The “I Don’t Know Her” Conundrum: Online ‘Friending’ in the Time of Trump & White Fragility

 

More than 80 people are “pending” in my Facebook friend request queue. The avatars of people (or objects or abstractions representing them) I may have met, but for the most part have not, sit side by side to buttons asking if I’d like to ‘Confirm’ or ‘Delete.’ The majority of these requests are from women, a small percentage are People of Color, and the majority of the majority are White women. Instead of making a decision I leave the list as is. 

I know the point of social media. But for me, Facebook is like a real-time yearbook. A place where I keep tabs on friends and those I’ve actually met in life. If we’re virtually connected it’s because I want to know how you’re doing (good, bad, and anything in between) and I’d hope you’d want to do the same. For my mother Facebook helps her keep track of her only child. Conversations with family members will usually start “Your mom told me…” or “I heard from your mother…” All of this information culled from my online presence more so than our conversations. Some friends of mine are behind the scenes, posting or saying little if anything, but when we get in contact after a long hiatus I’m told “I see all your posts!” For others it’s a calling card, a networking service, a place to have a presence because they were encouraged to for the sake of getting work or by their publicist if they have something to hawk, or even a form of dating service. 

And for others, it’s a source of collection. Be honest, some of you collect people on Facebook like my grandmother collected salt & pepper shakers. (An impressive collection, by the way.) There’s the idea of more eyes equals more visibility and that is and isn’t true in a way. I guess that’s fine but I’ve noticed a trend. And that trend is that more and more White people, White women in particular, are trying to “connect” with me. This gives me pause because, social media presence aside, I am a private person. Because I am vocal about inclusivity in general, let alone in the the industry I work in, I get requests and questions, but see very little follow through from people after my energy has been spent for their purpose of education. And in some cases it quenches their thirst to feel like they fulfilled their duty of being a good “ally” because they talked to someone marginalized and are “well-meaning.” (Insert sigh.)

For instance, a friend of mine, someone I actually got to know before “connecting” with her on Facebook said to me “I need you to educate me.” She is White with privilege but also marginalized, I am Black with privilege in many respects. My response to her: “I don’t need to do s***. It is not my job to educate you as White woman.” And it isn’t. I believe she gets it but that doesn’t mean that feeling of “Well how will I learn?” may not linger and the expectation remains on some level. If this is what I hear from friends what do you think I hear from people I have never met in my life? This is where my caution and suspicion stems from. The fact that I am steadily seeing a rise in (White) people I have never met in life see a comment I made, hear me on a panel, hear about me from someone else and think “Resource!” rather than “human being.”  

Here’s an example of the questions/comments I get: Do you know (insert marginalization here) so that I can invite them to a panel that’s (low paid, unpaid)? I’m starting a writing group and only know people who look like me, do you know anyone? I’m privileged and want to do the work so I figured I’d write a book about (insert marginalized demographic here) do you know what I can do to get more resources? Can you tell me how to do better as a White person? I‘m doing the work but I still feel like people don’t see I’m doing the work. I created this (magazine, reading series, insert whatever) and I don’t have anyone else on staff do you want to join (for low or no pay)? What do you want me to do, I tried? By educating (White) people you get something out of it too. 

Now, to the layman this may not sound bad. And technically not all of it is. At my first job I learned it was better to ask questions than to make assumptions. However, the fact is when I am tapped, repeatedly and solely, as a resource than as anything else I see that this “connection” isn’t more than me serving your life as a reference. And if that’s it why not just get a book from the library or do your diligence in Google searches? If our engagements are always one-sided than is that a “connection” or me being part of a collection? Those I am friends with on this particular forum are those I learn from yes, but I also talk to them and engage with them. I ask how they are. I donate to their GoFundMe’s when times get rough. We meet up if they’re in the area. I read and share their work via other outlets when I see it and want to make sure to support. I go to their events. I cheer them on or give condolences or send cookies (I actually do send cookies, this is a thing I do). I do not seek to just have transgender connections for the sake to expand my friend repertoire. Those I’m connected with mean something to me. If I let you in it’s because I want you to be in my life. I get that this may sound kind of kumbaya-ish when it comes to a social platform but it’s how I’ve curated this particular space. If we’re just following each other for s***s, giggles, and cool memes than go to Twitter or Instagram in that case. But if you want to know how f***ed up my divorce was, how frustrated I am as a writer, when I show Gratitude, if you want those updates that my mom finds so enlightening and likes to share than recognize this space is not one I may let you into. 

When it comes to fragility, and white fragility in particular, is that there’s an expectation (see 4th paragraph) and also there’s hurt feelings when someone of another background who “seems cool” doesn’t want to connect or simply doesn’t trust you. I’ve said this on Twitter, at this point in time when November 8th ticked down to November 9th a change happened. One we saw manifesting (and for other generations a resurgence) of a distrust of those who will say one thing to your face and another behind your back. Cory Thomas’ comic helps encapsulate that feeling as a person of color. I know for a fact that someone in that realm of my 500 “friends” on Facebook voted for Trump. The odds are inevitable. Knowing someone I thought I knew would vote in favor of a person who would readily and happily eradicate me and those I care about is a horrible feeling, deadening to a point. The stats don’t lie, in fact they’ve been shared thousands if not hundreds of thousands of times. Many of us are still figuring out how to deal. Performative ally-ship and activism became a big thing on November 9th. Even before the U.S. presidential election, at talks I did time and again and continue to do, I meet and speak with “well-meaning” people who want to be understood and let in immediately. That’s not how this works. First off, I’m a New Yorker, I was born suspicious. What needs to be comprehended is that space is needed. The sting of recent events is not going away. There is trauma that carries down for many in this life or another. And when someone doesn’t understand this I draw back. When you say you want to be better but want the quickie version or lose sight of that desire soon after meeting me it gives me pause. It makes me consider the integrity of your words. 

Let me be clear, if you’re aware of me because I became a diversity advocate and want to connect I’m all for it. But I’m not going to readily entwine hands with you and skip down the street in a display of friendship or really knowing who you are. On my end I also need to understand as someone who is cishet, abled, and employed that other communities won’t be ready to see me as someone holding a torch for them if I’m not doing the work internally before parading myself around as someone they can rely on. I need to, as my friend Brendan Kiely said, “listen, listen, listen, and listen some more” and recognize my place of privilege.

This isn’t so much about proving oneself as much as it is about becoming the change we want to see. People will recognize it, but maybe you don’t need several thousand people to recognize it. Perhaps it’s enough for you to see it within the community you value and that values you as well.

This may come off as paranoia to some or prejudice to others, but to me it’s very clear; in fact, it’s a totally rational way to see things as a marginalized person in this day and age. It’s a way to look at the world that doesn’t cut me off from people in general, yet makes the idea of “friendship” more clear cut in my mind. It’s not necessarily the way my mom would want me to see life— she didn’t raise me to distrust White people or those different from me. But I was taught to protect myself and I’ll do that by any means necessary. So, until then, many may remain pending. And perhaps I’m pending in someone else’s queue also. That’s okay. End of the day we have work to do, inside and out.