Table Of Content
- About the book
- Advance praise for UnCommon Bonds
- This eBook can be cited
- Foreword (Sonia Nieto)
- Introduction (Kersha Smith / Marcella Runell Hall)
- Chapter 1: Of My Purple Life (Joicelyn Dingle)
- Chapter 2: It’s All About the Rhythm: Birthing Sisterhood (Stacey Gibson / Jessica Havens)
- Conversation Jump-Off: How Have Your Friendships With Women of Other Races and Ethnicities Evolved or Devolved Over Time?
- Chapter 3: “When You Do It to Me, It’s Racism” (Robin DiAngelo)
- In Conclusion
- Chapter 4: Filiation (Nelle Mills)
- Chapter 5: The Support I Need (Liza A. Talusan)
- Chapter 6: Marginal Friendship: An Exploration of Culture, Privilege, and Sisterhood (Jodi Van Der Horn-Gibson / Christina Marín)
- Discomfort Is Revelatory: Cross-Cultural Relationships
- “Don’t Call Me a Racist”—Critical Consciousness and Hegemonic Ideology
- Intersectionality and Privilege: Subverting the Dominant Paradigm
- Epistemes, Paradigms, and Pink Elephants: Intersectional Sisterhood
- Mise-en-Scène: Part Deux
- Chapter 7: Friends in Real Life (Thembisa S. Mshaka)
- Chapter 8: Race Is a Factor, Not a Foundation (Amber Buggs)
- Chapter 9: Across the Abyss (Millicent R. Jackson)
- Chapter 10: Dear Sis/Love, Sis (Felice Belle / Anne Murphy)
- Chapter 11: Choosing Each Other: Love, Friendship, and Racism (Jennifer M. D. Matos / Gail E. Norskey)
- Jen and Gail
- Chapter 12: Black, White, and Brown: A Collaborative Autoethnography Analyzing the Race and Friendship of Three Women in Academia (S. Lenise Wallace / Eman Mosharafa / Joni Schwartz)
- Critical Race Theory and Interracial Friendship
- Therapeutic Counterspace
- Racial Identity
- Defining Race
- Race’s Role in an Interracial Friendship
- Summary and Discussion
- Chapter 13: A Joyful Dance Between Friends: The Story of Our Hindu–Muslim, Jewish–Christian Friendship (Mira Sengupta / Samantha González-Block)
- Reflecting Through Mira’s Eyes
- Reflecting Through Samantha’s Eyes
- Closing Thoughts
- Chapter 14: Sliding Doors, Intentional Choices (Paulette Dalpes / Berenecea Johnson Eanes)
- Why Is Our Relationship Uncommon?
- Who We Are
- The Glue
- The Blossom
- The Armor
- The Privilege
- Owning It
- Planning for Long-Term Love
- Chapter 15: Ride Or Die: Relationships Beyond Constructs (JLove Calderón)
- Chapter 16: Letters (Roberta Samet / Imani Romney-Rosa)
- September 29, 2015
- September 30, 2015
- September 30, 2015
- October 1, 2015
- October 1, 2015
- October 2, 2015
- October 4, 2015
- October 4, 2015
- October 4, 2015
- October 4, 2015
- October 7, 2015
- October 8, 2015
- October 11, 2015
- October 14, 2015
- October 17, 2015
- October 17, 2015
- October 19, 2015
- October 22, 2015
- October 22, 2015
- October 22, 2015
- October 24, 2015
- November 2, 2015
- November 5, 2015
- November 6, 2015
- November 6, 2015
- Chapter 17: “The Ladies Salon”: Building Intellectual and Personal Collective(s) (Rani Varghese / Allia Abdullah-Matta / Hye-Kyung Kang)
- Individual Journeys
- Navigating Higher Education
- The Ladies’ Salon: A Revolutionary Solidarity
- Chapter 18: The “Crazy White Lady” and Other Archetypes in Workplace Friendships, Boundaries, and Power (Deinya Phenix)
- What Led Me to This Issue and How I Set Out to Find More About It
- Friendships at Work?
- Race Relations at Work
- Some Observations
- Concluding Remarks
- Chapter 19: Trust (Keisha L. Green)
- Black Women Vote for Clinton; White Women Vote for Trump
- Women’s March
- Black Girl’s Rock
- Afterword: Crossing (Jamila Lyiscott)
- Series index
This project was indeed a labor of love, through all of the seasons, and the ups and downs of life. A huge thank you to Shirley R. Steinberg for believing in this book right from its inception and to the whole team at Peter Lang, including Patty Mulrane and our production editor, Janell Harris. Thank you to all of the contributors who shared their stories, accepted our feedback with loving kindness, and stayed with us as the project came to life. Thank you to Sonia Nieto for penning a beautiful foreword to the book and for being so authentic in every way. Thank you to all of our colleagues who offered advance praise for UnCommon Bonds; your support and belief in this project are above and beyond what we could have hoped for.
Big thanks to Christy Herbes for bringing to life the cover design. A special thanks to April Graham for serving as our beloved intern. Your passion and dedication to the project was a godsend. Thanks to April Silver for believing in us and assisting with the press release and sharing our project with the world. Thank you, Loryn Engelbrecht, for co-creating a beautiful web presence.
To all our sister friends in Amherst, Aurora, Brooklyn, Chicago, and Ocean City, especially Allana, Amy, Ann, Anne (RIP), Ayana, Bindi, Claudine, Dana, Daniella, Debora, Deva, Dottie, Edwina, Elaine, Elisha, Ella, Emily, Felicia, Fran, Giselle, Heather, JC, JLove, Jamielle, Jessica, Jill, Joicelyn, Julie, Heather, Hiabiba, Karen, Karyn, Keisha, Kelly, Landi, Lara, Linda, Lisa, Liza, Lori, Lynda, Marit, Mario, Marjorie, Martha, Mary, Melissa, Meghan, Michelle, Millicent, Monica, Nadine, Naima, Nicole, Nitasha, Oya’s Elements, Pat, Patty, Piper, Rachel, Rani, Rha, Romina, Rosa, Sally, Sara, Seble, Shadia, Shaurnee, Shireen, Sofia, Tanesha, Tara, Vanessa, Whitney, Yael, Yolanda, Xiomara, and Zahra. To the Esdaile, Hall, Runell, Smith, and Toney families, thank you for your warmth and unconditional love. Finally, thank you to our husbands, James and Dave, for being our biggest champions and sources of support.
