Being a Black person in America has been particularly exhausting these past few weeks. Especially if you’re part of a predominantly white or non-Black friend group. It’s hard to not feel like you’re constantly representing your community in these spaces. And that can lead to representation burnout.
Helen Neville, PhD, a professor of educational psychology and African American studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, explains that representation burnout happens when one person of a certain identity constantly feels like they have to represent the voice of many.
“Representation burnout can increase one’s sense of invisibility in which they are not seen as their unique selves but instead, as a stereotype or a representation of an entire community,” says Dr. Neville. “There is no way one person could possibly represent the entire group. In these environments, one’s existential self is minimized while their racial self is hyper-visible.”
And at a time like this when race is at the forefront of so many important conversations, it can be especially exhausting to feel the burden of representation
Abbey White, a biracial Black journalist living in New York City, says they’re exhausted. “You have to decide whether you’re going to negotiate,” says White. “Like every conversation is, ‘is this the time that I speak up or do I save my energy?’ And that requires energy.” One of the worst parts of this time, says White, is being asked if they’re okay from people they don’t speak to regularly.
“I don’t really like it when people reach out to me and ask if I’m okay,” says White. “I’ve had bosses do it. I’ve had white friends do it. If you are not talking to me on a regular basis and when I have spoken out about these things very publicly in the past, and you haven’t responded then, what do your platitudes now mean? They don’t mean a lot. I think there’s also the fact that of course, I’m not okay. That’s a really silly question to ask people right now, particularly Black people. We haven’t been okay for a while—we’re really not okay now.”
White says they’ve also been asked to explain race issues to the friends and families of their white friends.
“Asking me to handle your problem because you don’t have the language is traumatic. I’m not Siri,” says White. “You don’t just get to call my name and I just give you an answer. I’m a human being. And every time you put me in a situation where I am exposed to racism or discrimination or anti-blackness it hurts. And it is emotionally stressful. And then you get to go away feeling good because now you’ve got somebody who backed up a point you think you had. Meanwhile, I’m the one who expended all the energy.”
On the other hand, Dr. Neville says it’s also damaging to hold in your feelings and say nothing when a non-Black friend says something harmful.
“Many times, as Black folks, we accommodate white people’s feelings and guilt,” says Dr. Neville. “As such, we [censor] ourselves so that people don’t feel guilty or have negative feelings as a result of talking about race or racial experiences. We need to stop changing our behaviors to try to accommodate how other people are going to perceive us. That is exhausting in and of itself.”
Even if your friends haven’t done or said anything racist—when you’re the only (or one of few) Black friend in their lives, this can be a tricky and sometimes uncomfortable time to navigate.
“I have a lot of white friends who haven’t shown themselves to be outwardly racist or prejudiced or had dropped the N-word in a rap song or anything like that,” says Ashley Oken, a biracial Black writer and student pursuing an education Master of Science degree, with a focus on literacy. “But I think for my own peace of mind I have to have those conversations with them just because it’s a constant learning process of what boundaries you shouldn’t be crossing and how exactly to be of help to the movement.” She says she’s had to call out friends about how some of the resources they’re sharing on social media are actually damaging. “Even though they had received it well and the conversation didn’t take a bad turn, it was still very uncomfortable to even say.”
White adds that it’s been hard hearing white friends discuss their place in this movement without understanding their privilege.
“I had a friend who was like ‘I want to go to the protest tonight and I [have to go to this] protest because it’s important for me to be on the right side of history. I want to tell my kids I was there and I supported this, but I don’t want to get hurt.’ And I just thought… how nice that must be for you to be able to situate yourself within a movement and say I was there, but still be able to protect yourself from the [possibility of] violence,” says White.
If a Black person feels like they have to have these conversations too often and that they do take a negative turn, Dr. Neville says it might be time to reevaluate the friendship.
“You might lose friends,” says Dr. Neville. “If the other person is truly a friend then they would be willing to take that journey with you. This means that the white folks would begin to explore the ways in which they have white privilege, in which their behaviors have been impacted by white supremacy, and how these behaviors may ‘show up’ in the relationship. And, so part of building strong friendships has to do with having hard, honest conversations about race and racism.”
A good way to combat representation burnout is to maintain relationships with other people who look like you and can affirm your individual and group identities. “That means seeking out the support network outside of that predominantly white environment; a network that gets you, that you can show up in your authentic self, that can affirm who you are and that can validate and bear witness to your experiences,” she says.
Another meaningful way for Black people to combat these feelings is to always learn more about and celebrate Blackness.
“I would encourage Black people to embark on a journey of racial affirmation to help undo some of these messages that were given and to affirm one’s strengths,” says Dr. Neville. “This can entail reading more about one’s history and accomplishments, seeing movies that deal with our reality, attending museums, consuming cultural products. The idea is to surround ourselves with counter images of pride and beauty and joy.”
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