What Means a Friend?

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.

Bi-racial Bride=Culturally White Wedding?

In honor of the dvd release of Bridesmaids, I’m reposting a blog I wrote when I watched the movie. Enjoy!

So, check this out.  I went to see Bridesmaids Tuesday night and it was absolutely hilarious. I haven’t laughed that much at a movie in a long time. There is no doubt that the scatological humor was unlike anything I’ve seen on screen in a movie aimed at women, and for a minute there I thought I was watching an Early Modern morality play.  One question though, where were the Black people?  Our bride is bi-racial (Black father, white mother) but there weren’t any, (and I mean not one!), Black people in the wedding party.  I found it odd to say the least, and a downright refusal to acknowledge the existence of the racialized “other” relatives at worst.  And I won’t go into the homophobic tirade at the bridal shower now, but I’ll get to it later.  Since you know, I’m Black AND lesbian.

There is no doubt that there are bi-racial and Black folks who grow up culturally white. And by culturally white I mean a limited access to or knowledge of Black cultures.  I do NOT mean the stereotypical representations of blackness that we frequently see on television and the big screen, e.g. Tyler Perry, and his ilk.  What I do mean is a basic awareness of what it means to be Black in these here United States of America and at least a modicum of familiarity with Black music, art, history, social phenomena, etc.  And by Black cultures I necessarily am referring to the to the wide array of all that Blackness entails, with no one aspect of Black cultures dominating the other, although we do know that in these here United States of America, the negative narrative frames reign supreme: the urban gangsta with his attending gangsta boo; bougie broads digging for gold and a man to take care of their spoiled rich bitch daughters; uptight wanna be gangsta corporate brothas with all of the cash but none of the flash; and let’s not forget our cracked out brethren and sistren, whom the bougie broads and corporate brothas disparage every chance they get; and finally, our latest narrative, brought to us live and in color every chance he gets: Tyler Perry’s version of the ideal Black family: man on top, woman groveling at his feet. I know, I know, I didn’t have to go there. But my point is this: this is what we TYPICALLY get on the big screen.  So when I see this latest narrative of the bi-racial beauty makes good, (no doubt inspired by our president’s bi-racial heritage) I’m excited by the possibilities that this new American race story might entail.

I was sorely disappointed.  How was I disappointed? Let me count the ways.

  1. We find out that our bride is bi-racial at the engagement party when her father (and we really don’t get that he’s her father until after the fact), gets up to make his toast to the bride and groom and repeatedly mentions (jokingly of course, wink wink) that he wants us to pay for the wedding. Not sure why that was so funny. It was crass and rooted in old stereotypes, Black father = dead beat dad.
  2. There are several instances where our bride tries to “act” Black. Neckrolling, eye rolling, “urban” inflections in her voice, and ridiculous insertions of Black English that not only don’t make sense in terms of the movie’s dialogue, but just come off as what they are: stereotypes of Black women as sassy and brash, even though there are NO BLACK WOMEN IN THE MOVIE.
  3. There were no Black people in the bridal party. None. Now, we’ve got the fat soon to be sister-in-law, the fancy schmansy new rich bitch best friend, the married crank, the naïve newlywed, and even though our bride’s father is Black, and I mean locs and all Black, she doesn’t seem to have one Black cousin, friend, distant relative, or co-worker worthy enough to be in her bridal party.  I found that strange, since the rag-tag group of women that actually are her bridesmaids all seem to be tangentially connected to her somehow, so why not a Black cousin?

Unless, of course, our girl isn’t really supposed to be Black at all. No Black friends, no Black relatives, no Black cultural references, just a few asinine stereotypes thrown in to make the mostly white target audience believe that this woman has a touch of the “exotic.”  Yeah, that.  So I’ll give them one point: they are in the Midwest, notoriously devoid of Black folk, although we are around in small numbers. The film is set in Wisconsin; Milwaukee to be exact, so I get it. But what’s interesting is that there were random Black folks on the street, although not in any of the places were the white people hung out. You know, like at the bars, or the restaurants, or the bridal shop.  So my problem is this: this movie pretends to make light of the fact that our bride is bi-racial. It’s not a big deal. Except that it is.  It seems to me that this movie elides the issue of race by pretending that we live in a post-racial world, where a bi-racial woman can marry an up-and-coming white man and race doesn’t matter.

The issue is one of passing. And our bi-racial heroine passes for white, physically, culturally, and socially.  However, she doesn’t “pass” in the traditional sense, (everyone knows that her dad is Black), but she passes in that she is able to completely ignore the fact that there are actually Black people in her city, at her place of employment, in her family.  Make no mistake: I take no issue with her marriage to a white man, or the fact that she is culturally and socially diverse. But the absence of any named Black characters in this movie, where the bride’s racial make-up was surely an intentional act on the part of the director, makes me suspicious.  Why make her bi-racial at all if the topic if race never comes up? I find it hard to believe that race NEVER came up in her family, with her friends, with her fiancé and his country club card-carrying boss and wife.  Let’s get real people.   We do NOT live in a world where race doesn’t matter. To make the main character in this movie bi-racial and not bring up race, and to position this woman as “moving on up” to the upper echelon of society and not have even one snooty old lady mention family pedigree in regards to race or class, just doesn’t ring true.  But we don’t expect movies to mirror real life or anything…