As is abundantly clear from the chapters in this book, forming and sustaining friendships across racial, cultural, generational, and other social differences is not easy. Reading these narratives helped me reflect on the friendships I’ve had over the years, some with Puerto Rican women like me, and others with women of different backgrounds. Given the communities in which I’ve lived—Brooklyn for most of my youth and young adulthood, Manhattan for a year shortly after I married, Queens for three years as a young wife and mother, and for the past 40-plus years, a small town in Massachusetts—I realized that although my friendships have been quite diverse, the closest ones have often been with other Puerto Rican women. I remember a day a couple of decades ago after a particularly thorny racial incident in town when I was asked to address an assembly in our local high school. After speaking with the students about the significance of cross-racial and cross-cultural friendships, a student asked me, “Who are your best friends?” I’ve always counted a very diverse group among my closest friendships. But the question made me think more deeply about this issue. I answered that my closest friend was another Puerto Rican woman and that my other close friends were African American, Jewish, Italian American, and women of other backgrounds. What we had in common was that most of us now living in Massachusetts had been raised in ← xi | xii → New York. Sometimes geography is just as binding as race or ethnicity. At the same time, I’m happy to say that after all these years of living in Massachusetts, I have friends who fall outside of those perimeters as well.
But race and culture do matter, and they often matter a great deal. As I explained to the students that day, it’s far easier to make friends with people who are like you, who share your ethnicity, race, language, and social class, among other differences. When that’s the case, there’s little need to explain things; you can speak in shorthand. For instance, with my Puerto Rican friends, we can switch back and forth from English to Spanish to Spanglish, and we can be pretty sure that we’ll easily understand one another. I don’t need to explain to other Puerto Rican women why my parents were upset the first time I went out for New Year’s Eve rather than spend it at their home—and I was 24 years old, married, and with a baby! Other Puerto Rican women of my generation would have immediately understood why: holidays are sacrosanct in most Puerto Rican families and females especially are expected to be with their families on those days. I also don’t need to explain why I never learned to ride a bike. Many Puerto Rican females who grew up in New York during the 1950s and before had the same experience, a combination of overprotective parents and an ingrained sexism that “girls don’t ride bikes” (largely absent nowadays, I’m glad to say).
Yes, same-culture relationships tend to be easier, as familiar as old slippers and just as comfortable. However, it is far too simplistic to leave it at that because there’s more to it than ethnicity or race. Being of the same background doesn’t necessarily mean that other differences don’t exist or matter. My best friend is Puerto Rican, true, but while she had a relatively privileged childhood, mine was definitely working class. Even after over 40 years of friendship, I don’t “get” some of her experiences and she doesn’t understand some of mine. Other Puerto Rican friends are also quite different from me in different ways: some were raised in Puerto Rico, whereas I was raised in New York, and this alone helps define starkly different childhoods. And there are numerous other differences that fall outside of race and ethnicity, including sexual orientation, family structure, and others that influence us differently.
But the fact that same-race/ethnic relationships are usually easier doesn’t mean that the “uncommon bonds” of cross-racial/ethnic relationships are not also meaningful and can even be glorious. I don’t know where I’d be—in my head, in my values, in my actions—without the friendships I’ve had over the years with women of backgrounds different from mine. These friends have ← xii | xiii → been my teachers and mentors, opening my eyes to new sights, sounds, tastes, and perspectives. They have questioned my preconceptions and shattered my stereotypes (we all have them, after all, regardless of our identity). These friends have expanded my mind, introducing me to different ways of being and thinking. They have, in so many ways, enriched my life, and I hope I have done the same for them.
Of course, it generally takes more work and no small measure of patience and empathy to form and sustain cross-racial/ethnic relationships because, just like new shoes, they need a breaking-in period. An offhand remark or a hurtful comment—as you’ll read in a number of these chapters—can permanently destroy or critically wound such friendships. But once they’ve been broken in, with years of sisterhood and struggle to strengthen whatever may shake them, these friendships are often just as comfortable as the friendships we have with our co-ethnics. But it takes time and hard work.
The chapters in this book are powerful, heartfelt, endearing, and sometimes painful to read. Often, race takes center stage. At other times, race is rarely mentioned. This can be negative, according to Millicent Jackson, as when white privilege, the “very thing that can murky the waters of an interracial friendship,” goes unacknowledged. Or it can be positive, as Thembisa Mishaka writes in her chapter, “to see difference and acknowledge difference, without racializing every interaction.” Sometimes—but not often—such friendships can transcend race, as suggested in some of the chapters.
What brings all these chapters together is what Jeff Duncan-Andrade has called “critical hope” (see Duncan-Andrade, 2009). Though he has used the concept to refer to urban youths and their teachers, his message is equally significant for women engaged in cross-racial, cross-cultural friendships. Duncan-Andrade contrasts the concept of false hope with critical hope, that is, a hope that rejects hopelessness and demands active struggle and commitment. Critical hope, then, is founded on the idea that regardless of difficult and sometimes even seemingly insurmountable barriers, women’s friendships across boundaries of race, ethnicity, and other differences can thrive.
As you will see in the narratives that follow, in spite of what may seem to be intractable cultural differences and difficult historical realities, women of different backgrounds can nevertheless create mutually nurturing “uncommon bonds.” The friendships they describe—for all their love and sisterhood, and despite their warts and problems—can serve as examples for all ← xiii | xiv → of us, men, women, and children, who want to forge a path to a new reality in our nation.
Language, Literacy, and Culture,
College of Education
University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Duncan-Andrade, J. (2009). Note to educators: Hope required when growing flowers in concrete. Harvard Educational Review, 79(2), 181–194.
