From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m Emmanuel Dzotsi.
So, last Monday, after two weeks of protests over the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and so, so many other black people, I ended up in a conversation with a black woman who told me about a very weird situation she’d found herself in….
EMMANUEL DZOTSI: if you don't want to go by your real name, we can change your name.
MAYA: Yeah I don't. Because the only reason is I feel- I feel really sorry for this girl (laughs). Like how I feel and my understanding of it is not what she feels. And I'm almost just like, oh, poor baby. But I don't want her to be embarrassed—
EMMANUEL: Yeah yeah yeah.
MAYA: But I feel like if she ever hears this, she's going to know this is her because (grunts), so anyways. Yeah, because of how it was, how I responded to her.
This is Maya...and as you just heard Maya is not actually her real name...she’s a photographer...lives in LA…
Maya told me that shortly after a recent protest, one of her colleagues posted to Twitter in support of black women photographers…
MAYA: It was a post to editors and a post to just people in general, that was kind of saying, “Hire Black women right now to- because you know, it directly affects them and they're covering these issues that are happening.” And so she did this list, which was just incredible, highlighting Black women photographers, And, um, you know, just created a lot of traction for a lot of us. And so I just saw a lot of activity on my social media and just, you know, people sharing my photos and, you know, just leaving me comments.
At some point, Maya got a message from a white woman, who was like, I’d love to support your work...just let me know how...and let me know what your Venmo is.
MAYA: I said, “Here's my website. Please let me know if you- what print you'd like to buy. You know, we can work that out. If not, maybe I can compile some images from this protest that will be more meaningful. And then we can just figure out something from there. This is my Venmo.”
And then, shortly after she sent that message, Maya looked at her phone, and saw something confusing...a Venmo payment from this woman, along with a message saying that she was traveling, and would reach out about getting a print when she got back.
MAYA: And so I was like, “Hmm, well, that's not really what I meant.” Um, and also it was really low as well, like, cuz she said, “Let's talk about a print.” So, I'm not sure if she thought that was the price of a print, maybe she did, or if that was just money that she was just gifting. I don't know what it was, but I just know it was interesting because we hadn't talked about- um, any exchange in terms of the pricing.
Maya went back and forth about whether she wanted to tell me the exact dollar amount of the donation. She was worried that the amount could be a giveaway to the person’s identity. But eventually she told me.
MAYA: it was [BLEEP] bucks.
EMMANUEL: It was [BLEEP] bucks.
MAYA: Yeah, it was [BLEEP] bucks.
MAYA: if it was a charity donation to me, that's mad insulting. If that was for a print, really insulting. What was that? What was it?
EMMANUEL: It was that amount- it was [BLEEP]. (Maya laughs) I mean- sorry. I think- what we- if we use this, we'll just bleep it. Uh, uh, so that it won’t...
MAYA: Okay. Okay. So the amount was [BLEEP]. And to me, if it was a charity- charitable donation to my Being-Black Fund, I don't- I don't even know what that would've done for me in any way? Because in 2020, you know, things are expensive, and I'm not expecting anything from anyone, you know? I'm pretty okay.
This thing Maya experienced … this incredibly confusing payment... some variation of it has been happening to everybody I know like...my sister….my neighbours…my friends. White people have been sending black people Venmo payments in these really weird, bizarre ways….often completely out of the blue..and frequently completely unsolicited.
I put out a call on Twitter asking for people to share their experiences with this….and I heard from all of these Black people who had gotten a notification that some white person had sent them cash in like the weirdest form of reparations...as if to say, “Here’s a few bucks...sorry for racism.”
WOMAN 1: I just got a random Venmo from a friend and it said, “for weed or drinks” and I was like, “thank you so much, but I’m sending it back.”
This is happening all over the country … [I live Chicago...] I heard from clothes designers, aspiring filmmakers, political organizers, computer programmers, teachers, academics, podcasters, photographers, comedians --usually middle-class...most of the time under 40.
WOMAN : Payments were, continually kept coming through and I was like “Oh, well, well
According to my completely unscientific survey, it seems like you’re more likely to get Venmo payments from your white friends if you live in a mostly white area...went to a mostly white college or if you work in like a mostly white field like sketch comedy...you won’t get any of these, it turns out, if, like me, you tweeted about doing a story on said Venmo payments.
Thankfully white people don’t tend to send these with emojis. They seem to be small amounts of money - the amount you might contribute to a colleague’s birthday card made to people that are, on the whole... financially completely fine...
WOMAN 3: I don’t want to seem like … for lack of a better term … like “oh thank you! Thank you miss whoever. For giving me some little penance.”
I’ve heard of people actually like receiving money from colleagues, colleagues that in some cases actually make less than them. And these payments can also come from exes:
MAN 1: “Grab a cup of coffee on me.” It was just like really weird because I had never seen a dollar amount associated with police brutality before.
