Tuesday, August 5, 2014

My Best Friend is White: On the Joys and Perils of Interracial Friendship

One of my best friends is white. We met in fourth grade and have remained generally present in each other's lives ever since. It's going on thirteen years of friendship. And yet, it wasn't until last night that we had our first real conversation about race.

It's not that it never came up. But it was always delicately handled by both of us. I'd make a quip about a micro-aggression I experienced or comment on something happening in the news and she'd agree it was bad and we'd leave it at that. We'd go to Black movies and tiptoe around it. We'd go to white movies and ignore it. She'd talk about the white guys she was seeing and I'd talk about the Black guys I was seeing and we'd ignore it.

Race has been the elephant in the room for years.

On my end we didn't talk about race because I knew she wouldn't understand and I wanted to preserve the fragile egg shell we were walking on. I figured she wouldn't understand or respect my experiences and so I tried to downplay them. I'd mention something every once in awhile hoping and waiting for some magical moment of recognition. The moment she'd just get it! She'd get the concept of white privilege! She'd understand the unique situations Black Americans are in! She'd understand my frustration. And we'd suddenly have a new-found layer of understanding between us. But that moment never came.

I never watched Django because I was annoyed by what I felt was a Hollywood dramatization of slavery. A feel good movie for whites who would enjoy seeing a Black man kill racists with impunity (as if slavery regularly allowed for moral retribution). But my friend went to see it. I felt like she felt that she was bridging the gap we both knew existed by seeing the movie. She talked about how it was so horrible to watch and how she couldn't make it to the end. She had to walk out. She told me she "hated being white" for weeks.

I didn't know what to say. White guilt isn't anything that can turn into a purposeful conversation. So I nodded  as if her "hating being white" was an acceptable peace treaty and let it go. And then vented to my Black friends about it later.

But the lowest moment was when I refused to contact her for months. It was after Trayvon Martin was murdered. For me this was a trying time. I was heartbroken. My heartbreak was compounded by the knowledge that it occurred because he was a young Black male. I was a staff writer for my college newspaper and I ended up writing a very intense call to action about the murder. I felt so angry but simultaneously passionate.

Since I was writing for a majority white audience my newspaper article was the significantly toned down version of me. I said things like "we all need to stop stereotyping each other" as if it was just as likely for a Black adult to shoot down a white teenager as vice versa. I gave a copy of the article to my friend and asked her to read it. I thought to myself: this is the moment! This is when we'll finally talk about race and understand each other! This tragedy will bring us closer together!

But her response was cold and callous. She told me the media was making it about race. He died because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time and it was wrong and it was murder. But it wasn't racism. Why was I making it about race?

This is why when white people say "my best friend is Black" it means nothing. What they mean is that there's a Black person who they occasionally go out with and joke around with. They may have been roommates with a Black person. They could have even grown up with a Black person. But that doesn't mean that they understand racism or white privilege. Or even want to.

Meanwhile that same "Black friend" has consistently dealt with micro-aggressions and a lack of empathy and understanding from that same white friend who believes there's no problems.

For me Trayvon Martin was a crossroads. I didn't understand how we could have been friends for so long and she not understand such a fundamental aspect of my existence. I didn't get why she didn't get that Black people's lives are continually in danger due to racism. All over the country. I didn't understand how white privilege could be so blinding. It got to the point where I felt she was purposely being an un-supportive friend and for awhile I had to cut ties.

Genuine friendships between white and Black people are so difficult. They require an openness that doesn't necessarily need to exist within friends of the same race. It requires a modicum of trust that isn't necessary in intra-racial friendships because the white friend will have to believe in experiences that they've never personally had.

And if the white person doesn't enter the friendship as an anti-racist there will never be a magic, calm moment where racial understanding occurs. There will never be a single event that will open a white person's eyes to racism. It won't be an intellectual experience. They won't learn from a sociology class or by you linking them to news articles.

This understanding will come from fire. It will be angry and uncomfortable. It will be indignant and messy. It might end the friendship but it also might make it stronger. But if this moment never occurs a person of color can never have a truly two-way relationship rid of micro-aggressions.

Realizing the extent of white privilege is not a comfortable and warm experience for a white person. But until they have that realization a friendship can never be comfortable or warm for a person of color.

