In keeping up with the theme of relationships that I seem to be writing about lately, let’s talk about friendship. But not in the way that I have written about them before. Let’s talk about something a little more uncomfortable. Something that some might consider to be controversial. I want to talk about what it is like to be a black woman in a racially charged, Trump-Driven America with predominantly white friends–in the predominantly white region of America called New England.
My Grandparents raised me to be understanding of all types of people. But they also raised me to be cautious of white people. There is no other way to explain it. My Grandparents were brought up in the Jim Crow South and experienced much of the trauma and racism that is taught about in our schools in what feels like only Black History Month. I say this because when I was in school, the only time I ever remember learning about any sort of Black History was in February. I often felt enraged or uncomfortable. But because I didn’t feel safe enough, I never spoke up about my feelings.
I use the word safe because I used to believe that if I could fit in–or blend in–then I would be safe from being labeled terms like ‘ghetto’ or ‘underprivileged.’ I wanted to be like my white friends–a part of me wanted to be white. Life would be easier. I wanted light-colored eyes and straight hair. I had my first relaxer at age 5 and learned to hate my natural hair. I wanted to be skinny–I didn’t want these curves that seemed to develop too fast at age 12. I wanted to be light-skinned so that I could be considered beautiful. I wanted to shop at Old Navy and Aeropostale. I wanted to wear skater shoes. I listened to Pop, Rock, and Country music. All in public or around my friends. Whatever it took to fit in as best as I could.
But when I went home, I listened to the hip-hop and R&B radio stations. I listened to the Motown and Southern Spiritual music my grandmother played on her record player. I spoke in the southern slang that my Grandparents raised me with. I ate Soul Food and watched black sitcoms. I was comfortable in my home life–in my culture. I didn’t have to wear a mask–I could be as I am and there would be no repercussions for being myself.
So I learned to compartmentalize. I split myself in two. Even if it was glaringly evident that I was different (i.e. black). In elementary school, I was always aware of the fact that I was black because I was the only black (and sometimes the only brown) kid in class. Middle School and High School were much more diverse because unless you went to private school, the only alternative were the public schools. As a result, I was exposed to other black people who I wasn’t related to. Not all of my friends were black–that’s near impossible in the North East–but there was…balance. Thinking back, there were some things I would do with my black friends that I simply wouldn’t (or really, couldn’t) with my white friends. And I am finding that in my adult life, that hasn’t changed much.
By the time I reached high school, I started to realize that I had suppressed some of the best parts of personality. The more black friends I made, the more comfortable within myself I felt. I didn’t have to pretend with them. I didn’t have to watch what I talked about and they would understand my humor. We shared all the same interests and it was fluid.
Fast forward to college. I went to a private University where again, I was a minority. There were a few other black kids on campus, but I didn’t feel like I fit in with them. Again, I found myself surrounded by white friends. In college, I learned what kind of person I wanted to be. I started walking the path that I wanted to walk. I stopped relaxing my hair and went natural. And for the most part, I stopped censoring myself for my white friends. I started waking up.
I was asleep for so long–trying to fit in with people I will probably never be able to fit in with at the cost of myself. I traded all the best parts of my Blackness for people who can’t actually truly relate to me. I always wondered what it feels like to be white. Is life easy? Would I ever be questioned in odd situations? I have never known any white person to ask the same about being black. That’s what privilege is.
After the rise of the Black Live Matter Movement, I started doing my research. I taught myself about the real Black History. I fell in love with my roots all over again. I discovered my Black Girl Magic and I am no longer afraid to speak my true mind on matters of race and social justice. As I have risen out of my sunken place, I have become hyper -aware of racism and microaggressions projected by white people. I have questioned many friendships and associations as a result. In my awareness, I have found myself feeling awkward in my friendships. All but two of my friends are white. I have maybe 7 friends. And although I no longer censor myself, I find myself questioning people I thought I knew. I love my friends–I truly do. But they will never understand my experience in the world in the way that other black people–especially black women– can. They just can’t.
My reality as a black woman is different from that of my white friends. In the last year alone, I have been told (by the same white woman) that there is no such thing as African-American culture by a white woman. I have been told by a white woman that she will never have children with a black man because she wants her children to look like her–and she honestly though that wasn’t a racist comment (Hitler, anyone?). I’ve had a white person tell me that the African lady who must do my hair has done a beautiful job and how she [the white lady] wishes she could wear her hair in long purple braids. I’ve had a white girl pat my curls and say that my hair is ‘so cool’– as if I were some display in a zoo somewhere.
My goal for this Black History Month was to stop explaining my Blackness to white people–that includes my friends. My experiences have taught me that if someone truly values your friendship and culture, they will make an effort to research and learn about it. Being able to say that you have a Black friend doesn’t make you any less of a bigot than the woman with Hitler-esque views. I am not a trophy and there is no award for how many black friends you have.
The same goes for me. It doesn’t matter how many white friends I have–I will never be white. I will never experience those privileges. I will never be able to truly fit in. I am finally okay with that.
I know what you’re thinking. You don’t see color, right? The truth is, WE ALL SEE COLOR. However, the way we see that color and how we choose to treat people is what defines us. I see color. I see black and white–I have to. But I beyond that, I see PEOPLE. And we are all human. I value the differences we share as humans. But I also value the comfort I feel in my own Community. There is strength in numbers. Science teaches us that.
Just because you can get in, doesn’t always mean that you can fit in.