I had two friends I met via social media (in my late 20s) who were obsessed with Lupe Fiasco. They gushed over this man daily. I thought he was kinda cute, but I was nowhere near in the fandom arena that they were. One was a black woman, who was an essential part of promoting my first book and who I met in person at a social justice protest about a year or so later — super woke, relentlessly vegan and lived on the East Coast. The other was a white woman, who lived in Tennessee and would randomly tweet out pro-Obama messages but not much else.
But one of them clearly showed her dedication to Lupe Fiasco on a much larger scale. She found out he was performing at an Illinois college, and she wanted to see him live and in person. I paused and reminded her where she lived. She didn’t budge. She wanted me to come party with her at this concert and had already reserved a hotel room. We’d been cool for as long as the other girl; I told her she could cancel the hotel and take my couch if she wanted it. She agreed.
This seemed like it was going to be an enjoyable weekend to loudly rap along to all of one of my favorite Chicago rappers’ top songs, meet one of my social media friends in person (this is normal for someone like me, who had 50 penpals in elementary school and randomly brought a college friend home for Thanksgiving), and be able to introduce her to the history of a then-105-year-old newspaper, the Chicago Defender, at their “The Legends Ball” the same weekend. What could possibly go wrong?
I was no stranger to being someone’s “only black friend.” It happened throughout college. But as a co-worker half-jokingly told me, being friends with me “is like having eight black friends all at once.” I am not the mouthpiece for all black people and have had plenty of disagreements with other black people and black women. We don’t all think with one brain.
But I am the friend who won’t let you sneak in slick comments about black women or black people, casually say the n-word around me and will never not ever befriend a Trump supporter. Still though, my social circle has always been diverse. And considering the handful of times I’ve been someone’s starter kit black friend, they learned quite a lot about black culture, history, literature and what not to say.
In the case of the white woman from Tennessee, I hadn’t thought much of any of the above. Talking to her online was about like talking to the vegan sista from the East Coast — two very cool women who loved daydreaming about how they would “go to sleep in Paris and wake up in Tokyo, have dreams in New Orleans, fall in love in Chicago” — with Lupe Fiasco, that is.
But I knew something was off the minute the Tennessean stepped out of her car. Although her social media following would confirm she had plenty of black friends, I thought it odd that one of the first things she asked me while eyeing framed photos on my walls was, “So you don’t have any white friends?”
The question caught me off-guard, primarily because friendships change as people grow. I’ve had childhood friends who attended my college graduation, and then we fell out for various friends. I’ve had work friends who lost touch after I quit those jobs. I’ve had college friends who poke their head in every now and then, and joined clubs with people who will accompany me for breakfast or a dance class for fun. From Indian to Japanese to African-American to Irish to West African to white, I can pretty much check everyone off the list. But I didn’t walk into the friendship thinking, “Yup, Japanese girl, check! Dominican lady, check! Mexican man, nailed it!” You befriend who you befriend naturally.
I patiently explained this to her, before she rattled off her black friends at home. (I thought this seemed suspicious considering one of those “black friends” would’ve probably accompanied her on an eight-hour drive if it was a real friend.) Nevertheless, it was what it was. My new friend and I were going to have a fun weekend partying. First, there was the concert for her to meet her imaginary husband. College kids swarmed around, rapping along to his songs, cheering for him, smiling, laughing, hugging, dancing and (sneak) drinking. It was a peaceful and fun good time, listening to this conscious rapper talk about life in Chicago and beyond.
Then came the concert with hip-hop legends Slick Rick and Biz Markie for my then-employer. I walked around, introducing her to fellow journalists and editors from this all-black newspaper. She was the only white woman I recall who was there. We mingled through the crowd and took photographs with both musicians. She met a brotha who was eyeing her in the corner, and those two disappeared while I chatted off and on with other guests. She took pictures with her new “friend” while I flirted with his friend. And once we heard Biz Markie beatboxing and the sound of Slick Rick’s voice, we zoomed in for more good times and even better music.
I was pretty proud of myself that weekend. I’d introduced her to a newspaper she’d never heard of. She’d had the opportunity to meet some legendary hip-hop names in person, got to see her hip-hop crush perform onstage, met some popular names in Chicago journalism, and had a fun weekend with good music and good vibes. A day later, we hugged and promised to hang out again later down the road. She jumped in her car, and we both promised to share details on the two guys we’d met. Off she drove.
Less than 48 hours later, I get on social media, expecting her to show off photographs of her time in Chicago and how she enjoyed herself. The first message I saw:
“Just got back to Tennessee after spending some time in Chicago. I’m so relieved I didn’t get shot while I was there!”
I shook my head. Of the few days this woman spent in Chicago, meeting African-American professionals and college students and musicians and myself, what did she take from it? That she hadn’t gotten “shot in Chicago.”
That should’ve been the moment I blocked her on all social media platforms. Instead, I explained to her how offensive it was that that was her summary of the city. Although that wasn’t a talking point while she was here, I have at least a handful of childhood friends (including my childhood best friend and neighbor) who died from gunfire. I’ve had relatives who were shot to death as innocent bystanders. I’ve even had relatives who were imprisoned for both violent and nonviolent crimes. But at no point was that a talking point— nor was it even brought up the entire time she was here by anyone else. At all.
So I tried to patiently explain to her that for Chicagoans — and probably black people period — the idea of joking about someone being shot or killed due to gunfire is not something we take too kindly to. I asked her to imagine if I started joking about cancer (a friend of hers died from it), how would she respond. Her response, “How dare you bring that up?”
Just like that, I realized one thing (and blocked her). Even as your starter kit black friend, there is only so much that one person can do to try to erase some of the prejudices and racism you’ve created in your head. Because even when you’re seeing the exact opposite of what you’ve been programmed to believe and claim you have so many “black friends,” until you actually open your eyes and see their surroundings as more than what you want to believe, your brain will always be stuck in reverse. At some point, you’ll be the only one who can “kick, push, coast” your racist thoughts away.
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