It was never our intention to edit a book advocating for cross-racial friendship among women. In fact, asking others to write about their friendships came with some apprehension. Putting together a collection of stories about the complex, intimate relationships between women that provide sanctity and sacred spaces for reflection and growth is tricky business. We treasure our friendships and fiercely guard them. Amplifying race as a lens by which to think about our friendships was perhaps an even bigger risk. Inviting women to reflect honestly on what friendship and race mean to them was loaded, and we knew that. However, we felt that posing questions and compiling stories could provide important insight into relationships that are not easily defined.
We also did not want to edit a book that privileged a particular narrative. We guarded against positioning the book as a collective Kumbaya moment. That felt false to us because we understood the deep fissures that often get swept under the rug and outright ignored in relationships that fail to acknowledge the history of racism and the vibrancy of privilege. Fixating on the challenges of cross-racial friendships didn’t do it for us either. We considered that inauthentic to our experiences. Yes, we could recall instances where racial privilege went unchecked, resentment built up, and relationships dissolved. We retell these stories with clear fault and uncomplicated characters. Except those are not true portrayals of relationships. Friendships, ← 1 | 2 → in their development and sometimes in their demise, are rarely linear, nor are they ever effortless.
In our country, coalitions among women of differing races are deeply fractured. They have been this way seemingly forever. Even amid gains in our collective struggle to support one another, divisions persist. History documents the contentious relationship between white women and women of color (particularly Black women). Too many times white women have been accused of prioritizing their own agenda at the expense of others, failing to acknowledge the benefits afforded to them because of their skin color, and deemphasizing the stereotypes, discrimination, and acrimony that remain a part of women of color’s experience. Even with full knowledge of the discord, our aim was not to foster simple “us against them” stories.
This book contributes to the conversation about race that continues to be male centered and lacking in intimacy. Writers in this collection challenge the notion of “get-along feminism.” They understand that gender parity can’t simply be a fight toward equity with men, but a denouncement of and battle against injustice for all people. We have a long way to go in the wake of blatantly brutal assaults on people of color, and a presidential election and subsequent Women’s March that highlighted clear divides among women. It is a long way to go indeed as we delve deeper into nuanced lived experiences and our understanding of intersectionality.
In addition, the chapters in this volume are a response to social science research on cross-racial friendships. Studies on cross-racial friendships usually concentrate on relationships formed during early and late adolescence (Bowman & Park, 2014; Fischer, 2008; Rude & Herda, 2010). Research highlights emotional and identity development in educational environments and often oversimplifies the benefits of integration and its role in developing and maintaining cross-racial friendships (Aboud, Mendelson, & Purdy, 2003; Joyner & Kao, 2000). While there is no denying the closeness that might develop between classmates, evidence suggests that cross-racial friendships are unstable and terminable (Hallinan & Williams, 1987).
Most of the research in the social sciences nearly exclusively focuses on cisgender, postsecondary relationships. In doing this, the research misses an important observation—that is, adults (postcollege) typically do not have close, meaningful relationships with people who are racially different from themselves. One exception is presented by Berry (2006), who looks at the number of cross-racial friendships adults have beyond relationships developed in school. The study gives an interesting account in the discrepancy between how cross-racial ← 2 | 3 → friendships are self-reported and how they are actualized. Berry finds that most people declare to have friends outside of their own racial category. However, when this assertion is tested, in this case using wedding photographs as a measure of close friendships, most people do not have friends outside of their race.
As we began to gather narratives for this volume, we realized that more than anything we wanted to provide a space for women to write about their experiences with trust, disappointment, timing, and possibility. We wanted to acknowledge that, unlike in childhood, as adult women we get to make more conscious choices about our friendships. We wanted to understand why our friends become more narrow and homogeneous as we age. Are there windows at different moments in life that are more conducive to developing racially diverse friendships? Do those windows close at certain points and remain shut? Is there value to doing the work to maintain intentional cross-racial friendships? Or is it a place of extreme vulnerability and never-ending exhaustion? The writers whose chapters we ultimately selected found a way to answer some of these questions. Their stories are honest, bold, unapologetic, and intricate. They explore the difference between maintaining a parallel partnership and developing a genuinely meaningful reciprocal friendship.
The work of transitioning to a deep mutual friendship is no small feat. We (the editors) maintained a parallel partnership for years. We knew many of the same people, ran in the same education circles, and even lived right around the corner from one another. Despite our similar experiences, we didn’t actually become friends until the birth of our children. We think that bonding over motherhood provided an impetus for us to push toward a genuine friendship. It was our Sunday afternoon playdates, sipping wine and listening to music as the kids rumbled in the other room, where we found a true connection. In these moments, we talked about growing up in the Midwest and on the East Coast, the trials of being leaders within our respective institutions, raising our children, loving our spouses, and everything in between. When race came up, we talked about that too. We talked about how Marcella had so many cross-racial friendships and how Kersha had so few. We talked about the difficulties that many Black women have with white women, the suspicion, the disconnect, and exhaustion of having to teach and to explain. We talked about tokenism and authenticity. In dealing with these subjects, head on, a real relationship formed. The friendship has endured. We have judged, critiqued, and hoped. We love each other. But we know the sting of racism and privilege, history, and ignorance might prove stronger than any sense of affinity we feel for each other. ← 3 | 4 →
No matter how much we want to characterize them as rock solid, friendships are tenuous. They require a constant give and take. They need time and patience. They thrive in environments that support clear communication. They are founded on trust. They expect variety in conveying emotion. When we give ourselves to our friends, we make vulnerable our desires. We reveal our goals and unleash plans to fulfill our dreams. We shudder from our fears and curse ill intent. We relax into our truest self and depend on our partners to do the same. Those are the breezy moments of friendships, moments where we are carefree without judgment and discontent. Moments when our friends are the baddest women we have ever had the pleasure to know. These are moments when we think of her, see her, talk with her, and a colossal YAASSS fills our soul.
