Dear White Friends…
When I first started getting all of your text messages and DMs and phone calls in the days after George Floyd’s death, I was incredibly touched, if also a little bit surprised. Each death or act of violence against a black person in this country (let alone the run of the mill daily injustices) feels to me, and people who look like me, like a relentless mental and emotional jabbing. But now, suddenly, here I was getting messages from so many of you — from high school friends I haven’t spoken to in years, writing clients, former colleagues — offering heartfelt messages of support and condolence. I could have gotten hung up on the ultimately futile question “Why now?”, but I was too focused on the many intense feelings bubbling inside me, among them: gratitude.
Friend, I have to tell you that there is something incredibly powerful about seeing my reality recognized and affirmed. You must have known this and that’s why you reached out. What is friendship, after all, than to have your specific travails witnessed, and acknowledged. For your friend to turn to you and say, “I see you. I’m here for you. I can’t take away your pain, but I can share it.” That’s easier and par for the course when it comes to the shared trials we’ve faced — the break ups and illnesses and work drama — but you and I, we lose that common ground when it comes to race. Unlike my black friends, you can’t share in this fraught experience with me in a way that’s borne of the shorthand of understanding and visceral connection — it’s a harder bridge to cross for us, though, we’ve proven, not impossible.
That’s why my favorite messages that you’ve sent over the last couple weeks have been the ones that are explicit and to the point, all those variations of, “It’s so hard to be a black person in this country and I’m sorry.” This simple recognition, direct and blunt, was an affirmation I didn’t even realize I was so hungry to hear from you. Even as I knew in my heart that you understood racism and generally condemned it, it was different to hear you express it so pointedly, so personally, and with such raw emotion. When you called me crying, when you sent messages so thick with genuine concern and sincerity it brought tears to my eyes, when you alluded, so bravely and honestly, to the guilt that you feel that you get to live a life that is inherently less fraught, less dangerous, less difficult than my own, for no other reason than that I have dark skin, I felt your concern like a current linking us.
I’ve been thinking a lot about race and friendship… not just in the last few days and weeks, though for sure that’s been the case, but over the last year since I’ve been writing my novel, We Are Not Like Them, an intimate portrait of a lifelong interracial friendship and the reckoning that happens in the aftermath of an incident of police violence — a story that feels all too timely today. At its heart, the book explores a vexing question that is on many people’s minds, especially these days: Is a true and close friendship between a black woman and a white woman possible in our racially polarized world?
It’s certainly very rare. Though not so much for me, actually. I have a lot of you — dear white friends. The reasons for this are to a degree a question of circumstances: I grew up in a predominantly white Maryland suburb where I was often the “token” black kid in girl scouts, in gifted and talented programs, and in ballet class. In these places and in school, I met you and we bonded for life. Fast forward to adulthood: the other place people make friends is at work. And for the last 17 years, I’ve worked as a book editor in an industry that’s an egregiously and aggressively — I would argue, obscenely — white space. Publishing is also an intimate industry where the people you work with are a close-knit community and I’ve made lasting friendships with white colleagues who I deeply admire and respect. But it also means turning the other cheek to the colleague who joked, “Well, you’re the whitest black person in the world.” Or to the executive who reminded us that we didn’t “want to compromise the value of our books” when we discussed pushing for more “diverse” authors.
To be a person of color — especially one in an all-white space — is to be constantly scanning the horizon for signs of danger… or disappointment. It is to be hyperaware at all times as to how you’re being perceived and vigilant about monitoring what people are saying and doing and thinking and hope the other shoe doesn’t drop in the form of an offhand offensive comment or revelation that would forever color the way I think of you. Only after this careful assessment can one take tentative steps towards friendship, as you and I have done. But even then the mental energy to build and maintain trust is a labor of love; for a black person to make a white friend is to take a specific risk and a leap of faith. These are all very real factors that make entering into an interracial friendship like we have feel scary and fraught. It’s exactly why friendships like ours are so rare. We’ve had to be brave with each other in very specific ways and we’ve had to stake our friendship on a willingness and ability to “go there.” Meaning, true intimacy is impossible without the subject of race being fully and completely on the table. There can be no room for eggshells in our friendship, or elephants; they’d take up too much space between us. Your messages to me, warm, brave and blunt, are a testament to your willingness to engage in hard truths about our experiences and a reminder of the importance of that. That was always true, but it is the case now more than ever.