He later found out that same person had sent double that amount to a cop.
Anyways….the main thing I learned is that it’s extremely likely that you, a black person, are going to feel bad about it, like the photographer Maya
I felt a little bit insulted, you know? Because...
EMMANUEL: Yeah, totally.
MAYA: I don't want to take your charity for you to feel better, you know. I don’t know. I mean, there's a lot of assumption on my end, but I just don't want to be a point of your conversation with your friends, like, “Hey, I donated to this photogr- this Black photographer, and that was my contribution.” Like...
MAYA: Let's make it more meaningful, you know?
EMMANUEL: Especially since the initial post had been okay, yeah, hire, hire, hire folks.
MAYA: Yeah. Yeah.
Maya thanked the woman, donated the money to a national bail fund and matched it.
She gracefully just sort of washed her hands of the whole thing. But she never did find out what exactly this person who’d sent her money was thinking. That question I was able to get to the bottom of when I heard about the case of another woman…. named Noni…she’s 23….lives in North Carolina.
NONI: I was just in my room on the phone with one of my friends and I get a notification on my phone and it is a random Venmo from a guy I went to college with.
NONI: And so I click on it, like right as its coming on my phone, cause I'm like, "What the fuck is this?" (laughing)
NONI: And, and I'll like, I’ll go on my app and read it to you.
EMMANUEL: Yeah, yeah.
NONI: Okay. So, so he gave me five dollars.
EMMANUEL: Five bucks?
NONI: And he said—yeah. (laughing) Five dollars.
EMMANUEL: What can you get with 5—Anyway, sorry. Continue. Continue.
NONI: Okay, yeah. Here's what the memo said, "Thanks for spreading awareness. Have a coffee."
EMMANUEL: Wait. (laughing). Thanks for spreading awareness? Have a coffee?
NONI: Yeah, it's a Starbucks campaign.
EMMANUEL: It kind of sounds like—it kind of sounds like it...
Noni wasn’t sure what to do..she hadn’t talked to this guy in a year..so after waiting a day she decided to just click like. And until I called her that had been the end of it. But now..there was something she wanted to find out.
NONI: Has anyone found out why? Has anyone asked why?
EMMANUEL: Like, what do you mean? Like, just like in the world?
NONI: Like has anyone—no, well has anyone you've talked to today, any of the black folks who got random Venmos like have they had a conversation with the people who Venmo'd them? Like figuring out why they got Venmo'd?
NONI: (laughs) Wow.
EMMANUEL: I don't know. I think it's like...
NONI: That's really interesting.
EMMANUEL: I think for the same reasons you didn't ask why. I don't know. Did you—why didn't you ask why?
NONI: Umm, well, I don't—See, what's interesting to me is that I feel like what they're thinking and what they might say could be two very different things.
I wanted to know if I could talk to the white guy in this interaction and get a sense of what was really going through his head when he sent Noni the money. So with Noni’s permission, I called him.
EMMANUEL: Hi um Blake, can you hear me?
BLAKE: Yes, I can.
EMMANUEL: Hi. Hi. How are you doing?
BLAKE: Doing well. How are you?
EMMANUEL: I’m great, I’m great...
That’s Blake...the white guy in question. The first thing I wanted to know was just how exactly he’d gotten the idea to send Noni money.
Because, in the past few weeks there have been a lot of white people online, on Twitter, posting takes about how to be a good ally and Noni figured Blake had happened to catch one that was sort of stupid. Which turned out to be pretty accurate.
EMMANUEL: How did you get the idea to like donate to your black friends?
BLAKE: Uh, Twitter. 100%.
EMMANUEL: Oh, Twitter?
BLAKE: Yeah, someone tweeted like, "Hey, send some money to your black friends. This is a really bad time, and they could use the support.”
So he did. He sent money to Noni..and one other black person he knew. I think that when Blake opened his Facebook last week and saw a message from me, a black reporter, asking him about a payment that he, a white dude, had sent to like this one black woman,he knew something was up, he was probably like, “ohh okay this- this gesture did not go over the way I wanted it to.”
So, when we actually started talking, Blake and I did this weird dance where we talked around and around the thing for a while before I actually got to the part of the interview that we’d both been dreading.
EMMANUEL: I feel like you’ve known this point of the interview was coming…
BLAKE: Oh yeah go for it.
EMMANUEL: Can I tell you how Noni felt?
BLAKE: Uh, absolutely.
EMMANUEL: Sure, so mostly dude...she was just confused. (laughs)
BLAKE: Alright! (laughs)
EMMANUEL: Mostly she was like, “Oh I haven’t talked to Blake in like a year.”