Perhaps with certain women, one never develops sisterhood. You have things in common, but there is something, a chasm, that is tough to name. Your friend is cool. She is not ignorant. There is never a drama-filled blowout between you and her. Yet the friendship fades. Every bone in your body wants to believe that race isn’t just a tiny bit responsible for your disconnect. But you know that’s a lie. Somewhere along the way, you both realize that growing and maintaining your friendship is going to command both of you to extend beyond what you have created with your closest sistren and neither of you is invested in doing that work. So you don’t.
The narratives presented in this book color the notion that authentic, reciprocal, long-lasting cross-racial friendship between women is uncommon. Writers present letters, personal accounts, and partnered writings that convey the subtleties of cross-racial friendships. These women understand that authentically deep friendships are different from acquaintances we have in our neighborhoods and our workplaces. They challenge the convention that proximity breeds acceptance. Many of us thrive in integrated workplaces; we go to integrated schools, we might even have family members who are racially different from ourselves. But lazy thinking would have us assume that familiarity precludes us from doing the hard work of acknowledging our roles in keeping privilege and disenfranchisement alive.
Authentic representation was a tall order that none of the authors took lightly. As editors, we endeavored to keep the genuine voice of each story and at the same time push the authors to consider alternative points of view. We might have overstepped boundaries and created friction, as there were authors who after consideration decided that they could not continue with the project. We had to consistently remind ourselves that these are the stories ← 4 | 5 → of others and the beauty of the project relies on the diversity of voice. Authors appear in a way that seeks to preserve each distinct experience and reflection. We elected to eschew themes because we wanted to honor the uniqueness of each story while uniting them under a common bond that exposes the conflicts, celebrations, and everything in between of cross-racial friendships. In the end, we believe these first-person accounts challenge assumptions, disclose struggles, and celebrate sisterhood.
Aboud, F. E., Mendelson, M. J., & Purdy, K. T. (2003). Cross-race peer relations and friendship quality. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 27, 165–173.
Berry, B. (2006). Friends for better or for worse: Interracial friendship in the United States as seen through wedding party photos. Demography, 43(3), 491–510.
Bowman, N., & Park, J. (2014). Interracial contact on college campuses: Comparing and contrasting predictors of cross-racial interaction and interracial friendship. The Journal of Higher Education, 85(5), 660–690.
Fischer, M. (2008). Does campus diversity promote friendship diversity? A look at interracial friendships in college. Social Science Quarterly, 89(3), 631–655.
Hallinan, M. T., & Williams, R. A. (1987). The stability of students’ interracial friendships. American Sociological Review, 52, 653–664.
Joyner, K., & Kao, G. (2000). School racial composition and adolescent racial homophily. Social Science Quarterly, 81, 810–825.
Rude, J., & Herda, D. (2010). Best friends forever: Race and stability of adolescent friendships. Social Forces, 89(2), 585–608.
Sisterhood among women is an honor I take seriously. I cherish those “women only” moments that happen even when you meet a new one. Those colorless notes that give the impression, maybe we—Black and white—can “be women and be friends.” This is a sophisticated connection. I desire my friendships with all women to vibrate high and authentically with wisdom, humor, and mutual benefit. Cultural confusion, insensitivity, and disregard are the chances one takes when race is at hand. The sophisticated part comes upon deciding who is integral to the journey and who is not. What will you go through with a woman of another race and discern when it is beneficial to remain connected and open?
Being the daughter of people whose formative years were shaped through segregation and the civil rights movement, I am not a person who claims not to see color. People who claim such nonsense get the proverbial side-eye. Girlhood bonding in my Black neighborhood growing up in the 1980s was more like a rite of passage perfecting rhythmic cheers and hand games, a roller skating crew, personalizing the latest dances, committing to Janet Jackson video routines, choosing with your soul between Michael Jackson or Prince and the flyest b-boys. It was a Black thing, a time when our culture was still a mystery and solely ours. ← 7 | 8 →
White people didn’t ask to touch our hair or use our slang or colloquialisms. I saw a white girl on the internet selling a T-shirt that said, “I want Felicia’s life. She’s always going somewhere,” referring to the overrun “Bye Felisha” with no clue that Felisha is a crackhead from the movie Friday that everyone wanted to avoid. White girls did not get cornrows and attempt to rename them boxer braids. But the Kardashians tried it: “Khloe you look like a boxer.” Bye Felisha. I don’t have a problem with exploring African culture; just don’t try to reinvent the wheel; our wagons hold history.
Going to predominately white schools, I was on sports teams of girls—Black and white—who had the collective goal of winning. I was a starting guard in basketball. Strategy from point was my mindset and my position. I didn’t pass the ball to my teammate because we shared a color, history, and perhaps a lifestyle. Trusting she knew the play—Black or white—it’s about passing the ball to the player who is open and ready.
When the all-white newspaper staff at my all-girl’s Catholic high school wrote senior predictions, mine went something like this: Joicelyn Dingle will move to New York and write a book entitled “1001 Stupid Questions White People Have Asked Me About Black People.” The girls I went to school with were Ellen Degenerous–Michelle Collins funny. I had been unreserved to their questions over our teenage years. I wasn’t eager for them, but I was open, even curious. I figured my unseasoned answers were better than their unsettling assumptions. The questions would eventually help me understand our differences. After I chuckled at the prediction, my 17-year-old self pondered: I would never write a book solely about white folks. Not for fun. Not for money. Not for nothing. But here, in an effort toward the woman-piece, I am open.
Race matters, even in the first grade. Sabrina was crying in class, like all day. She wanted to invite a few of the Black girls in our class to her birthday party. Eventually, she broke down and told us that she was upset because she couldn’t invite us to her party. “Why Sabrina?” Blurting in an emphatic sob, “Because you’re Black! My daddy doesn’t like Black people!” Sabrina was distraught, embarrassed and disappointed in her father. Six years old, we, the three Black girls in the class comforted her. We didn’t know how to be angry at that moment. However, the transference was made; the idea of race and prejudice had found its way into our little girl world.
