To my white allies:
I do not speak for the African American community, a diverse and contentious group, regardless of the historical and contemporaneous experiences that we, its members, share. And it may be an error of judgement to offer my thoughts in open forum. Many self-described allies suffer a limited capacity for self-reflection and need to cultivate more deeply the art of circumspection before joining the conversation.
I choose, nevertheless, to speak to those white friends, neighbors, and family who have asked me, time and again, how to be “better allies,” how to support my family and me through the upheaval of our current moment, and beyond. This is my partial reply.
We all can agree that America right now is experiencing a pivotal moment in racial history. People of color and our allies, a greater cross section of the American public than ever before, have come together to roar a definitive, “no!” to state-sponsored terrorism against its Black citizens. Think of that shout as a unified and unifying musical composition—let’s say a cantata—in opposition to 400 years of cumulative social, economic, racial, and juridical injustice. You and I—we—the composers, try various melodies, rhythms, voicing, and musical structures as we develop the score. Allow me to draw your attention to a refrain that I believe requires careful reconsideration.
The area of concern appears in the first movement of our score, in the very first stanza marked molto pianissimo: “White people can’t know what it’s like to be a Person of Color.” Next stanza, accentato: “The Black experience has been uniquely torturous and is fundamentally incomprehensible to the white mind.” Stanza three, dolce, “White Americans can never hope to understand Black pain and must never pretend empathy.” Stanza four, astinato: “White can’t know Black pain white can’t know Black pain,” closing with a repeat.
We have already agreed that Black voices must carry the composition’s central melodies. We have agreed also that Black voices must order both rhythm and tempo. But the introduction of the white voice in the second bar of the first stanza is premature, contrived, and thoroughly unconvincing. The augmented 7th chord, with all of its violent, frightful, discordant tension, is a sound opening; and its inherent anxiety carries well across the entirety of the movement.
But why have we written white inability to comprehend or empathize with the Black experience into our “shared” composition? Where did this theme come from? Whose purpose and what purpose does it serve?
I find the notion that white friends and allies are incapable of understanding or empathizing with my experience as an African American astonishing, unnerving, and frankly unbelievable. There are very good reasons why this idea is part of Black discourse about race relations. Discourse has history; history is narrative, and narrative always operates at the nexus of competing claims to power. But discourse is not always and everywhere necessarily true. Black leaders and white people who try to respond to their cues about good allying, have accepted this discourse as truth outside of its history, outside of its purpose. This ready acceptance of white inability to either understand or empathize with the Black experience is one-part appropriate humility, one-part disingenuous genuflection, and three-parts structurally racist ideology that abrogates their responsibility to understand it and to empathize with it.
At best it is banal: no one can truly understand what it is to walk in another’s shoes. At worst, it’s another form of white Othering. It dehumanizes me. It dehumanizes you. It’s lazy; it’s a lie, and I want no truck with it.
Robert Frost argued that all knowing is metaphor. I agree. The Homo sapiens brain evolved for symbolic thinking and symbolic communication. Metaphor and simile are two of the most powerful hard-wired tools we use to explore, understand, navigate, communicate, and even create our world. To insist that humans stop using similes to understand each other is akin to asking us to willfully stop breathing. We can’t.
Metaphors and similes are the chassis upon which we come-to-know. Mindfully crafting them is a necessary step in building human empathy. Empathy is altogether different from sympathy, which is of no interest to me. Pity’s kissing-cousin requires neither knowing nor action. It merely greases social gears between indifferent strangers.
Empathy, on the other hand, has the power to convince you of your moral obligation to act in ways that are counter to your own and white self-interest, for the benefit of people of color. For me. If you want to convince me that Black lives matter, I require a more expensive and expansive investment on your part. I need you to be curious enough to seek to know me. I need you to convince me that my Black life matters to you.
If metaphor is the chassis enabling empathy, it also enables antipathy. White supremacy generates countless toxic metaphors in service to itself. And because metaphor is both communicable and heritable, its potential to metastasize cross-culturally and cross-generationally is very real. My daughter confidently informed me, when she was eight years old, that she and her classmates agreed that Black people look like monkeys.
Be still. Don’t react. Just sit with that a moment.
