“You can’t trust white people,” went the familiar refrain growing up.
It wasn’t said with malice. Rather, it was said with the same matter-of-factness as “look both ways before crossing” or “don’t touch the stovetop.” The implication was “…or you will get hurt.”
If anyone could keep up the pretense of caring, it was white people. And it was only a matter of time before it was clear that they cared most for themselves. I didn’t want to believe it. Not the white people I knew. They could be trusted.
In fact, growing up, my white friends treated me better than my black classmates. I remember getting unsolicited “black lessons” from the “cool” black girls in the 7th grade. They requested my company for lunch so I eagerly joined them in the cafeteria. Lured by the possibility of friendship, I deflated to discover they merely wanted to stage an intervention. With my use of “proper” English, respect for authority, and clean language, I was their version of Eliza Doolittle. With their help, I could become a proper “black” girl. I rejected their equating incorrect grammar, disrespect, and dirty language with blackness. If that was what it meant to be black, I’d pass. I stuck with my friends who didn’t try to change me.
For a while, all remained good on the white friend front. More often than not, because of my interests, I was one of a handful of black people in my circles. After high school, I stayed in my white bubble: I went to a “white” college, picked a “white” major, joined a “white” campus ministry, and attended a “white” church all without any serious threat to my belief that I could trust white people.
Senior year that changed. What was once comfortable became afflictive. The antidote to my blind trust? A friendship destroyed, a romance ended, and sociology 101.
My white best friend and roommate of two years and I had decided to live together again our last year of college. The occupants of the second bedroom in the apartment were a white and black pair of strangers. The other white girl—let’s call her Sally—liked to complain to my friend and me about her roommate-from-Camden, a city often rated one of the most dangerous in the country. She prefaced every racially-tinged complaint with “I’m not racist but…” or the like. I’d tried my best to stay out of it; I wanted to remain neutral. I’d had no negative interactions with the other black woman nor had I witnessed her mistreat my friend so I wasn’t going to gang up against her based on hearsay. They confronted me once for eating dinner with her when we had just happened to be sitting at the table at the same time. If I had wanted to eat with her, however, that was well within my rights.
It was an election year and as a house we’d decided to watch the presidential debates together. Not our best idea. The other black woman and I were democrats, the white women, republicans. It was uncomfortable, to say the least. Afterwards, as if I could not think for myself, my friend accused me of agreeing with the black woman just because she was black.
Sally’s unhappiness grew to such an extent that she approached my friend and me about getting the black woman kicked out. I wasn’t down for that. My friend suggested I move into the other girl’s room if I liked her so much. I thought long and hard about the decision before me. I was an out-of-state student and had always been last to pick a room because I couldn’t get to campus early enough. That year I’d come early and had finally picked the exact room and exact bed I wanted. More important than my spot in the apartment, I felt uncomfortable with the way they were handling the situation because we all claimed to be Christian. My friend even had signs up on our wall that said “Love never fails” and “Let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” The racist and classist undertones to Sally’s complaints didn’t help either.
I sat my friend and Sally down one night in the dining room shortly after they’d asked me to switch rooms and said, “We’re all Christians here.” Placing my Bible on the table, I asked, “Please show me where you’re getting your guidelines from to treat this girl this way? What’s guiding your behavior toward her?” Sally was livid: how dare I bring the Bible into this? What did her religion have to do with anything?
They left the table disgusted and furious with me. I returned to my room to pack my stuff for the room next door. In what I hadn’t realized would be the last moments of our friendship, my friend complained she’d had it with my racist crap and delivered an ultimatum: turn this girl in to be kicked out or say goodbye to our friendship. Our friendship ended.
Tormenting us became their new hobby. They’d open their door and talk about us loud enough for us to hear. They’d wake up extra early, feeling percussive, and slam cupboard doors, bang pots and pans together, then put them back and retreat to their room when they’d successfully woken us up. I was committed to living out Luke 6:29-30 with them and giving them my other cheek and my shirt despite their behavior and looked for ways to serve them around the house. One time I washed their dishes and left them on the counter to dry and a note was left saying that if I was going to wash the dishes, I needed to put them away. The next time, I hand dried them and put them away. Another note left on a plate in the cupboard said if I was going to dry the dishes, I needed to make sure they were completely dry before putting them away because a little water had been left on one. They called the cops on my roommate the weekend I had to practice for a major makeup piano exam I had to pass to be able to student teach. I ended up taking a keyboard to the laundry room and practicing in there all night away from the chaos. After locking myself out of the apartment once and ringing the doorbell several times, I knocked on my ex-friend’s window. She turned the lights off in her room, closed the shades and made me wait until someone else came home to let me in. She had also spread lies about me to classmates about what had happened.
This just a month after being dumped by my white ex-boyfriend.
I’d met his family the previous summer at his sister’s college graduation party. I hadn’t known this at the time, but he hadn’t told his mother I was black and for good reason: he knew she was racist. He told me he wanted her to form her opinion about me before knowing I was black. Whatever favorable impression she had of me before vanished at that party. Aside from not speaking to me until everyone else had left, I found out later that weekend her verdict: I was “lazy like all black people” because although I had the opportunity to play in Carnegie Hall, I didn’t want to. (I did anyway.) She hated me and took every opportunity to let him know.
The reasons cited for our breakup were my lack of curiosity about the world and that we were intellectually mismatched (read: I wasn’t smart enough). I always wondered though if his mother’s intense disapproval of me had more to do with it. As an aside, I did not subsequently become curious about the world as a response to this breakup.
Both these events took place during the course of an eye-opening semester of sociology. We learned about different kinds of racism and white cultural normativity. We learned about everything from nude-colored hosiery and makeup to implicit bias. I became hyper aware that the marketing of all things American included only white faces. Every menu, commercial, magazine ad, movie, and product that touted itself as being American was void of black faces. I’d spent my life looking at these things but never really seeing what I only then was able to see: there were no people like me in that narrative. This was no dispassionate intellectual discovery either; it hurt. And it, along with the ex-friend and ex-boyfriend, made me think that maybe those naysayers had been right.