Posted on December 15, 2020

In Liberal San Francisco, White Responses to George Floyd’s Killing Proved Revealing

George McCalman, Yahoo! News, December 5, 2020

In the days that followed George Floyd’s May 25 killing while in police custody in Minneapolis, the emails, texts and phone messages from white people started piling up.

“Do you have the bandwidth for a call? I need the collective healing,” one acquaintance in San Francisco wrote.

“Tell me three things I can do other than the obvious,” another told me in a text.

“I’m embarrassed I haven’t been a better ally and friend to you,” a third message read.

In real time, I was observing my white contemporaries as they awakened to their individual roles in creating and maintaining a society that they suddenly realized was corrupt and rotting at the root. Dripping in shame and guilt, the outpouring had a connective refrain: the need for my Black validation.

My feelings about Floyd’s killing veered wildly from anger to resignation, but this simultaneous phenomenon — the dozens of daily messages from white people — clouded my own ability to process the news.

More horribly, I soon learned that I wasn’t the only one on the receiving end of those awkward pleas for absolution. Black friends all over the world were receiving the same messages, delivered in the same manner, from people far and wide.


Over the weeks that followed, I endured a series of challenging and painful exchanges, some of which spelled the end to those relationships. I made a conscious decision that I wouldn’t be dismissive of the emotional toll. It would have been easier for me to view it through the prism of anger alone, but I wanted to honor the human price, not just the racial one, so I decided to document it.

I started with some of the phrases that had triggered me the most — “Here if you ever want to talk” and “I’m just here to listen” — and began memorializing them as paintings.


As I was hanging the show in September at San Francisco’s Perish_ables gallery, I saw the flaw in my presentation: I would be displaying only a fraction of the suffocating messages I’d received since Floyd’s death. {snip}

I’d also volunteered to be a docent during the run of the show, which meant recounting the stories behind the pieces week after week. My excitement at having a show open during the pandemic soon began to wear off, and retelling the personal stories involving some of my closest associates wasn’t easy.


To my surprise, the show sold out, and I was fascinated to learn who was purchasing the pieces. It’s not easy work to stare at, after all. I asked some of the white patrons why they were buying the paintings. “Because I need the reminder,” one woman said. “My husband definitely does. But I need it too.”