So, in that spirit, and in this strange, surreal, moment where it feels to me that we’re in one of those lay-our-souls-bare, type crossroads, I wanted to share some confessions.
* I wish you had other black friends. As I was reading all your heartfelt messages of support, I thought, “Oh my gosh, how exhausting to have to write to every black friend in your life,” but then I realized, I may well be your only black friend. And it just got me thinking, I love you, but I’m tired of the role of “the black friend,” too. When I look around and I’m the only brown face at your wedding, or your milestone birthday extravaganza, or your book launch party, it makes me wonder how that came to be? I wonder if you’ve ever had a black person to your home besides me? I wonder if you’ve ever been in an all-black space and, if so, how that made you feel? We live in a highly segregated society for sure, so it takes more effort for you to seek out black friends, but I want you to think about how you could branch out into other spaces and do the work of making those connections. And yes, that work is going to fall to you since, for all the reasons I just mentioned, it’s harder for a black person to put themselves out there for friendship in the same way — years of oppression would give anyone some trust issues. Don’t let that be an excuse not to try to connect with more people who look like me. Think about who you welcome into your world and where you could venture out of your comfort zone to meet other people. It can’t be that you haven’t been given the opportunity to connect with other brown people (we’re everywhere!)… So, perhaps it’s a matter of trying harder. Would you be willing to do so? Will you make sure that your kids have brown friends, too? And will you do so sincerely because you know it would enrich your life and your kids, not just because it would signal your racial virtue. You have no idea what it would mean to me if your social circles were generally more inclusive.
* I don’t want you to think I’m special/exceptional and that’s why we’re friends. When we were little girls writing in chalk on the blacktop, I had already begun to internalize a message required of so many minorities: prove to them that you deserve to be welcomed here, in this room, in this career, in this relationship. Above all, show yourself to be “one of the good ones.” I don’t know if I ever told you the story of how my parents had been close friends with a white couple for some years, when, at dinner one day the husband said, “John, Sallie, we don’t even think of you as black people.” And then the wife chimed in with, “You’re just like us, with the same good values.” I’ve lost track of the times I’ve heard a version of, “you’re not *really* black. Which is still less than the times I’ve heard a version of “you’re pretty… for a black girl.” You know how much these comments irk and hurt me. And I want to be confident deep in my bones that our friendship isn’t based on the fact that you think I’m somehow “exceptional” or different from “other black people” in some way. And I don’t want our relationship to have been forged “despite” my blackness. (Or solely because of my blackness either, for that matter.) I don’t want us to buy into the myth of the acceptable black person, the one “who’s just like you,” because it belies a simple truth: No matter what superficially “acceptable” trappings I appear to have, the inescapable reality is, I will always have the “wrong” color of skin in our society, and I will always belong to a community of people who are seen as inferior and are oppressed, demeaned and killed. That comes with a harsh toll, practically and emotionally, for every black person in America.
