OK, so she’s not my first white friend per se. She’s just my first new white friend in a really long time. More than a decade, actually. Her name is Sara, and she’s a white white girl, not one of these Kreayshawn-esque wigger girls who try to out-Black you. She flocks to outdoor concerts for bands with names like Mumford & Sons. She goes kayaking and runs triathlon obstacle courses for fun on the weekends. She’s originally from Seattle, which has an itty bitty 7 percent Black population that, even still, I’m sure she’s had pretty limited contact with. But for some reason, we clicked—two women from completely different walks and perspectives and backgrounds.
Up until now, I thought it was impossible to let my guard down enough to genuinely befriend and be completely myself around a white woman. For one, there’s usually too much explaining to do. My sister circle and I share similar experiences and information that’s been engrained in us from babyhood, so when I bust out and start talking about straightening combs or quick weaves or Holy Ghost shoutin’, we’re generally on the same page. Even if we’re not directly familiar with a subject, it doesn’t take long to get up to speed because we’re all products of the same community.
With white folks—unless they grew up around us and have been immersed in the ways and wonderment of African-Americana—everything is either a why-we-do-what-we-do tutorial or a complete reteaching of what they think they already know.
They’re quick to tell you about yourself because of something they read or saw on TV or encountered on vacation in Jamaica or during a mission trip to Sierra Leone, and then serve you with it like that mess is gospel truth. We’re inundated with details about whiteness as soon as we sit on the rug in kindergarten, from their historic heroes to their values system, but white privilege doesn’t obligate them to reciprocate that and learn equally about us. Majority rule makes their lifestyle similar to living in a very small, very vanilla bubble.
For two, I’ve learned the hard way that white folks will flip on you in a heartbeat and not feel the slightest tinge of guilt or regret about their bipolar moments. I had to get that lesson handed to my naïve behind a couple of times. I grew up an inner-city kid, but when I got a little too big for my high sididdy britches, my mother threw the brakes on my tail by sending me to be a permanent resident in the slow-moving, rural splendor of southern Pennsylvania, where my grandparents had lived for more than 50 years. The high school mascot was a mule. As in a donkey. That’s how country this mickey flicky was.
As if my physical displacement to the preliminary set of Lost wasn’t enough, I became the sixth—count ‘em: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6th—Black kid in a student population of 1,600. I was popular. I mean, it’s hard to be one of six Black kids and not be popular. But I also got blindsided when friendly associates taught me that rednecks don’t all come packaged in dingy wife beaters and trucker hats.
Once, in a social studies class, I got into a heated discussion about an assignment with a girl I had been really cool with. We ate at the same lunch table and studied together on occasion. So I don’t know if my public challenging of her was more than she could handle or if I just caught her off guard on a day she was channeling that Hitler brand of ignorance. But in the heat of our back-and-forth battle, she whirled around in her seat and spat, “You stupid f—in’ porch monkey.” Face all red and flustered, eyes like something out of an animal’s den.
I’d endured all kinds of slurs until and after that point, but that one was a backslap to my pride. And it ushered in other experiences that made me start anticipating the worst from white folks. I was always looking for a slight, an injustice, a perceived insult from their end. The constant keeping watch for some underhanded move made me hard against them.
But there was one girl who couldn’t have had a more typical white girl name—Jen—who ended up being my best friend and the salt to my pepper the entire four years I was there. Even though her parents were rednecks to the core, she the most open, unassuming person I knew. How that happens I’ll never know. But she ended up being inducted as an honorary Harris and spent more time at my house than some of my blood relatives. That’s how down she was. My girl was one-of-a-kind and I resigned myself to believing I’d never have another white friend.
Truth be told, I didn’t really want one. I live and breathe and revel in the Diaspora. I went to a Black college. I go to a Black church. I write for Black publications. I’m finishing my master’s in Black studies. What I need a white friend for? But along came this blonde-haired, blue-eyed chick with authenticity and intention to move beyond the novelty of saying she has a Black friend and just calling me her friend. She thinks about things differently than I do, and it challenges me to have a broader worldview. Funny part is, I don’t think even she knows it runs that deep.
What I like about Sara is that she asks questions. I wish more white folks did. If she doesn’t understand something about us, she doesn’t assume. She breaks out in the most random inquiries if something’s on her mind. “What’s Kwanzaa? How does that work?” she blurted out the other day while we were chatting. “I always wanted to know.” So I explained, she nodded and we moved on from there. I’ve always hated being the Ambassador to Blackness. I did it when I was in high school, I’ve done it at some jobs, I do it to be polite when I really want to tell folks to get a library card and stop pelting me with simple stuff. But for some reason, I don’t mind when she does it. I guess I know it’s because her heart is in the right place. I only wish more of her people would put theirs in that spot, too.