As an adult in Savannah, Georgia, I’d met Reese, a Midwestern girl, who was funny and irreverent. Our friendship rode on cobblestone for about two years. She was the type of person who was thrown off if any woman was ← 8 | 9 → prettier or smarter or had experienced more life. One day she walked in, her waist-long hair dyed a shocking but beautiful red. After complimenting her, she said, “One day, we can sit and I’ll let you brush it.” Like it was gift. I laughed and said, “Did you say brush your hair? Girl, I don’t want to brush your hair. Ever. You twisted that compliment in your mind.” That baffled me. If a white girlfriend had complimented her hair, would she have offered to “let” her brush it? Reese, a true narcissist, said “I just thought you might want to.” Ok, so I wanted to fight her. For reasons that would hold no merit among my higher circle of women. Friendship aborted.
Camille and I shared a more profound friendship. We had a similar drive about life and we connected on that level. Although she had an accent like Blanche from the Golden Girls and crazy romantic notions about the South, they were harmless, I thought. She had other Black friends and she didn’t tolerate any level of prejudice.
Intoxicated from wine and St. Patrick’s Day shenanigans, she was in the kitchen on the phone talking about a guy she was seeing—a white guy. I was in the den, but she was loud and clear. “That nigger said this. …” One. “That nigger did that. …” Two. “If that nigger thinks. …” Three. When Camille entered the den, I had my purse on my shoulder and I was standing, fuming. Barely noticing, she continued her rant, however, minus the n-word. “Camille, are you out of your mind?” Puzzled, she says, “What are you talking about? Why are you leaving? What happened?” Her lack of judgment was isolating and infuriating.
I left, remembering something a Black mother told me as a fifth grader at the time after we observed a situation with a Black girl and white girl at my elementary school, “White people will turn on you.” As a seasoned adult, I’ve learned that any person can turn on you, regardless of color. But something about the “white” and the “will” in that sentence resonates in the undertow.
I thought our friendship was over in the two weeks we didn’t speak—was I a character in her chase of antebellum sentiment? Was it fair for me to have different rules for her than I do my Black friends who use the word? Should I consider the fact the she wasn’t even talking about a Black person? What was it about her that I liked so much that I would consider her friendship again? I appreciated when Camille called apologizing but not excuse-full; she said it’s been too long and she missed talking to me. I missed her too, but my stance was clear. We talked it out until the core of what made us friends found its way to the surface. Friendship restored. ← 9 | 10 →
Alice Walker and Gloria Steinem are longtime friends with common bonds. Solidifying the sisterhood, Gloria is the godmother to Alice’s daughter. I often wonder, what was the impetus of the shift when Alice Walker (1983) coined the term “womanist” in her collection of essays, In Search of Our Mother’s Garden: Womanist Prose. Moved or inspired to forge a perfect path validating feminism for Black women, what happened behind closed doors? Did it cause friction? As friends and leaders, making strides toward common, massively beneficial goals in the feminist movement, why the divide? Here is something I know for sure: When a certain kind of woman finds herself and her kind ignored by the thing that engages her most, she creates something else. Ms. Walker, through her Goddess work, sparked a movement.
Womanism fit Black women like a pair of silk stockings. Personally, it was a big sigh of relief. Alice Walker’s definition does not forfeit feminism but includes that which is natural to the journey and the souls of Black womenfolk. She gave us the freedom to feel valued as feminists and as Black women:
1. From womanish. (Opposite of “girlish,” i.e., frivolous, irresponsible, not serious.) A Black feminist or feminist of color. From the Black folk expression of mothers to female children, “You acting womanish,” that is, like a woman. Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior. Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered “good” for one. Interested in grown-up doings. Acting grown-up. Being grown-up. Interchangeable with another Black folk expression: “You trying to be grown.” Responsible. In charge. Serious.
2. A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility (values tears as natural counterbalance of laughter) and women’s strength. Sometimes loves individual men, sexually and/or nonsexually. Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically, for health. Traditionally a universalist.
3. Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regardless.
Or as filmmaker Erika Conner (2011) once said, “We’re different type of girls.” Meaning we come from a space where we walk, talk, and think in a rhythm that matters spiritually and connects Black girls. This is the very thing that makes many white women feel intimidated. It’s impossible to have a real friendship when something so natural in a woman attacks another woman’s sense of self. Our color purple is not against your color lavender, but we are bold, beautiful, and present. Quite frankly, we’re hard to miss.
I had a conversation with my friend Ayana Byrd, an author of Black girl history books on beauty—Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America (2002) and Naked: Black Women Bare All About Their Skin, Hips, Lips and Other Parts (2005). Living in Europe for many years and going to Barnard College, she’s acquired true girlfriends, interesting women who are white. I asked her, in an effort to open my heart to all women, “Ayana, how are you friends with so many white girls?” Thinking for a brief moment, she answered, “We have to be able to talk about anything, including race. If we can’t talk about race, we can’t be friends.” And there’s the rub.
Friendships are a matter of chemistry, a complex mixture of unforced energies that make bonds viable, stimulating, and full of discoverable matter. Our history must be considered. Our reality must addressed. Remaining open is the key to relationships between women. True friendship—black and white, purple and lavender—should allow for any conversation that elevates the other.
Byrd, A., & Soloman, A. (2005). Naked: Black women bare all about their skin, hair, hips, lips, and other parts. New York, NY: Perigee Trade.
Byrd, A., & Tharps, L. (2002). Hair story: Untangling the roots of Black hair in America. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Griffin.
Conner, E. (2011). Interview with Norell Giancana. 3-minute documentary trailer for How to Make a Magazine. Dingle, J. (Director). Los Angeles, CA: DaM Girls Media.
Walker, A. (1983). In search of our mother’s garden: Womanist prose. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
A conversation between sister friends
In this conversation we hope to explore the ever-evolving dynamics of our own interracial friendship and how we arrived at this point. What we have included is a transcribed conversation, following in the footsteps of antiracist feminists who have come before us. Women have always made story and talked into, with, within, and through each other. In a world saturated with posts, tweets, updates, and downloads, it is the warm, rich vibrations that can only be felt when we speak to each other across a table that eclipses the digital dissonance. It allows each of us to retain our individual voice and authorship of the written piece, while allowing for complexity and disagreement.
