I eagerly read Brittney Cooper’s article on Salon this week, “The Politics of Being Friends with White People.” While she and I have many demographics in common–being the academically accelerated Black girl in mostly white classes—there are huge differences in our experiences. I think much of that may have to do with geographical context.
Unlike Cooper, whose bio says she grew up in Louisiana, I grew up in Berkeley, California. Cooper talks about how it was the norm for white people in her community to vote Republican. I can understand that it would be difficult to form close ties with white people whose political ideologies have been traditionally been associated with racist legislation and racist political positions. Growing up in Berkeley in the 70s and 80s, Republicans were rare. In this kind of urban, progressive context, racism is a big no-no. White people have plenty of racist thoughts and feelings, but they learn how to keep them hidden, a false sort of progress.
However, one positive impact on the racial landscape here has been several decades of unlearning racism work that white people have been leading in collaboration with people of color. The idea is that racism is a huge part of our society, everyone absorbs it, all white people have racist patterns (and all people of color have internalized racist patterns). White people don’t need to feel ashamed that they have racism, but need to take responsibility for unlearning the racism, and become strong allies to people of color and join the struggle to end racism. To be sure, there are lots of white people out there who talk a good game. In the best practices of the work, white people need to commit to anti-racist work that goes beyond the intellectual. They need a community of white allies to assist them in the emotional heavy lifting to actually uproot the patterns. One of my closest white friends has been able to do all that work, and that’s why we’re tight.
I met her in my late 20s, when we were in a support group for youth workers. At the time, there were four of us, two white and two Black. When the other Black guy left, my friend and the other white person encouraged us to recruit another person of color so I wouldn’t feel isolated with just white people in the group. This was a new experience for me, because no white people had ever been sensitive to that before, or even noticed. Of course, like Cooper, I was used to being the only person of color in various contexts, so I wasn’t worried about it. “Besides,” I said. “It might be hard to find another person of color who’s doing this kind of emotional processing around youth work.”
“Oh right,” my friend said sarcastically. “Because you’re the only one.”
I was floored. No white person had ever had any insight into that dynamic for many college educated people of color. We get used to being the only person of color in a given environment, and feel like no other people of color would want to join. Not only did my friend know the dynamic, but she was confident enough to talk smack to me about it. At that moment, I trusted her more than I had any white person before. I could step out of the eternal role of racial teacher and I finally had a white peer who could both teach and learn in this arena. As an ally, she could offer something even a friend of color could not: the ability to see outside my isolated perspective that had been shaped by racism.
It is useful to note that she’s Jewish, and in my experience Jews are often leading white people in the fight against racism. At the time, she was leading unlearning racism work among young people in the Jewish community.
Another one of her greatest hits came a couple years later. Cooper describes a world in which white people were uninterested in people of color. In contrast, in many urban environments, white people’s street cred increases exponentially when they have a friend of color. My friend suggested that we go to the local flea market. I confessed that I felt uncomfortable going to a heavily Black social scene with a white friend. She laughed and admitted that her social stock would probably go up being there with a Black friend. I don’t remember if we ended up going or not, but I recall how much I could relax in the friendship knowing that she was aware of ways that white people can unconsciously exploit people of color for social capital in this cultural landscape, and wasn’t pushing that agenda.
Eventually we did encounter challenges around socializing. I live most of my social life in communities of color, and she lives most of her life in the Jewish community, so often we would have schedule conflicts for social events. Not that we couldn’t go to each other’s events, but given our limited social time, we often ended up having dinner or tea and talking about our lives.
The one time I felt betrayed by her around race was when we were both single and dating men. She had gotten a piercing, and the guy she worked with was handsome and Black. She had hooked him up with one of her white friends. I was furious. How could she hook up the white girl, the blonde shiksa, no less! My friend was bewildered. She explained that he wasn’t a match for me (I’m not the piercing type). That as she talked to him, he had lots in common with her other friend, so that hookup made sense. She didn’t get it. It’s not about making sense, it’s just a Black loyalty girl thing. You don’t hook the brothers up with your white girlfriends. It’s simply not done.
We can laugh about all of it now. She’s married to a nice Jewish boy and I’m married to a good Black man, and we compare notes on how our feminist ideals have been affected by our tenure in heterosexual marriages. She’s become a therapist, and I teach college writing. Ultimately, I think our feminism and commitment to personal healing, fighting oppression, and creativity have kept us connected, even through multiple cross-country moves.
In a society that is founded on white supremacy, it’s difficult to create and maintain close connections across race. People of color have to look at race all the time. White privilege means that white people don’t have to look. In my experience, the most meaningful friendships can happen with white people who make the choice to look at race, even though it can be profoundly uncomfortable for them. And it certainly helps if they come to the friendship with some of that work already under their belts.
Read more of writer and performer Aya de Leon’s work on her personal site.