EMMANUEL : And I think the language that you ended up using like, “Have a coffee,” I remember when I first heard it my reaction was sort of, to her, to be like, “Does he, like, work at McDonald’s?” (laughs)
BLAKE: (laughs) That- that is the sound. I hear it now.
EMMANUEL: Yeah, do- do you- do you hear it?
BLAKE: I absolutely do.
EMMANUEL: Yeah, you know, it did feel a little weird to her.
BLAKE: Okay, yeah.
EMMANUEL: What do you- what do you think about all of that?
BLAKE: I mean- it- totally fair. I absolutely would not argue a bit of that. The fact that that was received weirdly, that I didn't go about it well, that I was uh yeah, gone about it better. Communicated it. Or, uh, Yeah, maybe—I don't know. Uh, I’m- I'm learning and uh, I—yeah.
I got the impression that Blake like a lot of white Americans, has been spending this month thinking and talking about racial injustice more than he’s used to. And I was curious to know like…how much this had this figured into his life before this moment?
EMMANUEL: How did, like, the concept of race and like discussions—like how did it show up like while you were growing up?
BLAKE: Honestly, none. It’s like it wasn’t really talked about because it didn't really show up.
EMMANUEL: Oh, like it just wasn't talked about?
BLAKE: Not in any drastic sense. I mean, obviously, examples of media—my family loved Hairspray, but to that extent. (both laughing) Yeah, it's not very much. Uh, but yeah, it was never something that had to be addressed or that, you know, my family ever felt the need to explicitly talk about.
One thing I’d wondered about...was the comment Blake had sent with his Venmo payment. That “thank you for spreading awareness” line….he told me what that had actually been about.
He’d been in classes with Noni in college at the University of North Carolina…...and he’d always really admired how outspoken she was. They had this one film professor who only screened movies by white directors, and Noni used to stand up to him.
EMMANUEL: How did you feel like watching Noni take on this professor like day after day in class?
BLAKE: Honestly, I was glad she was doing it but—yeah, a lot of times I felt bad that she was the one who had to do it.
EMMANUEL: What do you mean? Say more about that.
BLAKE: Yeah, that's—and I absolutely, yeah. It's—I felt bad that she was the one. I say “had to do it” but recognizing that she—like I could have done it. Absolutely, I could have spoken up but that she was the one who was doing it, time and time again. And I, personally, a lot of the times I didn't notice. I'm still in the middle of my self-education when it comes to race relations, really understanding these topics that we're getting into. Uh, so I, sometimes wouldn't notice but then other times—yeah. I definitely let it slide and I shouldn't have.
Blake and Noni had very different experiences at UNC, but there was this one thing that happened at the end of college that stood out for both of them.
NONI: We had a huge issue with a confederate monument that was up on campus, Silent Sam.
BLAKE: Uh, something that only memorializes the worst of us and the worst of our history and celebrating it is not something needed on our campus. Something for students to be walking by on a regular basis.
NONI: And I, you know, I went to a lot of protests for that...and just a lot of the protests that happened around Chapel Hill.
BLAKE: Finally, the statue was taken down during one of these protests, about the beginning of our senior year
EMMANUEL: So you knew that was going on, but like you didn’t really go to the protest?
BLAKE: Uh, like I said, I was lazy. I was not being an active part of, uh, you know stuff that I supported in theory. Um, but you know at the time I thought that was enough. Uh, just being someone supportive of my friends. You know going to protests being like, you know, go get ‘em...uh, while, you know, hanging back...in the comfort of my home… I would say I definitely regret it, but not much I can do about it now..other than moving forward doing more.
Obviously, right now, around the country, there are tons of protests happening. Like, in North Carolina, where Noni is, things have been pretty hairy.
NONI: I mean, everything is, is up in arms just like how it is in a lot of parts of the country. I've got friends out at protests who are, you know, being tear gassed, you know violence is escalating. Um, obviously, a lot of people need to be bailed out. Um, and part of what sucks for me is I'm high risk for COVID, so I can’t be out there.
NONI: So, I really do want to be out there, but I just can’t and that part is frustrating.
And of course where Blake now lives...in LA...there have been protests daily….so I wondered ...this time around...is Blake doing anything different?
BLAKE: There was a protest—what was it? Two days..I think it was Saturday that I could have gone to, and I really struggled with whether or not to go. And the reason, that is, is because I live in a house with 8 people.
EMMANUEL: That's a lot of people. You live in a house with 8 people?
BLAKE: I do. It's a crowded place, but the- kind, kind of—it was a real struggle determining like, I want—I really wanted to go to this protest cause—yeah, like I do feel regrets for not going to these protests, being more active as an ally. And I was like, "I really want to go to this one!" but I also know that should I come back from a protest and bring something into this house, there is almost a zero percent chance that not all of us catch it. And so I found myself very torn in that moment, deciding between going to the protest and putting the h-, like my house at risk.