Conversation Jump-Off: How Have Your Friendships With Women of Other Races and Ethnicities Evolved or Devolved Over Time?
Stacey: My relationships and friendships with women of different races have evolved as my standards and expectations around relationships have evolved. The number of cross-racial friendships has decreased exponentially over the ← 13 | 14 → years, but the authenticity and integrity of those new and remaining friendships are more lush, more dynamic, and more affirming. In past years what may have been identified as a “friendship” was quite often something else altogether. Those relationships were seemingly “friendly” enough, but because there was no acknowledgment of the ways race infiltrated our interactions, in hindsight, it is difficult to call that a friendship. I have experienced quite a few women, especially white ones, who were curious and seemed interested in forming a possible friendship, but their interest dissipated after they heard some of my personal politics, especially about white identities. Truth be told, many women of color also lost interest once they realized my politics. The challenge now is for me to not look askance at those earlier interactions and relationships, but to keep them in high regard because they reveal how my standards have shifted. I believe it is important to note that relationships across racial difference where the woman is a person of color is quite different for me than a cross-racial relationship with a white woman.
I have a general distrust of white women. Often I have encountered a frenzied eagerness from many white women where they have the latest lingo on their tongue. They seem ready to kiss me with their sound bite. In the past I misread the sound bite as marker of racial awareness and healthy racial consciousness. I quickly learned that anyone can colonize rhetoric and sound “aware.” That frustration led me to push many women away because that behavior seemed like a form of fetishizing. As I recognized the patterns more, I felt less obligated to govern that space. Instead, I opted to practice healthy boundaries and check in with myself about what was going on with me in the moment … make sure I’m not longing for or bending toward white recognition as a way to see and feel my own sense of legitimacy.
Jessica: I think my relationships with women across race have evolved as I have evolved. … As a white kid growing up in communities of color, I was always searching for a sense of “belonging”; it was clear as early as second grade that I was white and that marked me as different. I naturally gravitated toward the other non-Black kids in my school, since we were in the racial minority, even though I felt boxed in by that group as well. As I got older, though, I found it harder to connect with many white people who didn’t have the same cultural history as me. I often gravitated toward women of color because I made an assumption that there would be a commonality of consciousness. But I often found that I didn’t always feel at home with women of color either, that there was still a disconnect and distance. ← 14 | 15 →
There was a time in my life where I embodied that eagerness for affirmation from women of color that you spoke of, that desire to “kiss you with my sound bite” (cringe). In my overly persistent attempts to connect with women of color, I experienced a lot of rejection. When I was younger I took that rejection very personally, and even allowed a kind of resentment toward women of color, and Black women in particular, to brew. I SO desired to connect and to be seen for the multicultural and complex woman that I was, but felt like Black women couldn’t see beyond my whiteness. At the time, I didn’t have the systemic analysis to understand how our interactions were a product of something larger. I think some of those women had already too many negative experiences with white women, so there was just not enough emotional psychic space to feel me in that way; there was a kind of protective shield they had to put up with white women. I also didn’t fully understand how my own white privilege informed a lot of those interactions and the disconnect I felt. Living in a damn white supremacist society limits relationships and creates distance! Ugh. There was also the chance that this person might just have a different personality than mine, or had been having a bad day. I think I just had to accept that there were going to be women of color, and white women for that matter, whom I met in my life who did not want to get to know me or make space for me and I didn’t need to always take it personally.
So, as I’ve worked to make peace with myself as a complex and multicultural white woman, and developed a more critical racial consciousness, I’ve become less concerned with seeking that constant approval or affirmation from women of color. In turn, my current relationships with both white women and women of color feel healthier and more grounded.
Stacey: But there is something real and live about women of color and white women. There is a shadow narrative about affirmation there. I have had relationships with white women where we have openly talked about “vouching for each other” and so this idea of legitimacy is still tied to whether or not this white girl will vouch for me. Those patterns and dynamics come into play more than people might be willing to acknowledge.
Jessica: Hmmm, vouching. Yes, and I think you and I have spoken about this dynamic, and even how the two of us are read by others when we walk into a space. I think that the vouching carries different weight for each of us though. In the cultural and political spaces we move in, I think that you have more at ← 15 | 16 → stake in vouching for me, a white woman, as your girl. I feel the weight of this risk, the knowledge that my behavior and words and energy in Black spaces reflect back upon you.
Stacey: Yeah it does. Over the years I have been increasingly aware of how all folks carry racialized trauma, whether individually or as a collective. I can also see and hear the deep fatigue all people have as they consciously or unconsciously navigate and wear their racial identities. I choose spaces and people who are bold about moving toward freedoms. The vast majority of these shape shifters are Black people. You are one of a few whom I would invite into some of those spaces, and so, yes, I would make sure to speak you up and vouch for you. First, I love heaping praise onto all my friends, and second, I have Black friends with staggering, irrecoverable racialized wounds. They don’t know you. I do. Here’s what I’ve seen and experienced more times that I care to recount: A white woman brings a Black woman into white or POC spaces where no other Black women are present and there erupts what I will unceremoniously dub “the Edgy Other Syndrome.” EOS occurs when the white woman who brings the Black woman into white/mixed race spaces accrues some sort of cachet, for being in proximity to or for being in relationship with this Black woman. Yes, I know there are times when the other white people in the room may throw tsunami levels of shade, but far more often I have observed behaviors where the other white people in the setting are barely able to contain themselves as they shimmy closer to the “Black Woman Visiting” and ask a lot of bloody questions they have no business asking. I’m not sure how much of that is about vouching or fetishizing or if I’m just that compelling, but what I do know is that almost all of these white folks query hard around the origin and existence of our friendship. It comes off as a peculiar curiosity because I doubt highly those white folks question other white folks about their friendships with such ferocity.
When I was younger I briefly rolled with that whole narrative of “… as a person of color, I can teach them and help them to understand.” I still hear that dull, worn narrative of “… these are teachable moments! if you stick in there and teach that white person, then they won’t do it again. …” That refrain is a truncated pseudo-narrative because:
2. In gaps of consciousness, many white people repeatedly commit those same acts of unconscious oppression because of their lack of self-investment around unpacking white racial identity.
