Over lunch at a favorite restaurant, I had an uncomfortable discussion about race with a close friend. She and I had never really discussed politics, religion, or social issues as our relationship has always focused more on venting about our husbands and children or geeking about Harry Potter, Supernatural, Dr. Who and graphic novels. During a routine walk at a local mall for exercise, we discussed crafting, useful life-hacks, and a myriad of problems that plagued our families. One of her best qualities is that she is a good listener, which is very valuable to me as I have more often been the listener in friendships. I find it easy to be a sounding board for her, too, because her problems never verge on the dramatic; they are relatable.
Another great quality is that I can count on her in a pinch. When I have emergencies, she is the first one I call. She went with me to the ER when my toddler sliced his finger with a rotary tool and then again when he split his eyebrow open after bumping his head on a coffee table corner. She also rescued me from Godzilla. In actuality, it was a tiny lizard that had gotten into my house. While I stood paralyzed with fear and screaming every time it poked its little green head from behind the China Cabinet, she chased it out of the house.
Needless to say, we are close. We have never avoided talking race, despite the fact that new insights into what it is like to be Black/Brown in America are exposed on the daily. This may sound weird, but I have white family and friends that are my “go-tos” when I need to talk, cry, or YELL about the harsh realities of being Black/Brown in my beloved country. Jennifer, my best friend of near 20 years, and Michael, my spouse, are those “go-tos.” After working through some issues on the topic of race early in both of these relationships, they understand that there are disparities when it comes to race in our country. More importantly, they now see these problems without me having to bring them to their attention.
Now, I did notice that my friend (let’s call her Mona) would kind of gloss over race, particularly Black subjects, whenever we broached the topic. For instance, I suggested that she and her husband should watch Get Out. She shrugged her shoulders and replied, “That’s not my kind of movie.” Knowing intuitively—or not so intuitively given that she and I share a love of horror movies—that what she meant was that she didn’t want to watch a film about Blackness. I explained that the movie is psychological horror; race is secondary. By the end of the film, every viewer just wants the protagonist to GET OUT! When she saw Black Panther, she said it was “good,” but her expression said, “meh.”
Moving forward to my most recent lunch with Mona, we were casually discussing TV shows that we are binge-watching. I mentioned that I along with Midsomer Murders, am also watching Black Lightning. She shrugged and flashed the “meh” face. She added that Black Lightning was good, but she felt like there was too much “Black” stuff and that she felt like they exaggerated the race-related problems featured on the show. A bit later in the discussion, she mentioned that the media “blows” up racial issues. It was then I noticed that I was literally biting my tongue. I wondered, why am I doing that? So, I calmly responded, “How you feel about Black Lightning is how I feel about most TV shows. Particularly, Friends.”
To her point that race issues are exaggerated, I informed her, “It is no exaggeration. This is what it is like to be Black in America. These issues have always been around. They are just more visible.”
I wish that I had also noted that the media does not have time to “blow” these issues up because new stories crop up every single day where Brown people’s human rights have been violated—Black women can’t play golf at their own club (the cops get called), teenage Black kids cannot ask for directions to school (they get shot at), Black vacationers can’t leave their Airbnb (cops called), state employees cannot move into his new apartment (cops called because a neighbor thought he was robbing another tenant by carrying boxes up the stairs), a Black man cannot stand in a family member’s backyard without being shot in the back multiple times because his cell phone was mistaken for a gun; Black Lives Matter art gets torn down by an angry white teenager (he was suspended by his school); people of color can’t sing gospel peacefully in a Waffle House without being slain (note: that gunman should not have been in possession of those weapons).
The fact that Mona’s father is racist also came up in our conversation. However, in an attempt to lighten that confession, she added that if he met me, he wouldn’t say anything. Look, I am well-aware that I am the right kind of Black. I meet the criterion: well-spoken, classic fashion, good posture, soft-spoken, and extremely polite (most of the time, anyway). However, I come by these attributes naturally. I am soft-spoken because I am shy. I am well-spoken because that is how I was educated (please note, though, that correct grammar and a protracted vocabulary are not always a moniker for intelligence, and not speaking “proper” English does not unequivocally equate to ignorance). I like to dress up because I believe that fashion is art, and people need art to uplift and evoke. Plus, I just feel more secure when I am wearing a cute circle skirt with a festive print, a vintage cardigan and my own handmade jewelry and fascinators! I have good posture because it is good for the spine. I am polite because that is how my mother and grandmother raised me. Honestly, it sucks, though, that only by the grace of my well-honed qualities as a Black person, I will be acceptable to friend’s racist parent. Although this has happened to me several times in my life, I still find it is unnerving that a white person can casually say to a person of color that they would prove worthy to a bigoted relative and not hear how awful that sounds. I have never uttered those words to anyone; the thought that my family would not accept someone into their lives, home, and hearts simply because they are white—or just not Black—is unfathomable. In fact, my mother and grandmother let one of my sister’s friends (she was white) move in with us when she fell out with her family. Their friendship ended with the white friend spewing personal (including some racist) insults at my sister during a disagreement.