The Delicate Power of Metaphor
Humans create metaphors, vile and sublime; these are by nature imperfect, but also infinitely elastic. They can be rejected, reconceived, rewritten, reformulated as many times as is necessary to enable richer knowing. Metaphors can engender sufficient empathy to drive moral conviction, which necessitates action. I need my allies to know me sufficiently for shared empathy. Knowing and empathy are lifelong processes rather than endpoints. Though perfect knowing is unattainable, I nevertheless insist that my allies take the journey. An example:
I am your Black co-worker and we share office space. I have several pictures of my children on my desk, as do you. As cordial office mates, we admire each other’s children, and laughingly commiserate over the trials of parenting—back-talk, fetid sneakers, chores left undone. I have my kids on speed-dial. You have your kids on speed dial. You rarely call them, though sometimes your youngest interrupts your day to ask for something trivial. You see me, however, furtively calling my son from my desk three or four times per day grilling him: “Where are you, who are you with, where are you going, how are you getting there, when are you coming home” and “You’d better call me when you get there.”
You notice how frequently I excuse myself to the ladies room with red-rimmed eyes to repair my makeup, only returning to my desk when I have straightened my face. You know from watching television that Black parents live in terror for their children, their sons in particular. You have heard about “The Talk.” You have seen depictions on television of weeping Black mothers trying to throw themselves onto the caskets of their lynched sons being lowered into the grave.
You don’t know this experience personally, but you know that I am a mother caught in a riptide of fear, and that no matter how hard I swim, I can’t make my way to shore.
You are not afraid for your children the way I am afraid for my children. You can’t understand the experience of being afraid for them in the way or for the reasons I am afraid for mine. But don’t you dare to tell me you don’t know the feeling “caught in a riptide.” You laid awake at night as a child. Every night, you strained to hear the sound of your father coming home. You knew by the jingle of his keys as he pushed them in the lock whether he was drunk or sober. A decade of your life was spent praying under the covers, heart jerking in your chest, that the man coming home to you was your Daddy, not the monster who sometimes wore his skin.
Don’t you dare to tell me you don’t know what it is to be caught in a riptide and can’t swim back to shore.
Be still. Don’t react. Just sit with that a moment.
What do you do with the metaphor once you sense “through a glass darkly”—as Paul tells us—the monstrous burden woven through my African American experience? Only this: hold it in your mouth, even if it makes you gag. Probe it with the tip of your tongue like a sore tooth, searching for holes. Feel its many textures. Taste its complex flavors. Then swallow it. Nourishing or poisonous, your metaphor belongs to you. The only absolute thing your metaphor has allowed you to know about my Black experience is absolutely the only thing you may say to me: “How terrified you must feel. No one should live in terror that way.”
Because the human brain comes to know by creating metaphors and similes about the world, not understanding the African American experience can’t be a matter of white cognitive incapacity (which incidentally would be forgivable). It is a matter of sheer will, (meaning the failure to try is close to unforgivable). The question is whether whites are willing to expend the energy to identify poor similes, forge new metaphors, come to sufficient understanding of the Black experience, and then to act.
If Black people can develop and refine metaphors to understand the white experience (in all of its constituent complexity, pain and privilege) how is it that white people are excused from understanding the Black experience?
A cost-benefit analysis of choosing to know or refusing to know is a whites-only privilege. W. E. B. Du Bois was entirely correct when he wrote that Black people intimately understand white lives while whites remain wholly ignorant of the lives of Black folks. From the moment my ancestors were put in chains, their very survival pivoted on understanding morally incomprehensible but economically rational white industrialized terrorism. Every African American alive today is the descendant of Black people who figured out how to navigate a white world.
We understand the gamut of white experience: white hierarchy, white logic, white values, white ideology, white institutions, white feelings, white motivations, white fears, fetishes and fragility. If Black people can develop and refine metaphors to understand the white experience (in all of its constituent complexity, pain and privilege) how is it that white people are excused from understanding the Black experience?
Systemic racism is structured to make white empathy for the Black experience intolerably expensive. Too much lucre, too much status, too much social capital. Working towards understanding the Black condition would require proximity (without which, racist metaphors proliferate); mindfulness (without which, racist metaphors remain unchallenged); and effort (without which new metaphors remain unwritten). Proximity, mindfulness, and effort enable increasing degrees of empathy; but empathy, itself, isn’t free.