* I worry you’re not fighting hard enough when I’m not around. Sometimes, I imagine you at Thanksgiving dinner, or having a reunion with your sorority sisters, or sitting in a work meeting and letting all manner of offensive comments slide in the name of keeping the peace. I can’t help but to secretly wonder if your brother-in-law or cousins in Nebraska harbor hate towards me; if your parents or grandparents were standing in the crowds smiling at a lynching or spitting on black kids trying to integrate schools. I think about how many times you may have heard the N word, or listened to someone vent about lazy animals or welfare queens or argue that black people are just more violent or not as smart. Or maybe the comments or opinions are more subtle, but just as insidious… “I would never date a black guy.” Or, “This woman at work is so ghetto, I don’t even know why they hired her. She doesn’t fit in.” I wonder how many times you’ve overlooked a comment or an insult that had I been in the room with you would not have been uttered or would have embarrassed you if it had. My wish is that, if you haven’t done so in the past, you start now, calling people out — even if it’s hard. Even if it’s uncomfortable. Even if it costs you something, an awkward moment or even a relationship. I want to be confident that wherever you are — eating pie with your dad, having a glass of wine with your Amy Cooper-esque friend — that you are willing to speak up and unequivocally decide not to accept bigotry with a zero tolerance policy. I want you to imagine me, with you, right at that table and think, “I will not be able to look Christine in the eye if I let this go.”
* I’m scared that I haven’t shared enough. I feel close to you, but part of me does worry that perhaps I’ve shied away from the difficult parts sometimes. To avoid being the girl who’s “always talking about race,” maybe I’ve limited or edited my experience. Maybe I haven’t opened up enough about my challenges as a black woman. Or maybe you haven’t probed enough? I don’t know, but what I do know to be true is these conversations must be had and must be ongoing with us. Part of being intimate with someone is that they see and understand much of your experience. That’s not easy when it comes to us because there will be many parts of my experience you can never understand – but it means a lot when you try to do so. I know sometimes fear can hold people back, too. If there’s one thing I find utterly tiresome, though, it’s when white people hedge and say they are “too nervous to talk about race” — it feels like an easy out to avoid discomfort and sets up a defensive position and a dynamic where I have to comfort and reassure you before I can talk about the truth of my life or just avoid saying anything all together since you’ve already warned me it’s uncomfortable for you. In our true friendship, we can’t ever be afraid to speak… or listen. If we can discuss the PH balances of our vaginas at length, then surely we can keep tackling conversations about race.
* I worry that you think our friendship itself is enough: It isn’t. I need your friendship (your love and support), now more than ever, yes. You’ve been there for me through heartbreak and job negotiations and ill-advised hair styles. But there’s something greater at stake, right here, right now, in summer 2020. I keep thinking about this phrase: there’s nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come. There’s something exciting and electric and hopeful about this moment — you feel it, I feel it. We don’t want to lose it. We can’t afford to lose it. So, I need you fighting for change. I need you to stand by me — yes, you always have — but even more, I need you to stand up for me now. What does that look like, you may be wondering. It looks like getting out of your comfort zone to connect with more people of color, and talking to your white friends and family, the ones who may have never talked about race before, or maybe even thought about it — it means doing the uncomfortable work of forcing the issue with them. It involves closely examining who else is in your social circle and why. It means action: and not just giving money, though that’s important, too, if you can, obviously, but also confronting all the ways that your life might be made easier — getting a loan, a house, having access to a better school/education, cleaner air, the full complex and imbedded system of white supremacist policies that has made all of that so — and working to fix it. Then it means engaging at the local level — your school board, your county council — to change those policies. All of this is going to make you feel uncomfortable, and guilty, and maybe even exhausted, at times. You already have so much on your plate — how will you have time to add racial justice crusader to your list? But if there’s one thing I know and love about you it is that you are fierce and resilient and passionate and curious and have always believed in the strength of your convictions. You understand deeply, fundamentally, how high the stakes are and that we can’t afford complacency any longer. You, of all people, understand that this battle is — and it is a battle – is important on a moral level, but also a very personal one: because you know me, because you love me, because you want the world to be better for people who look like me. What you and I know to be true is that it is possible. What you and I can do is to continue to be a beacon of love and connection in this world. Our friendship can help light the way forward.
I love you. And I’m counting on you.
(Illustration by Joelle Avelino for Cup of Jo.)