Blake ultimately didn’t go to the protest...and that’s part of what made my conversation with him tricky. I was calling him as a journalist, but I also felt like I had accidentally put myself in the position of being some judge in a case where he was defending himself. It’s not a job I wanted..it’s not a job anyone wants. And frankly, like, as a journalist, and as a person, I don’t wanna be in a position of judging whether Blake should have left his house and gotten his roommates infected with COVID..like that’s a completely personal decision.
So, that’s how I was feeling...and then I asked him one more question.
EMMANUEL: Did any of your roommates go?
BLAKE: Uh, two of them did. Yes.
EMMANUEL: Oh, two of them did go? Ah. And I guess watching them go, how did you feel?
BLAKE: Uh, once again torn because, uh, they were adamant. Like, they actually didn't necessarily ask. They first said they were going. And then brought up the notion that, "Well, will this make anyone uncomfortable?"
EMMANUEL: I guess it’s just like...the way this conversation happened..it sounds like, and correct me if I’m wrong, it sounds like two of your roommates felt really strongly about going and were informing you guys about doing it. And even though you kind of felt like you wanted to go, you kind of hung back.
BLAKE: I did.
EMMANUEL: And then, like after that, then you sort of were like, “Ok what else can I do?” and you saw the thing on Twitter and you donated money to two of your black friends. Is that sort of like the chronology of this?
BLAKE: Uh, I think so...like I can’t, honestly not quite sure. Uh, as you might understand, the days are blurring together.
EMMANUEL: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I guess, like, how do you feel about yourself?
BLAKE: Yeah, I mean as, as, as we continue to talk ...you know, a little more guilty. (laughs) Um, but I know that guilt is not, guilt is not...I mean, it’s an actionable feeling but it’s not, uh, the most beneficial.
EMMANUEL: And don’t get me wrong, but I’m not like, my goal here is not to make you feel guilty…God knows Gimlet Media does not pay me enough to make white people feel guilty. Um, but I do, I don’t know, I am just curious about this, like.
BLAKE: No, that’s- and you’re asking great questions and you’re tapping into the cognitive dissonance that I’ve been grappling with… uh, in that I think- I think a lot of it stems to just habit, cause I spent, have spent so many years of my life being willing to stand back, to not take the more active role and so I think that part, probably played a part in balancing the- the hard thing that might be dangerous or the certainly easier thing thing, but one that I could, you know, I guess justify
BLAKE:…It was, you know, given my history and my habitual, uh, actions it was easier for me to take the latter.
By this point, Blakes discomfort was palpable. It made me incredibly uncomfortable.There was a part of me that wanted to let him off the hook, be like “it’s totally ok, it’s totally fine what you’re doing” but I didn’t say that because I actually think it’s a good thing for white people to sit with their guilt.
Guilt is something you feel when you realize there’s a gap between how you’re actually behaving and how you ought to be. We’re in this moment in our country where we're looking at where we are, where we wanna be, and it feels like white people...who are the biggest part of that... aren’t sitting with that guilt. Instead, every day when I wake up, I turn on my phone to see messages from my black friends pointing out the latest weird gesture white people are making.
Two weeks ago it was every company under the sun (and this podcast) changing their logo to a black square. A week ago, it was Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer wearing Kente Cloth stoles...and this week...it seems like every city is copying Washington DC..and painting “black lives matter” in the middle of some street.
These gestures look ridiculous...and hilarious...and they are….but the question I wish people were asking themselves, is “am I doing this stuff because I feel bad and I wanna make things better? Or do I feel bad and just wanna stop feeling that way?” Either way...none of these gestures are really gonna change anything, especially not 5 bucks for coffee. And it’s crazy that white people think it might...Blake included.
So after talking with Blake...I agreed to be his spiritual guide in this…to help move him from superficial venmo activism to the real thing….We’d meet every week, I’d coach him towards being a genuine force against racism in America. A perfect ally.
Just kidding...I have no intention of being someone’s Magical Negro. God knows I have my own life and that is not how I wanna spend it. I can’t imagine a black person who wants to do that.
Which is why I was so shocked when I heard about just such a person, somebody doing it for fun and money. After the break…Milly.
Welcome back to the show…
So my conversation with Blake had been really draining….it felt like I was playing whack-a-mole just trying to understand why he’d made the decisions he’d made...when he didn’t even really know. I was supposed to interview a bunch more white people about why they’d sent black people money...but I just couldn’t do it.