When white people feel the power of the metaphor “caught in a riptide,” when they understand that the riptide was created to profit their ancestors, when they realize that they, themselves, profit from it still, then white people are forced to face their moral obligation to do something about institutional racism. Empathy is a threat to white supremacy; the very threat segregation is structured to prevent. I require my allies to resist the seduction of segregated empathy.
Kaleidoscopic “Black Experiences”
While the belief that whites are unable to understand the Black experience serves white privilege, it is also a technique of Black cultural, political, and personal self-defense. White people regularly deploy false-equivalencies and fake empathy to invalidate the Black experience of racism, and our right to express our pain and outrage in white spaces. Perhaps you have heard, or perhaps you, yourself, have said to Black acquaintances, “Managers who follow you around stores aren’t racist. It happens to me all the time!” White ignorance of the Black experience of racism is as real as it is intentional. This ignorance builds, services, and elides the reality of the privileges they enjoy under a white supremacist regime. It is critical for Black people to name white ignorance in order to insist on the reality of our suffering, and the legitimacy of our demands for justice.
The claim that whites are unable to understand the Black experience is also one of the ways that African Americans combat the self-hatred or self-doubt that is a painful consequence of living with white hegemony. To love ourselves, our children, and one another, we must actively reject toxic depictions of Black life produced by white racist ideology. “You don’t know me. You can’t know me,” is a bold and necessary resistance to the painful impact of the hegemon’s gaze, which has defined, colonized, criminalized, pathologized, commodified, appropriated, and monetized Black bodies for 400 years.
Lastly, the notion that whites are unable to understand the Black experience depends upon a rigidly narrow, monochromatic view of the constitutive elements of that experience. If the sum total of the Black experience in America has been the historical, cumulative, and immediate impact of white supremacy—our suffering, struggle, and inevitable death, as narrated by both conservatives and liberals, then indeed, it is true that white Americans can never know anything about the Black experience.
However, the Black experience in America is not and has never been monochromatic—white Hollywood, white publishers, white editors, and self-appointed Black speakers for the Black community be damned. I am Black all day every day. In addition to struggling with institutional racism while Black, I am a middle-class, cis-gender woman, a feminist, bisexual Quaker in an interracial heterosexual marriage, an incest survivor, and I suffer a number of ptsd-related mental illnesses. I have had two abortions. I am mother to two brilliant biracial neuro-atypical children. Over the course of my life, I have lived in poverty, received Aid to Families with Dependent Children, become a Master Gardener, competed successfully in equestrian and Nordic sport. I have declared bankruptcy. I can field dress a deer. I am a ceramicist, a fiber-artist, a writer of poetry and fiction, a composer, fluent in Japanese language and culture, a gamer, a history professor, and I happen to play Roller Derby.
What white mother, watching her son score that first touchdown of the season, can claim not to understand a Black mother’s exhilaration watching her son do the same? What white father, tumbling into love while gazing into his newborn’s face, can claim not to understand a Black father’s tumble into love when he does the same? White people can and are normatively expected to empathize with joyful Black experiences. But joy is not a whites-only gated community where Black people sometimes visit but excuse themselves before the dinner hour. I scorn racist paradigms to the contrary.
Suffering is not a Black ghetto through which white people drive with car windows tightly rolled shut and doors locked. I repudiate racist claims to the contrary. The Black experience is one of life, not death. It is a human experience; and Black people of all walks are busy trying to live life in the best way they know how. Whites who can’t find an intersection with which to come to know Black lives aren’t looking.
I don’t expect every white ally to understand all of my lived experiences. I don’t understand all of theirs. I do expect every white ally to be curious enough to look for the intersections between our lived experiences, use that material to explore metaphors, develop empathy, build trust, and then act on the moral obligations that grow out of understanding the difficulties I carry as an African American. It is what I do for them.
I had a telling experience last year, at the parent orientation to my daughter’s private school. During the mandatory stale cookie and warm Kool-Aid hour, a white woman rushed up to me, and without telling me her name or asking mine, gushed, “I’m so glad to know you and your daughter will be part of our community! I have been advocating to create a more diverse student body and so I wanted to extend you a special welcome, and to thank you for choosing to send her here. I know it isn’t cheap. If you or your daughter have any diversity problems while you’re here, come see me. I’m the diversity person!”
