I want to acknowledge that this is specifically happening to your people, to Black people. These are ways I’m being accountable, and I’m welcome to feedback,'” Crawford said. “You’re going to say the word Black. You're going to be open. But you're also going to be responsible.”