Simply existing as person of color in the U.S. has never been easy, a reality that the past year or so has harshly confirmed. Police have continued to disproportionately kill Black and brown people, including 20-year-old Daunte Wright and 13-year-old Adam Toledo. A Minneapolis jury convicted ex-cop Derek Chauvin of murdering George Floyd last week, yet Floyd still won’t see his daughter grow up. Shortly before the announcement of the verdict, a Columbus police officer fatally shot 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant. The Asian American community is reeling from an ongoing wave of violence. Indigenous women and girls are still going missing or murdered.
As long as the white supremacy that forms the foundation of this country persists, so, too, will racist violence. Social media posts urge us to “check in” on our BIPOC friends in the wake of violence against their communities. But if you’re outside the community being directly impacted — whether you’re white or a member of another community of color — reaching out can seem like a delicate balancing act. How do you do so in a way that makes your friend feel supported without forcing them to perform emotional labor when they're probably already exhausted?
Estepha Francisque, an Oakland, California-based therapist, offered his insight into what to consider before and while checking in on a friend whose community is experiencing racial trauma, so that you center their needs and experiences first and foremost.
Assess your relationship
While checking in with a Black, Indigenous, or other person of color in your life might seem like “the right thing to do,” it can do more harm than good if you have only a superficial relationship with them, Francisque says. That’s because “it immediately puts the person in a position where they have to exercise emotional labor" — essentially forcing them to be vulnerable with you when they’ve never done so before.
On the other hand, if you have a close relationship with this person, and you’ve been vulnerable with each other, “I think it actually is important to check in and share care and concern,” Francisque says. I personally found the radio silence from non-Asian people I’d considered close friends after the Atlanta-area mass shootings that left six Asian women dead pretty hurtful. Maybe they worried about saying the wrong thing, but in the moment, it was hard not to interpret their absence as apathy.
Checking in with a close friend following racial violence against their communities “lets the person know, 'You’re on my mind. How you’re feeling does concern me,'” Francisque says. Being present with them in this way can be a first step toward validating their experience.
Start with a text
Francisque notes that how you check in with your friend matters, too. Text them to start, which will allow them to decide whether they even want to engage with you, whereas if you call them, “you’re demanding that person’s undivided attention and time in that moment,” he says.
While it technically would allow your friend time to choose whether or how they want to respond, “I think in most personal relationships… email is likely too impersonal,” he adds. If this person is a coworker, maybe an email would be appropriate, he says, but if you’re friends in addition to being colleagues, it could still come across as impersonal.
Don’t ask anything of them
Francisque suggests a text along the lines of “Hey, just checking to see how you’re holding up. I just want to let you know I’m thinking of you. If you need anything, I’m happy to help, but please don’t feel any pressure to respond.” This way, they won’t feel obligated to text back if they’re too emotionally spent to do so.
I appreciated when a friend of mine texted me after the Atlanta-area shootings that she’d always be here for me, and that she wanted to continue checking in with me as long as it didn’t stress me out. "No pressure to ever respond," she said. In other words, she kept the focus on my needs and comfort level.
A definite no-no, according to Francisque: Asking your friend to explain how the racial violence against their communities made them feel, or why it’s so hard for them. Although you might think you’re expressing a desire to understand where they’re coming from, “it’s making somebody else do unpaid emotional labor,” Francisque says. Also, you're basically requesting that they relive their trauma for your benefit.
Francisque points out that if you have questions along those lines, you can always buy books, listen to podcasts, or consume other content created by people from the communities impacted by the violence. “There’s all these ways to get those answers and show support without asking friends or the person in your life directly because that’s unfair to them,” he says.
Seek to validate them on a deep level
According to the therapy that Francisque practices, there are six levels of validating someone’s experience. The first, shallowest, level is being present with them, which you might convey through that initial check-in text, he explains. The second level is reflecting back to them what they’re saying, and the third is reading their nonverbal communication.
As you continue your back-and-forth with your friend — assuming that they’ve chosen to engage with you — you ultimately want to reach the deeper, fourth through sixth levels of validation, according to Francisque. The fourth level is understanding how your friend’s feelings, thoughts, or actions make sense based on their experiences, which he says you can show through recognizing that what they’re going through is difficult.
And yes, this requires work. "We have to do our own research into their experiences, what’s going on, how it affects them, and how they may react,” Francisque says. Again, there are a ton of resources out there that’ll allow you to glimpse into your friend’s experience so that you don’t have to burden them with the task of educating you.
In the fifth level of validation, you’d acknowledge that your friend’s feelings and actions are valid and appropriate given their situation and context, he continues. To embody this level, Francisque notes that “you almost want to communicate that you’re on their side, that you understand that however they’re reacting to it, coping with it, or grieving it is valid.” Critics of the protests in response to George Floyd’s murder last summer demonstrated the opposite of this. “Even if some are arguing it’s illegal… the point is, [the protesters’] experience is their experience.”
He explains that the sixth level of validation — showing your friend that you see them as an equal, and not as inferior to you, or as an other — is more subtle. “You almost kind of just know,” Francisque says. Unlike with shallower levels of validation, he explains, there aren’t any key phrases that communicate that you see your friend as an equal: “It’s more of an attitude.” To cultivate it, he suggests looking inward and identifying the ways in which you might take comfort in being “better” than a person or group.
“If your heart is in the right place, nine times out of 10, it’ll come across,” Francisque says. I got that sense from the friend I mentioned earlier. No single phrase in her texts indicated that she saw me as an equal, but taken together, they did. I could tell she didn’t text me merely to cross an item off her list or assuage any guilt. I could tell her support would transcend this one tragedy.
All of this is to say, be mindful of your intentions in reaching out to your friend, and how doing so could impact them. And remember: Decentering yourself and listening are acts of love, too.