‘I Have Black Friends…’

Before I get into actually writing this (longish) post, I want to say up front, again, that I don’t write anything here as an invitation to debate. I will not debate anyone. I’m only here to express my own thoughts and feelings. I write to work through hard feelings and emotional struggle and anxiety. So that’s why I’m writing this. Proceed from here at your own discretion.

I’ve written before that I grew up and still live in a predominantly white area of a predominantly white state. Until I was probably 12, my only exposure to non-white people was on television. I met African Americans and native Caribbeans and Africans and Indigenous Americans and Spanish-speaking Latinos and East and West Asians and people with visible disabilities like blindness and deafness and wheelchair usage on Sesame Street and Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood and The Electric Company and some early 1980s shows on Nickelodeon before there was Spongebob. I saw the Harlem Globetrotters guest star on Scooby Doo. I watched Division I college, Olympic, and professional athletes play sports. And when we got cable at home in 1984, I watched Michael and Janet Jackson, and Whitney Houston, and New Edition, and Yo MTV Raps! on MTV, among other diverse musical acts. I watched The Cosby Show (I know…but at the time and even still…that was groundbreaking television, race-wise) and A Different World, and positive characters who were black on Night Court and Barney Miller (Barney Miller had some Asian and Latino representation too!) and WKRP in Cincinnati and The Facts of Life and reruns of Good Times and The Jeffersons and All in the Family. But I didn’t actually know any black (or even other non-white) people. And my parents and grandparents kept me insulated from racism and the problems it caused, because they (rightly) believed racism was stupid and ugly, and felt like exposing me to that would hurt me in some way, I guess (I’ve always been pretty empathetic and social justice oriented, even as a kid. And I was a really sensitive kid. I’m sure everyone’s stunned.)
So when ‘Santa’ brought me that black baby doll for Christmas, I loved it, and I wanted to take it to my all-white school in my all-white community to show it off for show and tell. My school in a town that had two signs up at the town’s entrance in the 1980s:
One said, ‘Welcome to <Town> Established <Year>.’ The other one said, ‘No <WORD REDACTED, but you know what the word is…but when I was a girl…I didn’t know what the word was…it was a word I never saw written or heard spoken except on that sign I never asked about>.’
My parents didn’t let me take my doll to school. I know now they weren’t being mean, nor were they embarrassed or odd-feeling about the doll’s appearance, and I know now that their manufactured excuse was false (‘We’re afraid someone will steal your doll because it’s the best one…’). It was really because they didn’t know whose family in our small town sanctioned that awful sign. It might be a classmate’s parent or grandparent. It might be my TEACHER. And they didn’t want me meeting any ugly stupidity or stupid ugliness at school with my new doll I clearly loved. They were trying to shield me from what racism was…that racism even existed. I get it. And I guess I’m grateful for it in a way. But I also wish they would have let me know more of reality at the time. J and I are trying to let The Boy know more of what reality is.

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And then we left that school district (for the record? All of my old friends from my elementary school days, who are white folks obviously, grew up to be progressive voters who support Black Lives Matter. Go figure. I think it might be because we all had parents who made sure the limited exposure we had available to non-white people was overwhelmingly positive…they were all funny, talented college students and musicians and actors and athletes and professionals (or at least they played them on TV)). And I went to a bigger, (very slightly) more diverse one. And I met (a few) actual non-white people. And I know that this is the cliched, I’m Really Racist But I’m Trying To Cover My Ass thing to say, but now I have black friends. In fact, the first human being to be kind to shy, trying-to-be-invisible me in the new district was my friend D. I didn’t really make friends with him right away (because I don’t make friends with ANYBODY right away…I am slow to warm up to people…ALL people), but on the first school bus ride (my old district didn’t have bus service…it was too small) home from my new school in 7th grade, D turned around in his seat 2 ahead of me (the one in between us was empty) and asked me what my name was and told me his, and then he said he’d appreciate my vote for student council president. And he certainly got it. Haha! D to this day doesn’t know he was the first nice person to talk to me in that big new district. And he won the election. We didn’t become what I’d call friends until a few years later…into high school. Not because of race, and not because of D, but because of me and my extreme introversion. D had (and still has) a whole lot of friends, even being one of a very few non-white kids in that school district and being one of a small number of non-white people who live in this area. That didn’t seem strange to me, that he was popular. He is smart and funny and talented. He played sports and was a fantastic musician (and likely still is, although I haven’t seen or heard him play drums in a while). Of course he was popular. And he was kind of the reality version of all the fictional/distanced positive images of black people I had from television. And eventually, I became one of D’s hundreds of friends, because unlike a lot of other obviously extroverted people, D always just let me be me…quiet, dorky me. He liked me for being myself. And I made friends with B too (D’s cousin…who also had/has bunches and bunches of friends in this overwhelmingly white area…who is also smart and funny and talented and a former varsity/collegiate athlete). I love these two men. I do not advertise them all the time as my token black friends, because I do not consider them my token black friends. I consider them two of my favorite human beings and blessings in my life. These two amazing men played sports for high school teams whose mascot was ‘the Rebels.’ The guy in the goofy plush suit was supposed to be General Lee I think. They played for these school teams with white kids waving Confederate flags at pep rallies. And their experience as the only or one-of-less-than-a-handful of black or even non-white kids in every classroom they were ever in is something I have never and will never experience. I’ve never been the only white person in a room full of people. I’ve never had to perform with excellence or even at all while someone was literally waving a symbol of hate in my face and claiming they were cheering for my team.

