As I was reading Brittany Cooper’s thoughtful post The Politics of Being Friends With White People over at Salon today, I paused to think about my own experiences over the years with white people. When I was in third grade, my best friend in Mrs. Beck’s class was a white girl named Lisa. Well, I guess we were friends. She sat in front of me in class and we’d pass notes back and forth, and most days, she’d ask me to brush her hair. She had the longest hair I’d ever seen, and I loved to play in it. (As a child, I wanted to be a hairdresser, and I would try to “do” anyone’s hair that was brave enough to let me. My sister is still mad at me for burning her hair with a marcel iron when I was nine.) I don’t remember much else about our interactions, but I do know that I loved her with the kind of love that only third grade girls can have for each other. One day though, we took our seats in class and she scooted her seat up and turned away from me when I spoke to her. A deep sense of dread overcame me, and although I can’t quite remember the entire exchange, I knew that my blackness and her whiteness had become an issue in our friendship.
Let me explain: In my Georgia hometown, the desegregation of schools came a bit late. In 1977 I was eight years old, and I was bussed from neighborhood school to a nearly all white school 13 miles away, and I say “nearly” only because there were a couple of Vietnamese students that lived in the area and attended the school. The goal of the school desegregation movement for my school board at that time was 70/30, 70% white and 30% non-white for the predominantly white schools, although I don’t recall any white kids being bussed to the all Black schools. Regardless, it was a traumatic transition for me; I left the comfort of my mom walking us to school every morning and having personal relationships with my principal (the beloved Mr. Caldwell) and my teachers, to being a statistic. I felt alone for the first time in my short, sheltered life. My sister, two years behind me in school, would join me soon, but until then, I was on my own. Like Brittany, I didn’t fit in anywhere: I was a shy bookworm and used more Standard English than not, so the Black kids thought I “talked white,” and the white kids couldn’t get past the color of my skin. I was smart, but shy, so I withdrew into myself until Lisa decided she wanted to be my friend.
What I remember most about the end of that friendship was not only the loss of my friend, but a profound sense of the universe shifting beneath my small brown legs. I’ve referred to this moment in other contexts as The Moment I Realized I was Black. Of course I knew I was Black, but I didn’t KNOW I was Black. In other words, in my Black working/middle-class neighborhood I was loved and protected, we knew everyone, and they knew us. So much so that if we got in trouble two streets over, our parents knew about it before we got home. We had so many aunties and grandmothers I can’t begin to name them all. But most of all, my humanity was never in question; I knew exactly who I was, and everybody was Black like me. My blackness wasn’t anything to be ashamed of, or even to pay much attention to. It just WAS. However, upon my arrival at Britt David Elementary School, it became readily apparent that my blackness was a problem. I was different in a way that had been illegible to me, and my growing knowledge of the racism that existed outside the safety of my neighborhood shattered the bubble I had previously lived in. I was Black, and at Britt David, Black wasn’t beautiful at all. Black was a stereotype, a nuisance, an oddity to be dismissed or denigrated. I wasn’t sure what to do about that, but I knew that at some point Lisa realized I was Black, or maybe it was that someone told her that she shouldn’t be my friend because I was Black. The particulars don’t really matter, but I remember clearly when she told me I wasn’t “allowed” to brush her hair anymore.
I was hurt when Lisa rejected me, and don’t think I had another white friend for several years after that. I wasn’t sure I could trust them not to reject my blackness and I didn’t want to be their “Black friend.” Thankfully, over the years I connected with other nerdy Black girls and boys and forged other friendships, and it was only when I went to college that I began new friendships with white people. I can honestly say that now I have two close friends who are white women, and race is something we discuss often and earnestly. I am thankful that they are women who understand the politics of race, gender, and sexuality, and that our conversations on these topics are ongoing and always self-reflexive. I do believe that it is possible to be friends with white people, but I also know that those friendships are forged by truly recognizing the humanity of others, and the ways in which societal, structural, and systemic racism shapes our interactions with others.