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Stop Holding Their Hand:Why I Set Boundaries with My White Friends as a Measure of Self-Preservation

By: Brianna Little

College is, for the most part, an enriching environment where anyone can find their niche. Despite being one of the oldest universities in the country, and thus unrelentingly dedicated to tradition, my school in Southeast Virginia is still home to millennials, who usually possess a more accepting and inclusive attitude towards diversity.

It’s heartwarming to have economically privileged white friends who, despite their homogeneous backgrounds, willingly step out of their own experiences and advocate for those of us who suffer from racial injustice and violence. But lately, some of my white friends have made me feel like a token friend who exists to educate them and validate their opinions on racialized issues. Obviously this marginalization is unintentional, but what matters is the effect. Now I have to navigate the difficult landscape of setting boundaries with my white friends without alienating their efforts to be well-informed activists for social justice.

Ideally everyone would be compassionate enough to actively denounce racism, sexism, and other forms of structural oppression. However, usually people don’t care about things that don’t affect them directly, so it follows that a majority of people aren’t going to risk being marginalized by fighting to dismantle systems of oppression. While I think that caring about social justice should be a standard of basic decency, I also think highly of my white friends who use their valued platforms to speak out against racism.

An important part of activism is making sure your information is accurate, especially if you’re trying to promote the voices and experiences of oppressed groups. Sometimes when my friends are insecure about where they should stand on certain issues, they depend on me for intellectual and emotional labor. They want me to tell them what they should believe, and why. When I put it that way, it sounds undeniably problematic, but it’s really a complicated issue. White people don’t realize they’re engaging in white supremacy by asking minorities to teach them about oppression simply so they understand.

I have been struggling to explain to my friends that I feel objectified when they send me some article or another and ask, “What are your thoughts on this?” or “I saw that you said XYZ about this issue, and I don’t understand. Can you explain it to me?” It’s important to me that my friends feel like their efforts to understand oppression clearly are appreciated, but I also have to set boundaries to make them realize that I have a life outside of activism.

I’m a person who enjoys fun things. I’m not always a victim. I don’t exist to answer their questions or validate their views. By expecting me to help them understand anything they have trouble grasping, they are viewing me as a source of free labor, even if it’s in the name of racial justice. But really, how liberating is it when I feel like I have to teach people how to not oppress me? And by doing this teaching, I am denying white people a fundamentally important skill: the ability to think critically about issues and understand why things are unjust, as opposed to just believing something because their black friend has a certain stance on it.

Of course, it’s essential that allies accurately represent the interests of marginalized groups, but there are ways of doing that without expecting us to constantly defend our humanity for their benefit. Unless we are already discussing the topic, I generally ignore messages from my friends who want my thoughts on an article or ask me to explain why I feel a certain way about something. Sometimes I engage, but often I don’t have the energy to teach my friends information that is readily available via scholarly articles and other media that black people produce.

I need my friends to grasp that understanding issues of race is not a matter of entitlement to education from black people, but one of decentering themselves and actively paying attention to people who are already voicing experiences that may answer their questions. Sometimes, it may be the case that a white person, no matter how “woke,” will not understand how a black person or other person of color feels by virtue of the fact that they’re white. And that’s okay. However, it’s necessary for white allies to accept the validity of racialized experiences despite never having them.

Although I iterate this point, that white people should not feel entitled to education from people of color, on social media all the time, it’s definitely harder to explain this to an individual when they seek free labor from me. Part of me is concerned that I am being unnecessarily hostile, and rejecting a friend’s efforts to learn more and participate in nuanced conversations about race. A bigger part of me is exasperated that by prioritizing their comfort over my own well-being, I’m engaging in white supremacy.

My resolution comes with this article. This writing is mostly for my piece of mind, but it is also for you, white friends. I know you mean well, but next time you are confused about an idea or issue and you feel compelled to get validation from one of your minority friends, do some research. See what other black people are voluntarily saying.

There may not always be a consensus, but try to think critically and understand that issues of race are often multidimensional, and there is rarely a resolute answer for anything. Talk to your white friends about race issues. After all, it’s not particularly helpful to share your ideas on race with someone who has lived experiences, and understands these issues better than you do.

See if your friends have anything valuable to add to your thoughts, because they most likely do. Above all, know and respect that your black friends do not exist solely as a library for your learning, that we are people with lives and feelings that exist outside of your efforts at activism. Valuing our autonomy and right to peace is an integral part of the racial justice you’re working so hard to achieve, so I encourage you to work harder, to do better.

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