Then...I got this one message. It was from a comedian in New York….a black Latina named Milly Tamarez. Milly said she’d been charging white people for their guilt for fun….and that she’d been doing it for years. I really wanted to talk to her. It felt like she’d gone so far in this other direction I didn’t understand…
She told me she’d fallen into this by accident and that it actually had started as this sketch comedy video she’d made
MILLY VIDEO: Hey white people. Are you feeling super guilty because your race overwhelmingly voted for and thus elected Donald Trump to be our 45th president of the United States?
[TAPE FADES UNDER]
This is a video Milly made in 2016. It shows her standing in front of a blue background...giving a billy-mays style pitch for a service called White Forgiveness. One of the first things we did when we talked was watch it together.
MILLY VIDEO: Is the guilt so intense that not even a safety pin will make you feel better about yourself?
EMMANUEL: I just want to pause this and say, I forgot about the safety pin.
MILLY: The safety pin shit right?! I forgot about it too until right now! (laughs)
MILLY VIDEO: White forgiveness is the service where you Venmo me, Milly-Tamarez, and I will publicly acknowledge you as one of the good White people. As a woman of color, I see oppression from all ends, and it will be that much more valuable if I tell everyone that you're super woke.
Jill Stein raised $7 million, but she's a white woman. Why not give this money to me? Because I'm super broke. [TAPE FADES UNDER] But seriously….
In other words, Milly’s saying..pay me and I’ll forgive you...and her pitch feels disturbingly real...like there are even tiers of payments...5 dollars will get you a like from Milly on a Facebook post about bashing Donald Trump...for 100, Milly says she’ll share that post and tell the world how great of an ally you are. I found it hilarious...but I found one choice she made in the video kind of surprising…
MILLY VIDEO: Venmo my real Venmo: Millie Tamarez–
[TAPE FADES UNDER]
EMMANUEL: You used your real Venmo?
MILLY VIDEO: This is real. Venmo me, and I will absolve you of the sins of your people. You're welcome.
The sketch was inspired by a thing that had happened to Milly a few years earlier that was actually pretty hurtful...it was right after George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, and she was on Facebook having a conversation with a friend about the racist encounters they’d been having in their own community...When another friend, a white guy, showed up to tell Milly that actually the racism she and her friend were talking about didn’t exist. Milly ended up unfriending him. But a few years later..in 2016...this guy popped back up.
MILLY: So then this guy reaches out to me and he's like, “Hey, I'm really sorry about what I said all those years ago. I've really reflected. And, you know, I thought, like I thought about what I said and like, I've been thinking about it ever since that day. And I understand now, and I'm really sorry. And like, I wonder if we can be friends.” And I was like, “Sure, like, yeah of course, like thank you for acknowledging that. Thank you for your apology.” And then he's like, “Yeah, if I'm ever in New York, we should grab a coffee.” I'm like, “Sure. Yeah. That- this is great. Thank you.” Then, like two days later, he was like, “Hey, so can I screenshot our conversation and post it on Facebook to like, you know, show people how to apologize and to like move past this?”
EMMANUEL: Wait what?
MILLY: And I was like, yeah- I was like, “What the fuck? No.” Like, that was...
Right then and there Milly realized something she’d never forget.
MILLY: That was like a light bulb or like, that was a switch of like, oh, you don’t even care that you hurt me...you don’t even care about, you just like want, you just want other people to see that you’re a good person. He wasn't apologizing for me, he was apologizing for him.
So this guy’s guilt was completely performative. Milly didn’t even respond. But she never forgot about it. And then a few months later, after Trump got elected, Milly made that video…
MILLY VIDEO: This is the equivalent of going to college and majoring in African American studies. Don't fuck this up more than you already have. Venmo my real Venmo: Millie Tamarez–
Milly figured that like a lot of her sketch comedy up until this point, a couple of her friends would watch it and like it on Facebook, and that would be it. She had no idea that this thing was gonna take on a life of its own.
EMMANUEL: So you made that video and then what happened?
MILLY: People actually sent me money! (laughing)
EMMANUEL: People sent you money?
MILLY: Which I was like- Yeah so first it was like my friend, he sent me like $5 or something and he's like, “Absolve me.” So then I, like, screenshotted it and then I posted it on, um, on Facebook and I'll write like a commentary of like, “This is my friend. He wants that sweet, sweet absolution. I'm gonna give it to him. Um, Eric,” you know and I said his last name, like, “I now absolve you from all sins of White people. You are now saved. I speak for all people of color when I say this. You are saved, you are free of guilt.” And then he's like, “Thank you.” And then all these people liked it. And then more people started sending in more and more. And then- and then what ended up happening is in the memo of the Venmo, like, transaction, they would confess, like, something racist they did, or like why they need to be forgiven.
People were sending Milly real Venmo payments....so Milly decided to keep the joke going. She set up a Tumblr page where she would post some of the best messages and payments she’d gotten...Milly showed me the page..it’s called the White Forgiveness Project. At first, it was people mainly in on the joke… there was this white woman who asked forgiveness for liking Wes Anderson movies...another person had taken part in a production of West Side Story where all the Puerto Rican parts were played by white people.
