PERSONAL ESSAY

Our group chat is a sacred space to talk openly about being Black in America

It's where four of us speak without the white gaze or conservative Black glare beating down on our conversations

By Michelle Tyrene Johnson

Published April 9, 2022 7:30PM (EDT)

A woman holding a smart phone in her hand, typing a message. (Getty Images/fizkes)
A woman holding a smart phone in her hand, typing a message. (Getty Images/fizkes)

A computer geek probably could have figured out a faster way to get to our first communication with one another on Facebook's Messenger, but I just went the old-school route.

I used my finger to scroll back on my phone. And I scrolled. And scrolled. And scrolled some more. It took so long that I had to keep putting the phone down to do other things. But after about 45 minutes, I finally got to that first message in a private conversation between four Black Facebook friends — two women, two men — that started in early fall 2018 and has never stopped.

We are four people who live in four different cities across more than one time zone and have four different careers in various industries; four friends who have never been in the same city at the same time, let alone in the same room together. Four friends who, through a weird alchemy of Facebook connections, became cyber friends and cultural soulmates.

Whether you call it a secret society, a backchannel, a mastermind group, a hivemind or a book club where we don't read books, we just consider it a sacred space to talk openly about being Black in America.

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It's a conversational touchstone without veils or filters, rules or conventions. Our hundreds of collective spontaneous contributions to this private thread probably crossed the 1,000th interaction mark a long time ago. While we do a minimal amount of off-topic bonding — happy birthdays and holiday wishes, news about moves, job changes, family and travel, the funny or the trivial — it's rare. Small talk is not our norm. We don't disconnect long enough to need to reconnect. This is a place where we do the call-and-response of analysis, links to articles, funny gifs and vulnerable check-ins, where we share the occasional anger when there is yet another Black attack on the public highway we're always traveling down in our regular, unconnected lives.

None of us are in this conversation because of a lack of people in our worlds we can talk to. It's not that.

Social media is responsible for a lot of good, but it's also responsible for a lot of harm. Our four-person Illuminati (minus the global domination, cryptocurrency wealth and superhero powers) has saved us over and over again as we speak without the white gaze or conservative Black glare beating down on our conversations. The four of us are professionals in our mid-40s to late 50s and are absurdly busy in the other areas of our lives. None of us are in this conversation because of a lack of people in our worlds we can talk to. It's not that. We range from "it's complicated" to long-time marriage, from no kids to small kids to grown kids, with tons of family, friends, colleagues and memberships in various communities. Personally, I have several close friends, including a best friend of 21 years with whom I have yet to find a topic we can't talk about or a burden we can't share.

So we four Facebook amigos don't come together because of missing pieces in our lives. We come together to have a dedicated space and place to acknowledge and explore ongoing racial trauma in ways that leave us each feeling seen, heard and nourished.

In the more than three and a half years since our thread first started, there have been weeks when not a word is shared between us. But we live in America, where there is an incessant drizzle — sometimes an avalanche — of events and incidents that claw at our psyches. And that's just the societal issues. That doesn't count our collective frustrations about personal issues of race in our lives, such as workplace interactions with peers and supervisors, events within our families (because being Black doesn't mean that you only have Black family members or that all your Black family members are right in the head) and public interactions that have distinct overlays of racial bias.

It's not that any of us think every unpleasant and challenging interaction is about race. Nope. Not at all. But just like a person with bad allergies can usually tell the difference between an allergic reaction and coming down with a cold, Black people who interact with white people daily usually know the difference too.

The most recent gathering in our cyber secret lounge was over our simultaneous frustration with all the bootleg think pieces about the slapping incident between Will Smith and Chris Rock. I'm not going to revisit our conversations about that. It exhausts me to even type out their names. But our exchange was yet the latest example of how grateful I am to know that if I send a bucket down this particular well, it's going to come up with fresh water. It's not that we all think alike. We don't. But on this, we had the same issue of being tired of seeing so many people, most of them white, have these takes on the incident that lacked nuance, cultural competency or understanding of the gender dynamics and issues in the Black community. It wasn't that any of the four of us remotely thought Will was justified in slapping Chris. We were just all sick of seeing people rushing to have more commentary about the Black people at the Oscars than we've seen with talk about the deaths of Oscar Grant through Daunte Wright put together. It's not that we didn't get why people wanted to talk, joke and meme this to death. We were just exhausted. Exhausted over how, once again, unless literally charged with a hate crime, whiteness gets to have the luxury of having individual bad actors while Black people have to debate how to shift the burdens on our collective backs when any Black person does any bad thing.

