On Being A Little Tired Of Being The “Safe Black Friend You Talk To About Race”
I was a junior in high school when a teacher came over to a group of us at lunch looking for one of our classmates. With four grades of students capped at no more than 100 each, we were a small school of folks who knew each other by name. In the liberal granola-crusted feel-goodism of my costly rep school, students had rotating assignments to help clean up after lunch. I’d hazard a guess that amongst the mostly-monied student populace, many weren’t required to clean up much of anything at home, as evidenced by the trash that littered the tables at the end of the Upper School lunch period. The faculty saw it fitting to impart some home training.
In any case, on this one particular afternoon, Keenan was on duty with the rest of his team, but was nowhere to be found in the present moment. One of the math teachers came to us (for the third time in as many weeks) asking us his whereabouts.
“We don’t know,” we said in exasperation. “He doesn’t usually sit here. We keep telling you that.”
“Well, I’m not wrong for looking for a Black student at the Black table!” she said in a huff.
“What did you just say?” one of us said. She repeated herself.
‘The Black Table?’ Are those White Tables?,” we said, pointing at any able that wasn’t ours.
The next response failed to answer our question and was knee-jerk and predictable. “I’m not a racist!” We pointed out that we never called her one, but she repeated her refrain with more and more defiance, damn-near arguing with us. Once she noticed the loss of control of her own emotions, she walked away from the table with a flag of the hand, thereby ending the exchange entirely.
We were 16 years old then, navigating an uncomfortable conversation about race with someone at least 30 years our senior; students suddenly becoming teachers; children becoming adults. Depending on where life takes a person and how early he or she is reminded that they are outsiders, one understands the elements of critical race theory easily and becomes skillful with — if not grateful for — the role it plays in managing boundaries and personal wellness. Obviously, I knew what racism was then, but to get to college and learn that the things I witnessed or experienced had names like “White privilege” or “microaggressions” brought some relief that (1) I wasn’t crazy; and (2) I wasn’t alone.
In the last three weeks, I’ve been having conversations with White people. This, in and of itself is not unusual given all the places I’ve gone to school. But the older I get, the Blacker the life is I seem to live. So when I hear from a bunch of White folks in succession, it’s an event. Yes, I keep in contact with my folks from yesteryear thanks to Facebook, and I scroll through their lives on Instagram, but it’s sometimes like looking through a pane of glass. This didn’t happen on purpose. I don’t think any of us meant to un-know each other. But life happens, I guess, and here we are.
The last time I’ve heard from this many of my White friends en masse is when George Zimmerman was on trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin. In both instances, I’ve wondered if I’ve become “The Black Friend.” Or maybe I’m the window in that pane of glass, a safe space where good intentioned White folks can ask questions or think through the first-drafts of their thoughts on race and structural inequality. Sometimes, when they get to the part about acknowledging that privilege, that tiny window feels like a confessional as if they want a pardon or an absolution for something.
In each of these conversations with “my White friends” — and yes, I offer no pretense about the fact I can count number of White friends I have on hands at this point — there’s an indelible blind spot that make the conversations painful for me. It carries the stench of an epiphany about a reality I’ve lived for years; the pushiness of a newfound urgency to have a conversation that so many of us already too well-versed in. Some wont-to-be-praised Herculean desire to see the world change because they suddenly see that it needs to be, a scream for a pat on the head for self-identifying as a “stupid White person,” pity-hungry measure of self-deprecation. (Which, by the way, no one is asking for.)
I’m applaud them for their honestly about what they don’t know; I am happy for their awakenings because I deplore silence in times like these. Everyone should be affected; everyone should be outraged, and I am thankful that I haven’t had to unfriend anyone on Facebook this go ‘round. But some part of me grows tired of playing teacher and racial chaplain. Tired of sifting through the regrets of folks who admit not understanding sooner, as if being on the receiving end of societal prejudice that’s so eluded them isn’t exhausting enough. “Talk to other White people,” I’ve suggested. “I’m not the one who needs to hear this.”
It’s both perfectly true, and perfectly the way to push the conversation elsewhere where it will become useful. In turn, I’ve seen White folks initiating public debates amongst themselves about race and media representation on Facebook and Twitter; I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t impressed. Frankly, I’ve been too angry lately to have productive conversation with anyone who doesn’t immediately “get it.”
In my frustration with some of these unsolicited teachable moments, I think back to the “blonde co-ed” Malcolm X references in his autobiography. He mentions his regret that he turned her away so cooly after she asked what White people can do to help Black folks in their fight for social justice. While “ally” and “privilege” dot the conversation of every armchair public intellectual, there are people whose eyes are opening for the first time and I remind myself that America is dependent on white racial naiveté. I encourage the folks that come to me to follow the thing that seems to uncomfortable and to send it out where it needs to be, instead of coming to black folks for a rub on the back.
I get that sometimes folks just need an ear, so I listen and say little. I remind them that much of the things I know about race, I know because I lived them, not because I’m necessarily any more or less perceptive than anyone else. And the rest, the ways I’ve learned critical race theory and to have these conversations, I learned in a book — books that are available to us all. I’ve started to give out some recommendations, the race-work equivalent of penance, in hopes that we might all one day reach the Promised Land.