And I think about D and B every single time there is another reported police killing of a black American citizen. I mourn for the families of those murdered and I ache for all black Americans. And I see D’s name and B’s name in the place of every other name that unfortunately hits the news in those circumstances. I see their children’s names (their kids are entering the early stages of teenagery now, like The Boy is…and I worry about them a lot…almost more than I worry about my own son…because my own son has white privilege, and D’s and B’s children don’t) in place of those names on the news. And then I think about all those people who use the phrase, ‘I have black friends,’ to justify and rationalize their passive racism. And I wonder if they think about their ‘black friends’ when another black citizen is murdered by police and it’s covered on the news the way I think about mine. I know some of those folks. Those, ‘I have black friends…’ folks. And I’ve heard their responses to events on the news before. ‘That wouldn’t/couldn’t happen to MY black friends because <generally they say something here that means their black friends are exceptions to rules; their black friends are ‘good’…unlike those other black people, I guess>…’
But it could, you see? It could happen to any black person in the United States. Because D and B could be jogging through their own neighborhood. They could have a taillight go out and get pulled over by police. Their son could be walking home from a friend’s house wearing a hoodie on a chilly evening. Those are the kinds of things black citizens are killed doing in this country on a regular basis. And when I hear about it, I think, ‘That’s someone’s D…that’s someone’s B…’
And I’m not D or B’s wife or child or parent or sibling. I’m just one (an unusually quiet one) of their hundreds of friends. And it would devastate me to hear that had happened to them. It would be an indescribable tragedy…to ME. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like for their immediate families and BEST, closest friends. I wonder if those folks who claim their black friends to excuse their passive racism ever actually think about that when they jump to defend excessive and deadly force used by police and chime out, ‘All Lives Matter’ and ‘Blue Lives Matter’ as rebuttals for Black Lives Matter. Because if they do think about that…that devastating loss felt by that family…those friends…for that life needlessly ended, and they still feel shocked at the anger and frustration of the black community and get uptight when athletes take a knee during the national anthem, I can’t understand them at all. Don’t they think about their black friends? I think about mine. Every day. And I hope every day that I’m a good enough ally for them.

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Black Lives Matter. And to me, the only acceptable responses to that phrase are some form or another of unequivocal agreement. Like, ‘Yes, they do!’ Or maybe, ‘HELL YEAH!’ And the opposing argument is not that all lives matter or blue lives matter; it’s that black lives *don’t* matter. And that’s just never a notion I’ll ever be on board with. I’m always going to argue the pro-Black Lives Matter side there (although again…I’m not here for debate). I don’t even see that there’s any room for an argument; there shouldn’t even be a side to take.

Black Lives Matter. They always will to me. Because I have black friends.

1 thought on “‘I Have Black Friends…’

  1. Yes to all of this. I was in a very small town in North Carolina when I was in kindergarten. The KKK would post signs about their meetings on the Church door. I kid you not. We had a black family move into town and their daughter was my first friend. We shared a desk together I still believe it was divine intervention that the teacher paired Tasha with me. No other children played with us. When we had Birthday parties it was just she and I and our Mothers. The other kids would not come. (They were all invited.) This is how I learned about racism at the ripe old age of 5 in kindergarten.

    Liked by 1 person

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