Friends in low places
As a model minority, I find myself in the company of white people, often. Over the past several years, racial relationships and roles have become more dynamic and polarized. Social media begs us to choose sides — are you with the right side or the wrong side? Which side will come out in the course of history as the winning side? I have become increasingly internally conflicted trying to reconcile friendships with race relations. How do I stand up for minorities to my white friends who both knowingly and unknowingly commit constant microaggressions? Who am I to tell them not to say the “n word”? Why do I have to be the one to back down because I made someone feel targeted or victimized for their whiteness? How do I handle being ganged-up on by the group when I point out their racist remarks?
Recently, I shared a link on Facebook defining different tropes of white women and why they are problematic and harmful to people of color, particularly black men (original here). Almost immediately, one of my best friends commented, then texted me, asking if it were a personal attack on her, specifically. Her boyfriend went so far as to unfriend and unfollow me on both Facebook and Instagram that day without warning (though that was a precarious friendship, anyway). This could have been a doorway for a real conversation between a white woman and a woman of color; this could have been my first real conversation with a friend about her place in history. But I backed down — I assured her that it wasn’t about her, wasn’t about any one of our friends, and that I, I was sorry to have posted something without thinking about my primary audience on social media — them, my white friends.
Of course, I know that it was her privilege that let her believe she had the right to accuse me of targeting her. It is her privilege that let’s her, as a white woman, practice proud feminism, but turn a blind eye to race issues in the United States. Her privilege grants her the grace to date a racist misogynist, because he cares about her. She can overlook the links he likes on Facebook supporting the legitimacy of Confederate monuments and displays. She can overlook the parts of him which do not consider me an equal. She cannot fathom that this is her personal choice— to overlook “flaws” such as racism, bigotry, and misogyny, because to her, it does not have to be a choice; it’s simply ignored. She forgets that my previous relationship of 3 years ended because of an uptick in fights about racism in America and the existence of white privilege, following the brutal deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. She does not correlate that her choice and ability to ignore news about black men getting shot by police on the daily is a product of privilege. How can she be privileged when she is a woman? Women have problems, women are being stepped on and oppressed. She had to find alternative birth control because of Trump. White feminism sure is a mother. But I didn’t say any of this to her.
Following the brief text exchange, I was angry and frustrated. This was just another instance of my cowardice, backing down in the face of injustice. Why couldn’t I stand up to my friends for once? Why did I constantly fall silent when it was imperative for me to stand my ground? I was just another bystander, like those white friends I scorned. Immediately, I texted my best friend (who is Indian) to complain about the interaction. At least she would understand how I felt; at least I could tell her everything I should have said.
Even more recently, my roommate (another white woman) and I were watching the show, “Narcos,” when she made an offhand comment:
“I can’t imagine living in a third world country where I wouldn’t know if I could trust the police or not — where I wouldn’t know who to trust.”
Picture the eye-roll. Biting my tongue, I did not emphatically state, “Think about how black people feel in America???” Though every instance in my life had led me to this moment in time, frozen, paralyzed with uncertainty. Why didn’t I? Why did I tend to her feelings in the name of keeping the peace? Why is it my role, as a minority, to tend to the sensitivities of my white friends? I am torn to pieces trying to maintain friendships while finding my voice for social justice.
Part of me realizes that I can’t alienate my friends in the attempt to educate them. I need to re-frame my strategy; talking down and antagonizing others has only created a larger rift in the conversation between liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats. Pointing out someone’s privilege to them and accusing them of being blind will only ensure more animosity. Hate begets hate, right?
At the same time, I feel a sense of unrest. There is so much privilege to unpack, and I am itching to start.