Up until that moment, I had been having a very Black experience. I was politely putting a stale cookie in my mouth, washing it down with warm Kool-Aid, and wondering how long I had to remain at the meeting to satisfy the rules of politeness. Race as an institutional diversity point was clearly more salient to this woman’s experience of my Blackness than it was to my own. The parameters of her “alliance” with me extended no further than the utility of a few millimeters of black skin she tried to snatch off my back and cram into her hand-stitched “diversity” pocketbook.
Did she really believe that the way she valued my Blackness would make me feel valued? “These cookies are terrible, but I don’t bake. Do you?” would have been a far better way to express interest in me and to demonstrate that my Black Life Mattered to her. Inclusivity performance is a diseased branch grafted to the same old white racist rootstock planted in the same old white supremacist orchard where Black bodies are pruned to meet the needs of white hegemony.
You can’t be my ally without feeling curious about my lived human experience. I won’t trust you with the portion of that experience that is suffering, rage, powerlessness, battle, and hope unless and until you have real sweat equity invested in locating and exploring intersections between our lived human experiences. You can’t understand sufficiently Black life in extremis without doing the labor to write the metaphors that will allow us to know each other sufficiently. If you don’t know me sufficiently, you will be the “ally” who hands me a wet match when what I asked for is your inferno. To merely recite “Black Lives Matter” is nothing more than self-aggrandizing performance if you don’t empathize with a Black life that matters to you. You can’t be my ally if you don’t know me.
So, let’s reconsider the cantata we have chosen to compose together. Let us name the first movement, “Dialogue.” As previously agreed, Black voices hold the melody; they also drive rhythm and tempo. As in our first attempt, we boldly lance America’s historical wound, with all of its suppurating lethality, using that unbearable augmented 7th interval. Molto agitato: the melody a heavily syncopated shout. Wait to add the white voice. Wait . . . wait . . . Be patient. We can hint at a potential harmonic resolution with the white voice, stutter our way toward rationalized syncopated and contrapuntal rhythms. But not yet: make the white voice work for it. Dialogue is best begun with questions. Should the invitation to dialogue emerge from the Black melody? Or should it emerge as a dissonance from the white voice’s attempt to harmonize? Which questions will be asked? To my white allies, I say you choose. You take the risk of asking the wrong question at the right time, or the right question at the wrong time. You bear the discomfort of revealing, facing, and dismantling your own privileged ignorance.
After 400 years of shouting our stories into a hurricane of white denial, disbelief, and co-optation, white allies should not be surprised when people of color respond to white questions with sarin-saturated silence, or the flat accusation, “you can’t understand the Black experience. Don’t pretend you can. Don’t even try.” If we actually believed this, we would be no more angry or contemptuous of your efforts than we are of dogs who can’t learn to speak English. But we are angry. And contemptuous. And tired.
Take the risk as well as the lumps that come with learning to ask better questions. Questions of curiosity: “What is your name? Who are your people? Where do you come from? What gods speak to you?” Questions of opening: Will you come to my table? Will you share your family’s secret recipe? Would you like me to help you weed your garden? Would you stitch your name on my quilt?” Observant questions: “Why are you weeping? Why is there thunder on your brow?” Transformative questions: “How can I change myself to help you? How can I change the circumstances to help you?” Questions of offering: “Would you like me to walk your grandmother to church? Should I stand behind you, at your side, or put my body in front of yours? Can I dress your wounds? Do you need me to hide your children in my closet?” Human questions: “Will you let me hold your heart?”
No knowing no empathy.
No empathy no action.
No action no justice.
No justice no peace.
Christienne Leigh Hinz, Ph.D. is the daughter of a surgical nurse, the granddaughter of a cook, the great-granddaughter of a laundress, the great-great granddaughter of a teacher and the great-great-great granddaughter of a midwife emancipated from slavery. She earned a Ph.D. in modern Japanese history from Ohio State University, the second African American woman in the United States to do so.
Originally published in Our Human Family’s Fieldnotes in Allyship: Achieving Equality Together.