But, what I found really remarkable about this Tumblr...is that Milly didn’t just post what people had said, she also responded to them. Take this one Milly read for me.
MILLY: “Hey, Milly. It's me, John. So I studied abroad with this Black girl. We made out one night and got touchy and stuff. I thought things were gonna go all the way, so I started acting weird and distant and ultimately blew it on purpose, because I was positive, I would disappoint her sexually because I was sure she only had sex with Black guys, who had to have been better than me. I feel like I made three to seven racist calls on this one. I regret this and would like to be forgiven.”
EMMANUEL: that’s super dark.
MILLY: It’s dark.
MILLY: And then I wrote- I mean, I can, uh, read you what I wrote in response.
MILLY: Because I feel like, I still stand by this. “This Venmo comes from John. This makes me super sad on so many levels. Racism sucks and it's so stupid. Oh, John, don't you know that all dick is trash, regardless of race? Take comfort in knowing that no matter what you are and what you do, your dick is probably going to be garbage. And even if you honestly feel like your dick game is awesome, know that you are probably a bad person anyway, thus making you trash as well. My philosophy is liberating to both men and women. Please remove yourself from the shackles of thinking that your sexual experiences will be anything beyond straight waste. John, I speak for all women of co- and people of color when I say that you are now forgiven for the sin of forgetting that all dick is trash.”
One of the things I really admired about Milly and her White Forgiveness project was how in control of it she seemed. I had not felt that sense of control in my conversation with Blake at all. Listening back to it, I didn’t even recognize myself...it was the version of me that my white work colleagues swear does not come across as angry or frustrated in meetings when I actually kind of mean to be.
But Milly, she told me that eventually the White Forgiveness thing got to be too much. 5 dollars a pop to deal with white people’s weird racist missteps -- was not worth it. So she pretty much quit.
I had been convinced that milly had cracked the code…that she'd found a way to talk to white people about race that didn’t diminish her
But if even Milly had gotten burned out...was it even worth it? Was it just this impossible pointless task? I asked Milly about it.
MILLY: Sometimes I feel like people of color engage with white guilt, or like, put themselves in positions to dialogue with White people about these things. Because I feel like they- they feel like if they engage with it, it'll make more sense to them, and they'll get a better understanding. But like, it's not fucking worth it, dude. Like, a lot of this shit just doesn't make sense. You know, like—
MILLY: Even if they pay me, they're not paying me enough.
MILLY: And it’s not even that I come from like this super, my family- my family is pretty progressive. And we still have a lot of issues with like, misogyny and even colorism and all that stuff, you know? So it's not like I don't have work to do myself, you know? So why am I gonna do that for you? That is also still like supporting White supremacy. Of like, ignoring the work that I do and like my community needs to do, to prioritize you.
This past weekend while I was working on this story...I helped move my girlfriend down to Alabama where her family lives. At one point in our drive down..we stopped at a gas station just outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee.
And as soon as we pulled up...I took a look at the people around..and noticed this one big biker gang out front...and I realized that we were the only black people there. We were also the only ones wearing a mask…you didn’t have to read our license plate to know we weren’t from around there.
It could’ve been pretty fine...I could've just stayed by the car as we pumped gas...but I’d cut my hand while loading the car earlier...and I was bleeding fairly badly. I needed a band-aid.
And here was a gas station that probably had some. So I decided to go into the store. I walked in...and couldn’t find the band-aids at first. The clerk was busy looking at her phone...so I tried to get her attention so I could ask her for some help.
“Excuse me,” I said. The woman put down her phone...looked at me for a second...and was like “What do you want?” The question felt really loaded..and it felt like every person in the store was looking at me wondering the same thing. None of the white people in the store could imagine I was just there just for the reason I was there.
It was like they were too scared to hear the basic sentence I was saying which is like...I need a band-aid.
And back home in Brooklyn...it doesn’t feel that different.
It’s something I’ve talked about a lot with my black friends… which is that everywhere I go I'm having to maneuver around white anxiety. It feels like white people won’t just let us be.
The last person I talked to for this story...was a friend I’m gonna call Jonathan...and when he texted me saying he wanted to talk..i’m not even sure he knew I was working on this piece...but the story he ended up telling me… it felt like it encapsulated everything going through my mind when I’d talked to Milly, Noni, and so many others.
JONATHAN: How's everything with you this week? It's been a rough week, I imagine.
EMMANUEL: Yeah, it's just been, I mean, it's yeah. What do you think? (laughs)
JONATHAN: Yeah, exactly. We're all on the same page. (both laughing)
EMMANUEL: So. The reason we're talking, right, is because you sent me a text. (both laugh)
JONATHAN: Yeah, I did.
