The mask covers my thoughts. — Mike Henry

What I Learned About Race And Apologies From LinkedIn.

What happens when we tell our truth?

Michael Henry
Published in
5 min readJun 11, 2020

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I didn’t realize a simple LinkedIn connection request would reveal a scar in me not healed. A sort of identity crisis. If I’m honest, I have never been 100% authentic in the spaces I have occupied. I feel like I need to “adjust” what I believe and think to be accepted. Most black people, I know, have to wear different masks to survive. As a dad, son, husband, and friend, I feel like myself, but work and church are different stories. My job as an associate pastor of a majority white church requires me to wear my “I’m happy to see you” mask. At work, my “always happy and professional” mask ensures I’m never labeled the angry black guy. I have to admit this is draining.

I have never had this many discussions about race with anyone, especially with white people, then right now. The 2020 protest surprised everyone. This time in history feels like the Super Bowl of political activism. Imagine black plight being dinner-time conversation. These are indeed unusual times. But this is nothing new to me. I’ve advocated, in my own way, against poverty in the black community for several years. I was born in the late ’70s, but I guess this was how the 1960s felt after Dr. King's death. I’ve spoken to my white senior co-pastors to help them see this moment as necessary. I had an hour-long talk with a congressperson about all that’s happening. I’ve even led a conference call of politically-minded Christians for over an hour.

The Perfect Storm

The brutal murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among others, have our undivided attention. Mix in COVID-19, millions out of work, and pent-up frustration, and you have a recipe for a riot. And I suspect this righteous anger will carry over to the workplace. Once offices reopen, I’m convinced that the office culture will never be the same again.

Your work buddies watched the same images of fighting, looting, and burning as you. And opinions and animosity run deep on all sides. Once the pendulum swings towards saying everything on your mind, people can get hurt.

It’s already happening. For example, my client, who is white, spent an hour speaking with a black potential sales prospect. After the phone call, my client sent a typical LinkedIn request — nothing out of the ordinary. What you are about to read is a part of the return message.

“You pretending to really give a fuck about the lives of Black Americans. Look at your board… I’m sure less than 10% of your leadership is Black. So STFU on acting like you care. Because you don’t. For if you reached out to me or others like me to assist. I am extremely talented…”

Shocked wouldn’t be a strong enough word to describe my client. We sit in silence for what seemed like several minutes, trying to make sense of this tirade. My client was not anticipating this response. According to her, the phone call was a respectful, typical sales call. Let’s be clear; no one deserves to get this type of vulgar response. It’s mean-spirited, and that isn’t very nice (and I do not tolerate it). How could he blow up like this from a benign connection request?

I tried to wrap my head around it. We spent the better part of a few hours processing what happened. And I pray that the stain of stereotype doesn’t infuse the fabric of her soul. She told me about this because I’m black, I assume. But when she asked my thoughts — I held back.

Through My Lens

Yet in my head, I hear jazz giant Gil Scott-Heron’s “Pieces of a Man,” painting a picture of the black male psyche. And the 124-year-old poem called “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Laurence Dunbar. Or Dave Chappelle’s skit with the punchline that goes, “when keeping it real goes wrong.” Ralph Ellison’s book, Invisible Man, tackles the unseen black existence in his world.

Outside of Christian generalities, I keep my real thoughts to myself. Partly because I suspected my thoughts would go over her head — and I didn’t want her to invalidate them. The only answer I could think of that would help was to apologize vicariously on behalf of “all black people.” She never asked for that, nor did she expect it, but I felt like it was… my duty. It hit me like a freight train; why do I need to have an answer?

My desire to apologize is another vicious legacy of racism. When my client called me for my opinion, his curse-filled outburst of hate became… my problem? How? At that moment, I made a life-altering decision. I will no longer apologize for another person’s actions, behaviors, or language.

My Decision

That decision freed me on a beautiful summer afternoon in June as I sipped my cold lemonade.

First, his mindset is his alone — I don’t know him or his story. His cathartic session of throwing digital stones was his own alone. Whether he was crying out for help or not, I was not in his brain. And no rational person can expect me to answer for his outburst of stupidity. And even though it feels like a universal black burden — our moral compasses are not linked. Once and for all, black people do not have to atone for another black person’s actions. You are free to be selfish with your apologies. You’re welcome.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tHeuS305qdw

The protest put pain on the forefront of everyone's mind. “Stop making us look bad,” yelled one black protestor to a white looter. The demonstrators did not want the damage and looting to reflect on black people. And I understand that sentiment — no one likes to get blamed. But the idea that an entire community can look bad due to another black person's actions is silly. Lumping black people together perpetuates stereotypes, and we are not a monolith.

I will not apologize on behalf of other black people’s actions. I’m not responsible for another person’s behavior. My client may never understand my real thoughts, and I’m at peace with that decision. Not being forthcoming with my own thoughts was my own silent protest, in my own way. I can’t decipher black folks “acting up.” I’m free.

But I can offer a listening ear and empathize with grief. I will also treat everyone as Jesus commanded. But until the day comes where I can be “judged by the content of my character,” I’ll keep my masks ready.

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Michael Henry
AfroSapiophile

Writer + Creative + Family Guy. At the moment, I’m in the moment. — Mike Henry