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Boundaries Matter: It’s OK to Not Want to Talk to White People About Racism

Don’t let the expanding consciousness of white folks make you feel obligated to share your feelings.

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As protests continue around the world in response to racist acts of violence against Black people, know that symptoms of the collective trauma we all may be experiencing — intrusive thoughts, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, irritability, anxiety, fear, exhaustion, feeling disconnected and hopelessness — are real and valid.

Many of us are returning to work from coronavirus quarantines to find messages from sympathetic white friends or to hear white colleagues suddenly expressing shock and concern for the pain we’ve felt (and often buried) all our lives. While the coronavirus pandemic had its own challenges, we may recognize that lockdowns and working from home kept us insulated from white work spaces where racism wages daily assaults on our psyches. And now some white people want to know how we’re feeling about it all.

By setting boundaries we are showing ourselves some love at a time we really need it.

“I’m furious. I’m grieving. I’m exhausted. I’m numb,” you might want to say. “I haven’t slept in weeks.” But you may find yourself saying, simply, “It’s a lot,” because you refuse to bare your soul to help white people manage their sense of being overwhelmed when you’re trying to cope with your own.

I have heard again and again — from family, friends and my psychotherapy clients alike — this is all just too much. And because of the emotional weight of these events, which fell in rapid succession, you may not be ready to talk about any of it, especially to white friends or colleagues. And that’s OK.

“This makes me want to stay home for good,” a girlfriend said to me, terrified by the video of a white woman named Amy Cooper weaponizing her white privilege and calling 911 on a Black man, Christian Cooper (no relation), who was bird-watching in New York City’s Central Park. Hysterically screaming into her phone, Central Park Amy falsely told police that there was an African American man threatening her life. His threat? The temerity to tell her to obey the posted park rules and leash her dog.

“These Amys are the worse,” my girlfriend said, noting that the woman, who worked at an investment firm (which subsequently fired her), could easily be a colleague. “They smile in your face at the office but they’re capable of calling the police on an innocent Black person.”

Boundaries are a form of self-care, and taking your time to process your emotions before talking about them, or keeping them close to the vest, is an important part of taking care of yourself. Here are some ways to set healthy boundaries and protect yourself from trauma as you return to white spaces.

It’s OK to say, “I don’t want to talk about this right now.” Don’t feel obligated to take the lead on the new diversity and inclusion initiative at your company or to talk with every colleague about social justice. You have a right to decide when and with whom you discuss these potentially charged issues.

It’s OK to not want to educate white folks about current events or the history of racism and oppression in the U.S. White people must be a part of the solution to end racism by educating themselves rather than expecting Black people to shoulder this responsibility. There are plenty of books, podcasts and documentaries that can help them get started.

It’s OK to challenge white people to have their own conversations about race relations and how they will make change. If asked, you can suggest that your company bring in an outside facilitator or someone who is trained to lead discussions on issues like social justice, race relations and white privilege within your company’s culture. This way a neutral third party can guide you. Experts to consider include Jackie Jenkins, organizational psychologist and change strategist; Traci Baxley, associate professor, curriculum, culture and educational inquiry, Florida Atlantic University; and Brenda Fellows, industrial/organizational psychologist and a behavioral, social and data scientist.

It’s OK to not have the answers or to not want to give the answers. As Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison said in a 1993 interview with Charlie Rose, “If you can only be tall because somebody is on their knees, then you have a serious problem. And my feeling is: White people have a very, very serious problem, and they should start thinking about what they can do about it. Take me out of it.”

It’s OK to share your experiences with racism that have shaped your perspective and to stop when you feel you've shared enough. To say what you need to say and to leave it at that. Don’t feel obligated to answer further questions, describe in more detail or explain what it felt like. It’s your story and you decide how much you want to share.

It’s OK to walk away from discussions about race when someone is trying to compare their experiences to yours. Well-meaning white people or non-Black people may think that by comparing your experience with racism to theirs with sexism, for instance, they can find common ground. But in doing so they fail to acknowledge your pain or to even hear you. Keep stepping and save yourself the frustration.

By setting boundaries we are showing ourselves some love at a time we really need it. Holding firm will help you find the space to process what you’re feeling and weather the adversity that we are all enduring these days.