Why I’m No Longer Accepting White Applicants For Friendship
“I’m not going to be able to give you what you expect from me,” shrugs my white friend of over 10 years with concerned dismissiveness.
“And what is that?” I lean forward with visibly feigned interest, certain.
“I feel you expect me to stop being friends with him.”
It was then that I decided: I am no longer accepting white applicants for friendship.
In 1996 I graduated from a black Catholic elementary school on Chicago’s south side. An academic scholarship assured admission to any Chicago school or 1 of 4 boarding schools spattered across the US. When asked where I wanted to go, I preened “as far away as possible” with all the cocksure naïveté of a fourteen-year-old with a taste for adventure. Then as now a glance-before-you-leap type, I did no real research on the school of my choice, assured by its promotional materials and hefty annual tuition that it was good. My first glimpse of Northfield Mount Hermon School came through the window of an airport shuttle as it cruised onto the beautifully verdant campus amid boisterous circles of hacky sack and surefooted students swathed in L.L. Bean. That I had never been anywhere so white struck me with a terror no less than acute.
Convinced I’d made my life’s biggest mistake, I holed up in my spartan dorm room and better acquainted myself with the ugly cry. Buoyant raps on the door pulled me from the bottom bunk to reveal an exuberant, black senior who looked cool enough — rocking thick, chin-length locs, vintage corduroys, and a shirt that read “NMH Student Leader” — and was cool enough to not mention that he’d heard me crying. Assertive, black and assertively black, he was proof that I could succeed in that 70% white environment and receive a quality education.
I did. I had enviable instructors, but for 4 years my true education was in whiteness: disarming and charming whiteness, engaging and assuaging whiteness, braving and saving whiteness. In college and after expatriating to Shanghai, making predominately white friends, I graduated to expert-level white whisperer, unlocking more knowledge of them and less knowledge of self. A black toll is the tacit price of admission to white spaces.
The friend I had the above conversation with became so, in large part, because of a racist. My blurry early twenties in Shanghai were spent in an oxymoronic”fancy dive bar.” When I was just getting to know this group of future white friends, a typical “ugly American” type named Kurt (also white) became a regular. I’d never given our decidedly frosty interactions much thought until he asked to talk one day:
“Hey, man, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’ve been kind of cold to you.”
“I mean…I guess.”
“Well…I guess the root of my behavior is that I kinda…don’t like black people.”
“Well…I’m not really sure what you want me to say to that except don’t be racist.”
That was it. No apology. No remorse. Just “I’m racist. Deal with it.”
Bewildered and irritated, I sat with these future friends and couldn’t help but recount the exchange. Almost immediately, the admitted bigot walked over to our table and attempted a conversation with them. Stony silence. A resounding shun. In short, these were some white people with whom I could fuck.
During the first few years of friendship we, of course, did friend shit. But there was one guy (more of an acquaintance to me than a friend) who I will henceforth refer to as “this motherfucker.” This motherfucker always triggered my “whitey sense”: that ineffable sensation of seething white hatred beneath a gossamer of civility. Eventually, I heard from some that he’d said racist things. I need to point out that they didn’t seem particularly bothered by this motherfucker. My white education having bestowed upon me a Masters in Minimizing, I wasn’t even as bothered as I should have been. This motherfucker had a successful education business that he’d grown to a respectable size over the years. A talented English teacher working my way up Shanghai’s education ladder, I could only muster an eye roll when our mutual friends asked earnestly “I wonder why he doesn’t hire you?”
Years later, life forced me to send money home; serendipitously, this motherfucker had found a buyer for his company, and was desperately seeking someone to manage one of his branch offices. Apparently, he was desperate enough to offer me the job. This job ticked quite a few boxes: More money, a leadership position, a chance to teach writing, and a opportunity to run part of an education company to build skills to possibly start my own. Kind of a no-brainer, even if it did entail working with a racist. Most jobs do. My branch office provided safe distance to limit our interactions, so I figured I could handle it.
I could. I did. I killed that job, but working for him killed my soul. A list of notable experiences follows:
He told me I couldn’t hire any other black teachers.
He called me a “darkie.”
He fired me for refusing to work negotiated hours (when he didn’t provide negotiated pay) via a rambling, 4-page email in which he called me “lazy” and “arrogant [read: uppity].”
There’s a lot you aren’t able say or do when you depend on someone for your livelihood, which is also why I took the job. Nothing like tying subsistence to an overtly anti-black asshole to stoke the yearning for black financial freedom. It worked. I now own my own education business, so career-wise, I’d call it a win.
But these events converged with my burgeoning wokeness. I was now aware of how I’d minimized blackness for white comfort, how I’d demanded so little of white people, particularly my white friends. I had remained silent about all of the racist encounters I had with this motherfucker, and the least I could do was express the rage they were made comfortable by my not sharing, rage at myself for putting my blackness on the back burner for so long. So, I told them everything. Not so nicely and often.
I initiated conversations with this friend group for no fewer than 3 years. From them I received perfunctory reactions of shock and disapproval, but no direct attempts to address this motherfucker’s racism, no firm rejection of his clear anti-blackness. No resounding shun. I’d cut all ties with him of course, so particularly interesting to me was their mention of this motherfucker at gatherings, as if I gave any thought to his wellbeing, or worse as if they didn’t even care that I was in the room. I issued multiple reminders that mentions of this motherfucker would earn them not only a side eye but also a lowering of my opinion of them, yet they continued, likely the result of entitled indifference. White people don’t feel they have to sacrifice anything, not even the self-satisfied mention of someone who tried to dehumanize you if they don’t find him all that unpleasant. After years of friendship, it finally dawned on me that they’d likely shunned Kurt, not only because of his admission of racism but also because they’d had negative interactions with him as individuals. Slowly but surely, I began feeling more like that 14-year-old black kid crying in his dorm room — scared, alone, surrounded by barbed whiteness.
So after many conversations, we arrive at the one where I decided. I’ve gone from not demanding much from white people to not expecting much from white people. I’m tired of talking. I’m tired of them. I’m just tired. We’re seated at a bar, not unlike the one where our friendship started, one of my white friends of 10 years — a friendship fittingly bookended by racists — telling me that he isn’t capable of doing what’s expected. I’m sure.
“Actually,” I reply “I don’t expect you to do anything other than be who you are.”
I understand. And that’s why I am no longer accepting white applicants for friendship.