EMMANUEL: Um, let me, let me pull that up. Uh, well, okay. I don't know if this is a typo, but you were like, “This white fuel (laughing) I used to date in college, texted me asking about what she could do about the current climate.”
JONATHAN: Yeah, bro. My bad for the typo. It was definitely supposed to be White girl. Not white fuel. (laughing)
So here's what had happened...Jonathan had gotten a late night text from his white ex girlfriend.
JONATHAN: it's like, “I love you.” You know, “I hope you're doing okay. If there's anything that I could do, like let me know,” you know, and stuff like that. And when I first saw it, I was kinda like, taken aback because like, this was a girl that like, you know, I dated in college. And one of the reasons why we broke up is because her- both her parents were racists and they–
EMMANUEL: Oh woah.
JONATHAN: And they kicked her- Yeah, bro. They kicked her out of the house–
JONATHAN: For dating me, a Black man.
EMMANUEL: Holy shit.
JONATHAN: Yeah, bro. There's like history there. You feel me?
Jonathan’s ex ultimately chose her parents over him. And now, years later, after barely hearing from her, Jonathan’s wondering--why is she reaching out?
JONATHAN: It felt so strange. You know what I mean? Cause it's just like, you know, I don't know. Am I still the only Black person that y'all have in y’all lives? Like– (laughs)
Jonathan didn’t text her back right away. He wanted to let it all just sit for a bit. Weigh his options.
He’s a grad student...he doesn’t really have a job right now because of COVID. And that night, he’s online, scrolling through Twitter.
JONATHAN: I was going through social media and like, you know, you see tweets and like, you know, posts from like White people who are like, posting about the current climate and, you know, doing it in a very- like trying to absolve their sins type of way.
JONATHAN: And a lot of the times you see people like retweeting those things or reposting them and saying, open your wallet. So I thought to myself like, well, maybe I should ask her to open her wallet, like... (both laugh)
Jonathan was going to ask his ex for cash because he was annoyed and he kinda wanted to be a little rude … pay discomfort with discomfort. But, he still struggled to write the text... because a part of him worried about whether he’d come off mean, or if he’d ruin the movement for someone who was just trying to get involved. In the end though Jonathan sent her a couple texts about ways she could be a good ally, and he asked her for money...but in a nice way, not in an “open your wallet” kind of way.
EMMANUEL: Then, you texted me, right.
EMMANUEL: Saying, “This is too funny. Dawg, she said yes!” (both laugh)
JONATHAN: Well she did- she did say yes.
EMMANUEL: And how did she say yes?
JONATHAN: Um, well, she framed it in the position of like, you know, “I understand where you're coming from and I have dealt with the same thing.” Right? So like, she was like, “Oh honey, I feel bad. You know, recently- like maybe a year ago I got laid off of my job.” And then like, you know, “This woman that I- I know she offered me a job and doubled my previous salary. So now I'm good.” And I was like, “Oh, that must be nice.” I literally said, “Must be nice.” (both laugh). I was like, yo.. like, you're trying to like identify with my struggle. I didn't even get to go into detail about why I got laid off. Or what was going on. She kind of just like, well, you know, “I got laid off too, like a couple of years ago, but now I make double the salary.” Like… (both laughing) like what? Like, are you serious? (both laughing)
That laughter...like, the way we were laughing...it felt really cathartic to me. It’s the way I’ve laughed about Blake, and all the other interactions I’ve been hearing about for the last couple of weeks. It’s a dark laugh….it’s a sort of…“what are these white people doing” laugh. Anyways….after talking about her new job...Jonathan’s ex asked about the logistics of sending the money.
JONATHAN: So she, so she was like, “I would love to send you something like, um, I don't have Cash App or Venmo, but I have, uh, PayPal. So, send me your PayPal address and I’ll, you know, I’ll send you something, whatever I can.” So I dropped my PayPal to her. And then I didn't get any text messages after that.
EMMANUEL: Oh so she- that's when the conversation ended?
EMMANUEL: But, did she send you money?
JONATHAN: Nah, she hasn’t sent me anything yet.
EMMANUEL: Oh she hasn’t actually...I didn’t realize that. Wait, so she said yes, after all of that, like, back and forth, after all of that emotional labor you had to do, and then she still hasn't sent you your cash?
JONATHAN: Still hasn't sent me nothing. I don't- I don't wanna ask her like, “Hey, like, by the way, I didn't get your PayPal yet, like.” (laughing) You know what I’m saying? I don’t wanna do that.
I felt bad for Jonathan. His ex girlfriend had sent him an annoying text message...he’d wanted to be curt and cutting...but had ended up sending a pretty nice response, and then, she’d ghosted him. He’d wanted to think he was this totally different person from the Jonathan who’d rolled over when she’d given into her racist parents but instead he was like Charlie Brown with the football.