My white friend and I had a real conversation last night. All spurred by the new James Brown biopic. We normally pretend to ignore race when we see Black movies together but something was different about last night. I made an off-handed remark about how so much of what James Brown experienced fifty years ago still holds true today and before I knew it we were both angry and shouting.

She finally said how she really felt:

"Why do you talk about race so much?" It was amazing to me that she felt like that because I had always bit my tongue and talked about race in a far more benign way than I did with my Black friends and my family.

"Why do you act like you've had such a hard life? You just graduated from college! I was there!" My educational privilege doesn't negate the anti-Blackness I've faced. Hell, the anti-Blackness I faced on my journey to getting that degree!

"Racism was so much worse back in the day. Racism doesn't impact your opportunities. You've had the same opportunities as me." I've had the same outcome. But on the basis of race alone not the same opportunities.

And then we got to the real crux of the issue: "I feel like you think I'm some racist person and I'm not! I might be ignorant about some things but I'm not racist! You act like I've had a perfect life because I'm white and I haven't!"

My anger dissolved.

Friendship is accountability. But friendship is also grace and forgiveness.

This was it. This was the moment we had been subconsciously waiting for all these years. We had substituted this transparency about race all these years with other things. She had substituted it with white guilt and the occasional self-aggrandizing comment about whites. I had substituted it with pretending to ignore micro-aggressions and biting my tongue.

But here we were in our natural state. I was Black and angry about white supremacy and her participation in it. She was white and angry about the realization that I refuse to pretend like we're the same and a misunderstanding of what racism is.

It was our breakthrough.

We talked it out. I felt like the workshop leader of one of those anti-racism seminars I would sit in during college. I said that white privilege doesn't mean every white person has a perfect life. It doesn't negate other types of oppression. I told her that white privilege is hard to see and so it's normal for a white person to be ignorant about a lot of things.

Is my friend racist? In a sense. But most white people are. Analogously, most Black people have internalized racism. It doesn't necessarily make everybody a bad person. It just makes them a product of a white supremacist culture. The idea is to not end there but to take it as an impetus to learn more and do better.

I could have said all of this stuff before last night. But honestly, it would not have made a difference had it not been coupled with anger, confusion, and disillusionment. It is those raw emotions that put both people in the place to be totally honest and open.

I'm glad that last night happened. I'm glad that after all these years we were finally able to honestly discuss race. I'm glad that we trusted and loved each other enough to put our all into the conversation. I'm glad she trusted me not to shame her for what she didn't know. And I'm glad she trusted me enough to accept my experiences as a Black American.

Our friendship has taught me so much about race-relations. It's taught me a lot about myself. It's taught me to never grow disillusioned by racism. To never fully retreat into my own world where I refuse to believe in the transformative power of talking things through.

Because I'm a blogger and a former staff writer occasionally I'll get messages online and in person from white people (of all ages and backgrounds) who thank me for educating them about race. Even though there's not a single piece I've ever written with that as a primary goal. I realize that it's not that I specifically educated them about race. It's that they were open to learning about white privilege and stumbling across my writing served as a kind of tangible jump-start towards that goal.

But I actually spoke with the intention to educate last night. Something I would not have done if she wasn't my best friend. There's only a few white people I consider as friends and they're all solidly educated about anti-racism. While I'm sure I'm claimed by a lot of white people as their "Black friend" even if we've only shared only one or two sentences those aren't two-way relationships.

I don't have the energy or the particular inclination to teach people to respect my experiences and life. But I met my best friend at such a tender age. And I've loved her ever since in spite of our differences. And I'm glad that I could expend the energy to have the talk we did last night.

In the end she apologized. She apologized for not respecting my experiences and not taking it upon herself to learn about white privilege and about race. Not only that but she promised to actively do better. She said "give me some time but I'm going to do better!"

That's all I've ever wanted to hear.

We ended our conversation with a long hug. I told her: "You're going to be my best friend forever. No matter what."

And I mean it.

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  4. This was a beautifully written and very enlightening article. Thanks.

  5. Thank you. I'm white. My best friend is black. I'm god mother to her amazing children. I feel like I've failed them In the past, despite my best efforts. In this age when so much information is available online it's still hard to find a guide on how to be a good "white best friend." Thank you for your heart felt story. Your friend is lucky to have you in her life. And I feel lucky to have the found this article. Thank you for writing

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