A Friendship Deeper than Politics

Spring of 2018, my high school best friend Pamela and I happened to see each other for the first time in 15 years on the 18th anniversary of the Columbine massacre. Students across the country walked out to protest gun violence, and the school where Pamela teaches had closed for the day in response. As she and I sat across from each other in the Nebraska food court, we talked more about our memories as high school best friends than about our differing views on gun control. In fact, we’d placed an unspoken moratorium on politics years prior. Ignoring the political divide isn’t a stance I usually take, but Pamela and I have found a way to respect each other’s viewpoints in a way that holds space without judgment.

Like many Americans, I’ve cut out my fair share of friends and family whose politics differ from mine. There’s the second cousin who posted about lazy blacks abusing welfare on his Facebook page, despite knowing he was related to one. There are the friends who insisted that God would forgive whatever sins I had committed after I lost my faith in my mid-20s. But Pamela has never tried to change me, nor I her.

I was a born again Christian when Pamela and I first met our sophomore year in California. In our remedial math class, she asked if I wanted to join her babysitter’s club. The club never materialized, but we became inseparable as two socially awkward teens without the right clothes, the right looks, or the right life. In a burst of pent up energy, Pamela once pushed me into the PE lockers. It’s become an amusing memory for the both of us, and one I wish could erase my other locker memory: the day I found “White Power” scrawled over the orange paint in white out.

Pamela grew up in a Christian family — Four Square to be exact — and at that time in our lives, our politics meshed perfectly, though I have now returned to my Secular Humanist roots. Most of Pamela’s close friends were people of color: me, an Indian friend at her mom’s daycare, and an international student from Bahrain that she’d meet in college. In our highly white town of San Jose, she “saw” me in a way that most of my classmates didn’t.

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Pamela and me in 1994

On that day in the food court, on the anniversary of the school shooting, I was in Omaha on assignment to interview an interracial family for a book. Most of my liberalism sprouted after our last visit fifteen years ago, so I was slightly nervous about seeing Pamela again in person. After all, we’d be visiting in Middle America, in a Trump reality, and in the midst of the gun control debate. But Pamela and I holed up in a hotel for the weekend and reminisced about old times in between my sessions. We had so much history and current personal events to cover that we didn’t waste time on what we knew might attempt to drive us apart.

My clients — a former NFL player and his wife — took us out to breakfast on Saturday morning and gave us their tickets to the Nebraska Huskers scrimmage. We chuckled at the fervor of the fans, who not only embraced the “us vs. them” mentality of sports, but also passionately watched their team play. It’s an interesting phenomenon to see the way a town can come together, despite any differences, and commune together — and in this case, in a sea of red clothing. Even after a couple decades away from ’90s California, with its Cripps vs. Bloods gang activity and the subsequent banning of gang colors at school, Pamela and I felt somehow out of body to be able to don red without fear.

Pamela and I did discuss politics that weekend, lightly lifting our own unspoken ban. We talked about Columbine, and she mentioned how she had been glued to the TV that awful day. As we talked about our favorite TV shows, I warned her that The Good Fight — one of my favorites — would probably be too liberal for her. She discussed a pro-life advocate who survived a botched abortion. I discussed my cousin who is glad her mother, a teenager when she got pregnant, had the choice whether or not to birth her. And we sought to understand each other’s viewpoints without trying to change them. We saw that both the advocate’s and my aunt and cousin’s beliefs came from a personal connection to their causes, and we celebrated how power of emotion can fuel a positive kinship with the world around them.

Granted, my friendship with Pamela would probably look much different if I had a personal stake in our political differences. If I’d lost a child in a school shooting, I would be angered beyond repair by her stance on the gun debate. If I’d had an abortion, I would feel her judging me with any mention of a pro-life advocate. In this regard, she and I have the luxury to respect each other’s differing opinions without feeling like they are a personal attack. In fact, it’s she who narrowly missed the Westroads Mall shooting in Omaha by a last minute change of plans — the same mall, in fact, where we then sat eating our tacos at a small table in the food court.

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Recreating our first photo, in Omaha, NE 2018

I would say that it’s my history in the church that helps me understand the conservative mindset. In high school, I was so heavily involved in my Baptist mega church that I spent as much time there as possible. I attended the regular and youth Sunday services. I attended the leadership meeting and youth services on Wednesday night. I went to every summer camp and winter camp, and I participated in every Christmas performance. I went door to door to convert new followers. I went on mission trips to Australia and Mexico and Indonesia. And I applied to a Christian college in Iowa, which Pamela then attended without me, propelling her future in the Midwest.

But I don’t need a Christian history to understand Pamela herself, because our friendship wasn’t about our religion. It was about taking my baby sister and her baby nephew to McDonald’s and Chuck E. Cheese. It was about drives in her blue Mustang and riding the light rail to the Great America amusement park. We almost lost my sister in the ocean. We almost lost our friendship over a love triangle. And I almost flunked out of high school, until Pamela transferred in to my government and economics class and signed me up for the required presentations despite my fear of public speaking. She was one of my only friends to meet my absent father, who is now deceased, and she was the first one I told about abuse from another family member.

Pamela sat out this past election, and, like many others, I mourned Hillary Clinton’s defeat. We both long for a world without prejudice, without homophobia, and with the freedom to celebrate one’s religion, whatever that may be. As the presidency has swung from Republican to Democratic and back again, and while mass shootings feel almost ubiquitous now, our almost-30-year friendship has stayed steady. Such affinity is not always possible, but it’s a gift indeed.

Critical mixed race scholar and writer.

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