It made me think about who Jonathan was when I met him… a few years ago. We’d both graduated from predominantly white schools...and now, here we were...2 black men in New York City.
We’d bonded super quickly...in part because we felt the same way about the world. For four years we’d both been in a sea of white...but now we were out...and we were really only trying to make black friends. We left all our uncomfortable weird relationships with white people behind us.
So Jonathan’s ex reaching out to him...it felt like this relic of a relationship Jonathan used to have with white spaces...a relationship he’d worked hard to bury and forget had come back.
It occurred to me a lot of people I’d spoken to are probably very similar to Jonathan, and it’s probably what made them likely to get messages like these…. They’d had one relationship to a white space, and now even if they had a different one...the white people from their past lives kept trying to drag them back in.
EMMANUEL: I’m sure people of all classes saw my tweet, but like, at the same time I am getting kind of, like, a rarefied view of, like, black people, you know what I mean? Like, I’m mostly hearing from like middle class black folks who probably went to college and a lot of people are, you know, everyone seems to have the experiences of, like, navigating white spaces…
EMMANUEL: And I guess, I think that’s part of what makes this whole discussion I feel like hard, at least for me, or at least I think- I have to think about these interactions clearly, because it’s like... (sigh)
JONATHAN: There’s like a line you have to toe...
EMMANUEL: Yeah. Well cause, it’s like, we have a lot of privilege. (laughs)
EMMANUEL: You know what I mean? Like, uh, a lot...
JONATHAN: That’s what was so weird asking that girl for money. Cause it was like, yo, I can like, I have, like, parents who would, like, also give me money, you know what I mean? Like, I don’t really need your money. (laughs)
EMMANUEL: Yeah definitely. And, I don’t know, I think- I think a lot about those people on Twitter, right, who I think are very right and people I hear from a lot where it’s like, “Oh I can’t believe that like, you know, the Black experience that’s being, like, put out into media right now, in films, in journalism, whatever, is basically being put out by people who, you know, probably grew up black, went to college, dated a few white girls, and then decided to become black again when they left.”
JONATHAN: Oh my god (both laughing). Oh my god yo, don’t come at me like that, bro. But see, it’s not, it’s not, it’s not like, it’s not black and white like that, bro, like, you know what I’m saying? Like, like, I feel like a lot of it is, like, it’s survival tactics, yo. You have to like - like, the thing about humanity is we have to feel like we belong, and it’s like so painful to be excluded. So, you know, going through four years of exclusion, I don’t think anybody really wants to do that. So, you’ll kind of change yourself in ways that make you adhere to these social norms of, like you know, I guess, like, white middle class values, in ways that ultimately harm you but you don’t really feel the harm in the moment because you feel accepted in the moment, you feel me? Like...
EMMANUEL: Yeah. Yeah.
JONATHAN: You know, I mean it’s like, one of those things, it’s like a stress fracture, it keeps adding on and adding on, building up and building up, until a point where you kind of break. And then at that point, it’s like what’s next, like you know, what are you going to do now?
What are we gonna do now? I don’t think anybody really knows. Me included. But the people for whom that’s a question that is more and more pressing is white people - white people who seem to have no idea what to do, or what we want, even when the answer is very easy.
It’s funny...in the latter stages of our drive to Alabama this past weekend...as me and my girlfriend drove out of Tennessee, into Georgia, and then into Alabama....my girlfriend told me about this thing she’d learned recently...that during the Civil War, white people had all these conspiracy theories for why Black people wanted to be free. One of them that the reason we wanted to be free was to rape all white women and thus end whiteness. Not, you know...that we just wanted to be free. It hit me that white people are incapable of understanding that our freedom and our happiness might have to happen in spite of them...but it isn’t about them. The answer to what we want has been written over and over again...it’s been yelled from every Black mouth...in nearly every major street...in seemingly every major city in the world…
Stop killing us. That’s it. That’s the Tweet you should pay attention to.
Reply All is hosted by PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman. .
We’re produced by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin, Damiano Marchetti, Anna Foley, Jessica Yung, and me, Emmanuel Dzotsi. Our executive producer is Tim Howard. We’re mixed by Rick Kwan. Fact-checking by Michelle Harris. Our intern is Lisa Wang. Our theme music is by the Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. Additional music in this episode by the Mysterious Breakmaster Bylinder, Marianna Romano, and Tim Howard.
Special thanks this episode to Caitlyn Homol and Adaeze Okoli. And all the people who got in touch about the Venmo payments they’d received or sent. Additional editing help from Lydia Polgreen, Gabby Bulgarelli, and B.A. Parker.
Matt Lieber is a perfectly packed storage unit.
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