In essence, the master/slave narrative erupts into this relationship where a person of color trades their labor, intellect, experience, and insight hoping for the betterment of a white individual. I did that a few times. In some ways I felt if I was willing to stay in an underwhelming surface relationship where I was supposed to “teach her something,” I could convince this white woman of … what? I don’t even remember. Fortunately internalized narratives of inferiority are far quieter for me now. I always have to check in to make sure I’m not over-functioning, because over-functioning is a glaring symptom of broken interracial relationships. At the heart of many of these relationships is the expectation that bodies of color hyperfunction and I’ve done a lot of work to stop myself from replicating those types of harmful patterns!
Jessica: And what helped you transition surface relationships into meaningful relationships?
Stacey: Observation. I wait and see how much they are revealing of themselves and if I want to be involved in that emotional investment. There are plenty of white women who show up all the time and think they want to be in relationship with me and I will test them. Can they acknowledge the complexities? Can they articulate their own path, identity, and levels of realization and not necessarily so that it matches with what I’m thinking? Are they conscious? Will they reflect and be both reasonable and responsible?
Take you for instance. When I think about how you showed up with a sense of steadiness and intensity and humility. All of that was authentically Jess. No airs and you radiated a willingness to be free while doing your own work. I am drawn to intense folks because I am as well. I take flight from the race zealot and I didn’t see you as a curated white woman who was playing the race stage. (Hell … if Black and Brown folks play the race card, white folks can play the hell out of a race stage.) I don’t think many white women have any clue about how predictable they are and how limited they are when they show up around issues of race. It’s very easy for me to spot that kind of homogenized, fetishizing, limited, white woman and I didn’t get any of that energy from you. ← 17 | 18 →
Jessica: In terms of our relationship from my side I think it’s complicated. I’m trying to own the fact that I know that white privilege affects me in my life and how I move through the world, but there is a part of me that feels conflicted culturally about who I connect with and not. Being raised in white, Black, and Latino spaces, I want to feel like I can bring all of myself to the table without being perceived as pretending to be something I’m not. I feel like sometimes it can be trepidatious in relationships across difference to allow that type of vulnerability and trust to grow. Because I find myself often in multiracial and POC-majority spaces, I also experience a lot of that “testing” that you speak of. Or, on the other hand, POC who want nothing to do with me altogether, uninterested in gauging my consciousness. I am still learning how to flow with these interactions and not let it affect my self-esteem.
Every once in awhile though, there are these special moments in time where we are able to connect in spite of the ignorance/pain/trauma/loss that surrounds us and pours through our veins. Those moments are rare, but they do exist. Perhaps the only way for Black and white women to deeply connect is after a certain amount of personal critical work on both sides that allows us a space to meet in the in-between? So with us, there was just that kind of ease from the get-go. I felt your openness and acceptance very early on with me at least, maybe not with other people. And I think we were able to connect on a level of consciousness.
Stacey: And it seemed to be a level of consciousness that did not fight for stage time or get mired in expectations. I often observe how POC feel like they must show how well versed they are in white behaviors, theories, or white standards. I met you at a time when I no longer felt obligated to center white behaviors and standards for my own personal practice of self. Because my own agency was present I was able to worry less about performing race (which is what I think almost all people are trained to do) and instead just be the evolving me that keeps demanding ear/air time. For those white folks, though, who rolled up and assumed I was going to perform the language and dance of the oppressed while they “staged up” and wielded that oppressive whiteness … not happening. It was in the presence of that kind of white person—one who has no idea how committed they are to performing oppressive narratives of dominance—when you saw me be far less welcoming. I am always grateful I was able to be open and easy with the energy we shared. And I’m always glad we could find a dance floor even though it has been forever since we took to one together. ← 18 | 19 →
Jessica: Ok, focus (giggles), focus. And what if white people needed to be acculturated in POC cultures to survive? I feel like it is precisely because I was raised among Black and Latino people, and the cultural education I received in those communities, that I’m able to connect with people of color in the way that I do. This doesn’t change the fact that I continue to be privileged because of my whiteness. But because you and I have these cultural connections even as people from different races, there are things that connect us beyond just a consciousness about race, that there is a familiarity and a comfortableness there ’cause we don’t have to translate everything. We share house tracks and YouTube videos, or “girl can you believe …” stories of racist shenanigans at work or … maybe we just eat chocolate together cause these menstrual cramps are no joke.
Stacey: True talk! Remember how many times we watched the YouTube video about feeding our pelvises chocolate!! When we met, we were both like “what is this excessively white institution that we’re in?!” Everybody misread both of us and we immediately read each other on a very different wave pattern. We decided “we’re all good. Ya’ll stay over there and misread us.”
I’m thinking about the way that these experiences, landscapes, and the culture in the landscape informed our relationship. We were able to immediately find historical rhythms. “Damn girl, you went to the Promontory last week and back in the day you were at Red Dog and Mad Bar too?! … I remember when the movie theater over there closed down?!” (both cracking up here). So the land, the landscape, the architecture, the rhythms of the city … we knew all the spots, we were dancing at the same clubs. Dancing was a catalyst and a salve.
Jessica: Ooh, that’s a sexy line—dancing was a catalyst and a salve … indeed. Our mutual love for house music and dancing was definitely another level of connection. For me, house music is this cultural glue that connects me to a whole rainbow crew of freedom loving, Southside-descended, urban hippy, soulful boogiers, feeling like we’re at church on a Friday night. “Not everyone understands house music, it’s a spiritual thing, a body thing, a soul thing. …”
There’s like this ebb and flow into zooming in and zooming out in terms of thinking about consciousness; that delicate dance between two people for whom race is everything, an obsession even. So if I were to think about our relationship and the ways that we navigate that, there’s just this different level of conversation, where we don’t need to constantly prove ourselves to each other around consciousness; there’s a certain level of understanding already. It ← 19 | 20 → allows space to create intimacy, safety, the ability to talk about commonality without feeling like it’s masking our differences. This idea of being able to transcend boundaries without it requiring us to be the same. And, I mean, who doesn’t like dark chocolate. … (laughter). …
I have all of these cultural markers that have been with me since childhood—from dancing and music to code-switching and common histories. And so I can relate with a lot of those cultural markers with other folks of color from the South Side. That has always existed for me. It’s been coming into consciousness about the way that white privilege in particular plays out in my life that’s allowed me to have a different level of relationship and community with folks of color, and allowed me to step back a bit and see how it’s part of a larger system. I think that’s been instrumental in my relationships with people of color and across difference. Acknowledge.