Our foursome has provided an organic source of self-care that doesn't require maintenance but maintains each of us during some of the most trying of times to be Black in America.

Since fall 2018, our foursome has provided an organic source of self-care that doesn't require maintenance but maintains each of us during some of the most trying of times to be Black in America. And my point isn't that these times compare to slavery or the legalized segregation of Jim Crow. Historically, as well as on a global scale, we four friends live with a measure of wealth and privilege that our great-great-grandparents could never have envisioned for us. Not that any of us are wealthy. But collectively, we're educated and have good jobs. However, for Black Americans, those privileges come with a different set of problems. Because with those advantages, we're still dealing with the stereotypes and biases and prejudices and hypocrisy and glorious, never-ending double standards that have always impacted Black people in America. We don't get a pass because we speak the King's English well or don't have one mark on a criminal record between us or any of the other Black respectability measurements we're constantly expected to stay ahead of.

While I have the blessing of my three compatriots to write this, I promised that I would not name them, give identifiable details or quote from our thread. All three gave me immediate and warm support. Which didn't surprise me. They trust me, as I trust them. And that battle-weary trust and camaraderie sustains us.

I offered up those conditions of anonymity and they agreed, because we all know the cost — actually, the price — Black people have to pay for being too honest about race in public spaces. Depending on where we work or what we do, it can threaten our livelihoods. That's not new. That's why when certain people talk of cancel culture, we note the irony of how we Black people have always had to deal with being "canceled" the second we get too outspoken or real or combative or unrelenting or just speak too much. Or, as I said years ago, Back people are evaluated in the workplace on two things — the actual job we're hired to do and how we make the white people in the room feel. In modern times, that room extends to social media.

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So yes, accidentally we created a place where we can lay our burdens down and take a rest. Or lay burdens down where we can say all the things we can't say at work, or in our racially mixed communities, or even on our own Facebook posts where we have to worry about the sensibilities and sensitivities of people irritated and threatened by Black opinions that don't center them, cater to them and allow them to feel like good white people who are better than the bad white people.

I was reminded that I was the one who brought the four of us together privately after we all had a like-minded but nuanced approach to a post about a Black piece of entertainment that was all the rage at the time. Little did I know the conversation would never stop as we each needed a safe place to navigate, validate, unpack, console, counsel, laugh, grieve and breathe together through the constant assaults on our peace. The peace we each had to find during the big societal events like the increase in hate crimes and hateful speech under the Trump presidency, the 2020 presidential campaign, the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor protests, police shootings, the perceptions of those shootings and how COVID was disproportionately impacting the Black community. We even have had to find peace in the moments of historic victory because they were tinged with unwarranted attacks, hypocrisy and gaslighting.

The most important thing I love about our fabulous four is that we did remote communication before remote was cool or necessary. Yet, we've never Zoomed or Facetimed or arranged even to be on at the same time to exchange messages. In addition to my job, I'm a playwright, and the closest we've ever come to an organized meeting is when two of my three cohorts, separately, in two different cities at two different times, went to see two different plays of mine. Our norm is someone making a comment in the middle of the night or the middle of the day, and as work and family and other obligations allow, we all respond when we can. The baton is never dropped because the race is never over.

No matter how tough the conversations get, there has always been an understanding that ego never enters the room.

In all organizations, institutions, groups and even families there are unspoken contracts. As I thought about what makes our bond through a conversational thread so strong, it's because it's not trying to be. Yet it is. And no matter how tough the conversations get, there has always been an understanding that ego never enters the room. Grace and a feeling of safety with one another is the default. In other words, the opposite of the social media site that brought us together — where ego dominates so many conversations, even with people you agree with, and you find that the more people there are commenting on a substantive post, the less grace and safety there is in the discussion.

I know that if I had this little cabal on day one of joining Facebook, I would have gotten into far fewer arguments and been far less combative and antagonistic with others on the issue of race. I would have walked away from those conversations and walked into our thread.

While there may come a day when on conversation ends, it will be because Mark Zuckerberg burns Facebook to the ground. It won't be because in our lifetimes America will magically have a reckoning on the issue of race and heal itself. And it certainly won't be because our village of four stops needing one another, stops needing sacred space.

So, dear Black people, if you don't have a four-pack like mine, I heartily suggest creating one. Trust me, your soul will thank you — and the rest of your world will be better for it, too. 


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Michelle Tyrene Johnson

Michelle Tyrene Johnson is a Kansas bred, Missouri fed, Louisville, Kentucky-based radio talk show producer, playwright and writer.

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