The death of George Floyd has prompted an outpouring of anti-racist social media support and conversations, but what if the friends around you are refusing to acknowledge this? Here, Rebeka Prance explains to writer Megan Murray how it feels to realise it’s time to let go of the white friendships who continue to stay silent.
George Floyd’s death changed something in me. The initial reaction from my black community was mass online grieving. There was visceral outrage that a man has been murdered in broad daylight, slowly, on film and it cut so deeply. It felt like a member of my own family had died – it was that kind of shock.
I posted on my own social media with a message to my friends and family, asking them to start challenging racism in their own homes, because that’s where change starts. The response I first received was incredibly positive and I found that very profound.
My husband is white, and my cousin-in-law has young children who in the past have made negative or confused comments about my hair and appearance. I’ve tried to educate them and have been firm in pointing out what sounds rude or insensitive. When that cousin messaged me to say “I’ve seen your post and I know this is for me” I thought OK, we’re getting somewhere.
In my own echo chamber the reactions I was seeing and the conversations I was having with the people very close to me was so affirming, but as the week went on and these messages moved through the wider circles of my larger friendship groups, there were points when I started to feel let down.
I believe our social media has the potential to reflect us, so I felt disappointed when I saw friends who, although are white themselves, are very integrated in black culture through their friendships, relationships and communities, either posting nothing at all or sharing an Instagram graphic specific to anti-racism followed by a picture of their baby or dog, and then not engaging with it further having seen their fellow white friends waking up to their responsibility.
To me, that felt insensitive. But this hurt really deepened when a general silence on social media, translated into a very deliberate silence on my Whatsapp groups.
I started a conversation about George Floyd and how his death had affected me in a predominantly white Whatsapp group of friends. As one of the only women of colour in this group, starting conversations like this is something that I can find hard.
I worry that it will feel like I’m ‘bringing up race again’, poking a taboo subject that people don’t necessarily want to engage with. It’s draining and, having to continue to find the strength to keep going makes me feel vulnerable, even though in the past only a small, select few have bothered to respond and acknowledge what I’ve said.
That’s exactly what happened in this instance. The same two or three friends jumped in to respond but over the course of the day I heard almost nothing from that group.
I can rationalise that we all have a million things happening in our days and there’s a multitude of reasons why someone might not reply. However, when I clicked on my messages I could visibly see that every single person had read what I’d said. Not only had they read factual information that I wanted to share with them, they’d just read my personal pain.
I told people I consider to be friends that I’m hurting, I’m vulnerable and I’m upset. They saw those words with their own eyes and clicked off the conversation, leaving me in silence. It’s something I keep going over and over in my head and I can’t get over it.
Inevitably the conversation moved on to a much lighter topic and guess what – magically all of those silent names in the group suddenly had words again and began jumping into the chat with emojis and banter.
I could have almost taken that on the chin, but what really broke me is when another friend of colour decided to share her own story the following day, a memory of being teased at school for the colour of her skin, and the silence was reinstated. Now, if that story had been about being called fat or ugly as a little girl, I think everyone would have chimed in with empathy.
What really hurt me was that she wrote something incredibly vulnerable and made an effort to restart a difficult conversation and again, the only people who responded were the same few. There was no empathy or sense of humility. No human to human acknowledgement of that pain.
British racism is in many ways covert. It’s often in the simple things. For example, most white people don’t realise that black people can’t just nip into a supermarket to buy hair products suitable for their textures. It’s me not being able to find foundation as a teenager because so many places just don’t have make-up that caters to my skin tone.
The issue is too often left undiscussed, which is why it’s so important for these conversations to reach the people who live unaware of their white privilege and how the system is designed by white people, for white people. My friends are part of this community, and it feels like a kick in the face watching them opt to stay in their realm of privilege.
I don’t know exactly why some of my white friends have chosen to disengage with my pain at this time but I think that when you’ve had little exposure to other cultures, topics like Black Lives Matter can fill you full of fear. There can be a hesitancy in not feeling educated enough or looking stupid if you put your foot in it and say the wrong thing.
I really get that and it’s important for me to facilitate a safe space for my white friends, because the only way we can foster healing and progression is with conversation. I’ve actively messaged some of my best friends to let them know I am here for them to voice anything they’ve never understood or scared sounds racist.
From the people who have been incredibly supportive it’s been hope-filling to hear the words “thank you”. It’s opened up a place to put a lot of the confusion and for us to understand each other, so that I can recognise as a black women that it’s difficult for white people to speak about this and there’s a pressure for them, too.
The last week has been incredibly difficult. Being ignored by people I considered good friends has been soul extinguishing. But there’s been a lot of positive growth, too. Hearing my white girl friends say they know they need to do more has been beautiful for me and a lot of those people have made me feel safe, secure, upheld and shielded. I’ve also had some uncomfortable conversations with certain friends who didn’t get it, but now understand better. We’ve reconciled over it and are actually stronger than before.
I know I’m not the only black person to face the Whatsapp group silence. Other friends of colour have told me they’ve experience the same thing from their white friends. This experience has made me realise that there are certain friendships I’m ready to let go of, and that’s OK. In fact, it’s freeing.
Prior to George Floyd’s murder, I was someone who would suppress their blackness around certain friends that don’t know how to deal with it. Now, I refuse to put myself in those situations.
I will continue to be kind to the people who met me with silence and, if they need me, I will be there for them. But I won’t be actively putting into our relationship any longer. I won’t be seeking out their opinions, letting them into my world or spending my time on them. In my mind, I have released those people.
I see the future as a more liberated time for me. I know which friendships I can lean on no matter what and the last week has brought me to a more honest, raw place with my best friends.
I refuse to hold onto bitterness because it rots your heart. The way I see it, I’ve snipped out that bitterness and I can now truly be myself and grow in a more positive way.
Images: Rebeka Prance