“I’m against racism. Heck, I have black friends.”
She proceeds to list four or five names before including me at the end. The argument inevitably ends this way. They tack me on at the end of their list and dare me to take back whatever I’ve lobbed their way as if it will ruin our non-existent relationship. It would be funny if it wasn’t so common, but as it stands, even my morbid humor can’t find the punchline.
“I’m not your friend.”
My sentence hits her in slow motion as her face scrunches up and her eyes water. Trying to get her point across by making it personal. We’re sitting in the front office, and everyone else has gone to lunch.
“Well, I thought we were friends.”
“What do we talk about?”
The wind is whipping in my chest, heart pounding in my ears, but I’m calm on the surface. I wasn’t having it. She studies me warily for a moment.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, what have we talked about in the past few months that wasn’t a work project?”
She wipes at her eyes, juts her chin out a bit, and her face darkens a tad.
“I don’t know, Miyah. We talk about cats, our weekends, music, a lot of things.”
Giving a small, soft smile, I prod. “So, small talk?”
She sighs, “Yes, small talk and other things.” She pauses for a moment then adds “like friends do.”
I study her face. She genuinely thought we were friends, and I was suddenly too tired to let her keep pretending. I was tired of talking in circles. Tired of being used to shield criticism. Tired.
Leaning forward a bit, I say “Can I talk with you honestly for a moment?”
When she nods, I continue “I hate small talk. I do it because I have to, but it’s really not my favorite. I like intense, challenging conversations. Like scraping your soul conversations. If we were friends, it’d be safe for me to have those types of talks with you. I would be able to tell you hard things, but we’re not.” I lean back in my chair. “So, I don’t.”
Her expression has not changed. Her mouth is slightly parted, curling into sorrow, but her eyes hold a hint of anger mingled with the tears. She scoffs.
“How am I unsafe?”
That conversation happened in 2015 with a colleague, and unfortunately, I’ve had way too many conversations about race before and since that end with the same exhausted argument. The second someone tells me “but I have black friends”, I immediately know they’re counting me among that number. It sucks because I know we’re not. We’re colleagues. We’re classmates. We’re in a weird friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend loop. We’re strangers who know each other’s names, titles, and a few mundane details. We’re acquaintances.
This argument reduces friendship to nothing more than a show, a performance. Uses living, breathing humans as points you can rack up to prove you’re #woke. It’s ridiculous and false and insulting. It’s also a dead giveaway that you don’t have BIPOC friends, because if you did, one of them would have called you out on it a long time ago. Trust.
Those of you who are hosting book clubs on White Fragility right now have never read (and probably can’t pronounce) Ikhide Ikheloa, Adaobi Nwaubani, Roland Rugero, W. E. B. Dubois, Gilberto Jerónimo Mateo, Clementina Suarez, Ijeoma Oluo, Audre Lorde, or countless others. You’re not poring over the 1619 project (which I cannot even begin to reccomend enough.) You’re recommending the documentary 13th to me because you don’t know it came out four years ago. Seriously ask yourself why sipping wine and reading the latest “edgy” book is different than any other trend? In previous years, weren’t you all reading Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria and Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack? It’s led to enough tears to drown multiple minorities, but it’s not anything special. We’ve done this cycle before.
Those of us who have experienced the beauty of cross-cultural friendships have also experienced the pain. We’ve felt ashamed, guilty, ignorant. We’ve stuck our foots in our mouths. We’ve wanted to facepalm ourselves for not knowing better. We’ve been challenged, called out, corrected.
When a Buddhist friend pointed out that I tend to mean Christianity when I say faith and use them interchangeably, I didn’t say “but I have Muslim/Atheist/Wiccan/Jewish/Sikh friends” to defend myself. I changed my actions to reflect the lesson.
When a male friend pointed out that I had used subtly misandrist language, I didn’t say “but I have male friends” to defend myself. I changed the language I was using.
When a Jewish friend pointed out that I had repeated an anti-Semitic dog whistle in a 2010 piece, I didn’t say “but I have Jewish friends” to defend myself. I stopped saying it and searched for anti-Semitic messages in my past writings.
I’ve been called out multiple times, usually with far more gentleness than I would expect, and I’ve made changes. I’ve also cried, but I’ve never stopped at my tears or wielded them as a weapon to get the conversation to stop. In fact, I’ve told people before that most of the friends I want to talk to, share ideas with, befriend, love, and keep around me are people who offer me new perspectives. Who make me do things differently or see the world more clearly. Who challenge me.
Ask yourself why BIPOC in general, black people in particular, haven’t challenged you. Ask yourself how you’ve reacted when they have. Ask yourself why black people have been documenting white supremacy/fragility since we were first brought to these shores, you’ve got access to all of it at the touch of your fingerprints, yet you’ve never listened to it until it came from a white woman’s mouth. Ask yourself why you feel safe crying about how racism is just so bad in a black woman’s face when a white woman’s tears are what got Emmett Till murdered.
Ask yourself why it took George Floyd and Breonna Taylor to make you shudder when we’ve been shuddering for centuries. Ask yourself why your BIPOC acquaintances don’t feel safe enough around you to talk about their experiences and validly side-eye your sudden interest in this topic. (I’ve got a feeling it’s because quarantine is boring as fuck, and ya’ll need more entertainment, but that’s not what this piece is about.)
Do you have BIPOC friends who can challenge you as you read these books? Watch these movies? Start misquoting left and right? Do you have BIPOC friends who will tell you when you’ve stuck your foot in your mouth? If you don’t, skip the book, start a club called “I’m Only Doing This To Make Myself Feel Better” and save yourself the shipping fee.
That colleague was an unsafe space for me to bring myself, and she had already proven it before we even got on the topic of race. You wanna know how she did this? She made extremely homophobic/transphobic comments, and when I called her out, she got testy and agitated. She expressed xenophobic fears about Hispanics, and when another coworker reported her, she repeatedly lied about it. When a colleague made disparaging comments about Asian-Americans complete with racist eye-pulls, she laughed right along with them.
I’m not talking about my beautiful older sister or the LGBTQ+ friends I consider family with her.
I’m not telling her about my anxiety attacks where I call multiple friends and family just to hear their voice and know they’re safe.
I’m not telling her about staring at the wall in a near-catatonic state after reading yet another graphic story because I can’t bring myself to watch the latest snuff film.
I’m not talking about the Honduran women I built a grocery store with and hanging out in their art studios all weekend.
I’m not telling her about the struggles of my Guatemalan and Somali students I’ve taught and loved like they were my own kids.
I’m not talking about the incidents my jokey-drummer brother has gotten into for marrying the most petite, blonde girl and raising their four children in Missouri.
I’m making small talk about cats.
At this point, if you say, “You should tell her about them.” I’d ask you why that’s necessary. Why do I need to share about my personal life with this person? To educate them? Education is not synonymous with friendship, empathy or human decency, and I’m not using myself or my family as object lessons.
I’m an educator to my core, but some days, I just want to be a friend. I’m sure as shit not bringing you around my people. They’re multilingual, multicultural, land across the entire identity spectrum, and they’re all amazing in their own way. I acknowledge none of us are perfect, and we’ve all got blind spots. Still, if I can’t trust you to be challenged without acting like a five-year-old, to be honest, my desire to be your friend lessens considerably.
See, when you have friends, you care about the whole of them. You care about their likes/dislikes, interests, and want to cook them dinner (that last one may just be me), but you don’t stop at the small talk. You know and care about their pains, their challenges, their traumas, and you don’t want to deepen them.
In 5-year old terms, you-feel-bad-when-you hurt-them. You apologize and couple it with meaningful action.
That’s the post.