This lack of seeing race first is not unique to my Black family. The collective Black community has always welcomed and sheltered whites. In fact, it used to be common for white children to be lovingly raised by Black women (ie, housekeepers and caregivers). Sure, we get angry at white folks as a whole sometimes, but the heft of our anger is like a pea floating through the air on a space shuttle. If someone has a bigoted Black father, his bigotry is simply “that man hatin’ on white folks.” Whites do not care if he approves of them as individuals or as a whole. A bigoted white father, on the other hand, can get a bigot elected president. Persons of Color in the United States live in a white world. In many aspects, Black people adjust to the expectations of whites in our society. These changes are often undetected, but they have been going on for centuries. The majority of people of color in America know that they must make white people feel comfortable with their presence (don’t act too “ghetto,” eliminate that foreign accent to the best of your ability, wave to your neighbors first so that they don’t assume you are a terrorist because you wear a hijab). In the Black community, we know that not making these adjustments can lead to misunderstandings and escalated fears that can lead to imprisonment and/or death (lynching, gunned down by mobs, death row, etc.). We make an effort not to reinforce sterotypes in front of our white coworkers, friends, family members and white strangers. It is a survival mechanism.
But back to Mona. She excused her father’s racism with two bullet points:
– He is in his 80s
– He was pistol-whipped by a group of really bad ones (meaning Black people).
My reply: “My grandmother is in her 80s and she’s not racist. She just hates people. Michael’s great aunts and uncle are all in their 90s, and they are sincerely welcoming and genuinely love me. I know because I have often been in situations where I am the only Black person.”
In other words, I know when I am not wanted by white people.
Mona and my open-hearted conversation turned to how my spouse and I have chosen to raise our two children. Michael and I are in consensus that we must raise them as Black. They must not believe that having a one white parent makes them impervious to police and societal profiling. We are raising them to be in tune with their Moravian, German, and British roots (on Michael’s side) as much as their Black-American roots (and all that those roots encompass). Michael and I are stewards of our family histories, so our children will know the personal struggles of ancestors on both sides of their family. From those stories, they will discover their own strength. By knowing (and feeling pride in) the personal struggles of their ancestors, they will be equipped to overcome adversity when it comes to skin color, culture, religious choices, political affiliation, sexuality, gender-identification, and so on—including where they weigh in on the incredibly divisive issue of whether cats or dogs should be “human’s best friend.”
Michael and I will also instill compassion for what other people experience (the way both our parents did when raising us). This will enable our children to branch out beyond their own experiences, which is instrumental to eliminating bigoted ideals. I urge people who immediately view a situation where Black and Brown people question seemingly—and sometimes obviously—unjustified police shootings of minorities to examine the facts—dissect the who, what, when, where, why and how. If people assume that (and feel compelled to call the police—a waste of police resources, I add) two black men sitting together at a coffee shop must be loitering, I urge them to think about the countless times they themselves have sat in a coffee shop or a diner just talking and laughing with friends. I ask that people who see a Black man moving boxes upstairs in an apartment building determine on their own that the man is moving into the building so there is no need to call the authorities. Over all that personal introspection, I encourage people—in particular, white Americans—to explore the uncomfortableness of multiculturalism and the uncomfortableness of Blackness. A person should always feel more embarrassment than pride when boasting that a bigoted relative would be okay with you personally and your brown skin. And people of color should have an America where we feel free to take off the particular set of kid-gloves that we handle white America with.
Post-Script: My words above do not negate the well-earned advances that we have made in America for (and by) minorities, but they do question why we feel the need to pat ourselves on the back and stop striving to make our conditions and situations better.