My White Best Friend: love in the time of racial tension

When we first met, I got to know Zee through the letters she wrote me in her tiny, perfect, leaded print -telling me all about thoughts in her head.

A few years later Zee left me, slumped on the floor of her apartment, three flights up so it was at least warm against the winter cold, while she went to get pizza. She understood that the grief that had swallowed me could not be mollified even with her love. Her gift to me that New Year’s Eve, was to let me be sad alongside the planned revelry of our friends.

My birthday at a new job, she sent me three presents, one, an edible arrangement delivered to the office and big enough to share. She wanted me to make friends and the food was her contribution to the process.

Zee is more than a friend, she is my family.

Hell, her family is my family. Zee is special. My kindred. And so my current head space, where rage bubbles just under the surface and has begun to frequently ooze out, is complicated. Complicated because I am black with kinky hair and an awareness of how that impacts my life, has impacted my life for years. Complicated because Zee is, I have joked for years, blue-white, like porcelain. Her veins are pale azure just under the skin’s surface, her eyes matching that hue, her hair, darkening over the years from blondish brown to brownish blond.

This space I occupy is complicated because my anger at the murder of people who look like me, the mistreatment of people who look like me, the dismissal of the sorrow of people who look like me, the rage at the system that perpetuates that anger, mistreatment, and dismissal and was built and is maintained by people who look like Zee, does not negate my love for Zee.

And I have no desire to say that “Zee is different.” I don’t want to say it because I grew up with folks insulting everyone who wore my skin and in the same breath exempting me from the ridicule, as if being that person’s exception was a prize I was granted. I hated it then and I hate it now. The truth is that what is different is that Zee is an individual that I know and love. Simply that.

My current frame of mind is complicated because rage on the macro, even as it manifests sometimes daily in my micro, doesn’t change how I feel on a personal level. It makes it difficult to talk about…to sort out what it means and what it looks like, but it doesn’t change it.

Less than a week after the South Carolina massacre, the only black person in a meeting, I ended up in two conversations that made me want to scream and punch. Instead I had to find my professional words to describe my visceral rage in acceptable terms (i.e., ones that wouldn’t get me fired). And so I explained why showing a documentary filled with only black people highlighted as the violent criminals is a continuation of the vilification of the black body. How that vilification makes it “ok,” even necessary, to shoot black people for the slightest provocation — for no provocation at all.

I explained to the white man in my meeting that the disproportionate granting of conceal-and-carry weapon permits to whites is inequity whether he, or anyone else, thinks that issue is important. He told me, “black people shouldn’t worry about that, they have other things to worry about.” His response was so far out of place for both its patriarchal view on what black people should and shouldn’t focus their attention on and his assumption of a monolithic black voice and focus…not to mention it simply isn’t his place to insert his opinion on such matters. When I told him so, he doubled down and lectured me on the things that black people, in his estimation, should deem important.

A friend eased my rage that day by joking through text that I should try not to call him “massa” by accident during the meeting. I laughed out loud, to the confusion of my colleagues, and released a bit of the tension that was holding me hostage.

In the aftermath of conversations like that, I tend to speak in general terms about whiteness and power. Those conversations become a micro lens into a macro world of abuse and disrespect and low expectations and a lack of any benefit of any doubt when it comes to black people.

When days like last week happen, when in another meeting I had to explain that the taking down of the confederate flag from South Carolina’s capital was not a “distraction” to the people who fought to bring it down, that they weren’t pawns of the media just because their interests of the moment were directed to something that didn’t directly impact the folks in my meeting. I told them that if they had engaged those activists in our area of focus the intersection of the flag work and the gun control work would actually be really powerful. But they didn’t engage and knowing what I know about the group I sure as hell won’t do it myself.

And so I come home and I crave understanding. I crave an ability to vent the anger and frustration of the day. I crave knowing that the frustration will not be questioned because I’ve spent the day being questioned.

In our first 10 years of friendship race didn’t come up nearly as much as it has in the last five. Zee’s and my relationship has dealt, in recent years, more and more with me trying to explain to her my sometimes cynical take on situations, the assumptions of racism even where she sees other potential explanations for behaviors. Before, discussions on race were sporadic, directly related to seemingly more isolated incidents, viewed through more optimistic eyes. But I’m tired now. I’m tired and the incidents aren’t sporadic and my patience to discuss and unpack them in measured tones has waned.

The complication of loving Zee, her family, and my other white friends and colleagues over the years, is exhausting. It is all an illustration of the dangers of the more compartmentalized world I’ve been living in.

I find it hard to believe I’m alone in this, but hell, maybe I am. Maybe I’m the only person who has separated how much race impacts the way I live and what I think and how I respond to things from people who don’t have that experience. Not the big things. Not the obvious narratives that decent people everywhere acknowledge and agree on, but the smaller everyday slights and microagressions that grate incessantly at my peace of mind.

I don’t always have the words to share what blackness looks like and how it feels.

When George Zimmerman was acquitted, the grief was so pronounced…so…so…I still can’t quite lay my hands on it. And with the black friends I was sitting with when the verdict was announced, I didn’t need words. They understood. They shared that feeling that bone-deep sorrow. I didn’t have to explain

I am conflicted because my love for Zee makes me feel bad that I didn’t try to explain to her the full breadth of my grief. My blackness reminds me that I spend so much of my time explaining my life to other people. Those aren’t concrete sides, they are pieces of myself that intertwine with no clear border between them.

This may not seem like it, but this is about love; love of my blackness-love of my white friends. A complicated love. Love fraught with the perils of any relationship that doesn’t exist in a vacuum.

Like a long-distance love affair, removed from everyday turmoil and discomfort, Zee and I exist in a world where I know her intentions aren’t steeped in racism, where the systems of structural racism built around us are white noise to the ways we support each other.

But structural racism isn’t white noise. In the real world all of my parts, my compartments, converge in a single space – my reality. My blackness, my compassion, my rage, my love…all together inside of me. And I haven’t found a way to make it any less complicated…