Stacey: And your acknowledgment of white privilege. I remember meeting you and waiting to see if you were going to responsibly acknowledge your white privilege. I have watched lots of white folks declare their white privilege and then believe that declaration is both a simultaneous beginning and an end to racially responsible behavior and somehow all kinds of race-based retribution and redemption has taken place in that short amount of time. I guess it’s important for a white person to acknowledge privilege, but, so what?! Such recognition is a first step. My hope for white folks, especially white women, is that they can interrogate themselves about white privilege and recognize:
1. that acknowledgment is not going to be as transcendent for others as it might be for them;
2. understand that acknowledgment of white privilege is an unwavering invitation to interrogate the white imagination and the white sense of existence. And to do that interrogation is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s probably one of the healthiest, most important gifts a white person can give to herself: a careful interrogation of this thing called whiteness without the expectation for me to hold their hand.
Upon meeting you it was just so clear that you had done that crucial self-check without letting white shame, white guilt, and the embarrassment snatch the transformative moment. It was clear that you were not looking for me to exonerate you from your whiteness. That’s another ever lurking shadow narrative where the person of color makes a white person “cool” by being that “friend of color”; meanwhile all kinds of deeply racialized dynamics ← 20 | 21 → are tumbling about them. I have seen that occur in many, many interracial friendships.
Jessica: I think I go through white guilt, shame, all those things. I’ve felt all those feelings before, but I’ve just learned how to move through them in different ways. I’m not so hung up on it, it doesn’t feel debilitating like something that I allow very much space. …
I think it’s a really natural part of the process, so I’m not “anti” those things. I just think that when white folks start to dissect all of the ways that their life and their circumstances have nothing to do with their effort, not nothing, but much less than we’re taught, that if they are sitting with enormity and violence of white supremacy that is perpetuated and grasping that they are somehow connected to us, it can be a really devastating realization for someone who is trying to be a thoughtful, reflective person in the world. So I think that guilt/shame is a natural reaction … .
My cultural lens of the world has allowed me to process some white racial stuff very differently than I think white folks who are acculturated in all white spaces do. It’s a different type of shock. But I think it can be debilitating when people focus on that. I know that for a lot of folks of color this whole white guilt or white fragility stuff produces frustration and anger, or even from other white people who are saying there’s no space for that guilt. … I disagree. White people need to be able to do it in their own antiracist affinity groups, versus relying on folks of color to hold and support them in that process. I don’t think the guilt is avoidable and I don’t want to poo-poo people’s emotions. It’s part of this identity thing and it’s why white supremacy is horrible and so damaging to everybody. It’s a matrix, it’s everything that’s around us, it is literally the air that we breathe. Asking people to step outside of the matrix and visualize/articulate it can be a life-changing experience for both the privileged and oppressed. There are so few spaces, besides the classroom space, where you do that. I’m also continually honored to call you my friend and imagine this sisterhood together, cause our world makes relationships like ours damn near impossible.
Stacey: And raised glass to you too, sis. Our kind of activism is always ablaze with complexity. That’s why I always appreciate you knowing we need to dance big, cause none of this is small to us, or on us. I regret missing the dancing opportunities with you. It’s cool though. Summer’s coming. Find me a sweet DJ with a deep beat and let’s go birth some more of these freedoms.
I am having lunch with my dear friend Deborah. We are catching up on various recent events when Deborah says, “Robin, I need to give you some feedback.” My chest tightens slightly, but I try to stay open. “Okay, what’s up?” I tentatively respond. “You are always talking over me. That is your racism.” She replies. I am shocked.
What? Wait a minute! I know it’s a bad habit, but it has nothing to do with racism. I talk over everybody! I come from a big Italian family, and if you didn’t interrupt people at the dinner table, you wouldn’t get heard. It’s just a cultural style! How can it be racism if I do it to everybody?
Robin, when you do it to me the impact is racism. My whole life I have been interrupted and silenced by white people. You put me yet again in the position to have to fight for visibility. You not noticing or attending to that is part of what it means to be white.
I am a white woman. This chapter is based on a cross-racial friendship I have had with a Black woman—Deborah Terry-Hays—for over 20 years. I met Deborah when I was hired for a position as a diversity trainer. The position consisted of cofacilitating a series of mandatory trainings for State workers in the early 1990s. For several years Deborah and I were paired together. Over time, we became close friends. Using several transformative moments for me ← 23 | 24 → over the course of our friendship, I want to challenge the ideology of individualism and share a key learning: our identities are not separate from the white supremacist society in which we are raised. Thus, our patterns of cross-racial engagement are not merely a function of our unique personalities and must be challenged. The following three vignettes illustrate three key concepts connected to this point that I came to understand through my relationship with Deborah: how individualism functions to deny racism; why carefulness around people of color reinforces racism; and why relying on people of color alone to educate ourselves about racism is a form of colonialism.
When Deborah told me over lunch that my talking over her was racist, I was taken aback. While I saw myself as sensitive to racism and understood that we are all socialized into racist patterns, I didn’t understand how something that I did with everyone could be racist. Wasn’t racism insensitive acts that white people did specifically to people of color? So I insisted that it was just my personality and because I do it to everyone, it couldn’t be racism. She patiently explained to me that when I talk over a person of color, the impact of that behavior is different because we bring the racial history of our groups with us. While white people tend to see ourselves as individuals outside of race, people of color tend to see us as white people. Thus the meaning of cutting off or talking over a person of color is very different. In effect, I was saying to her, “I will not adapt to you or this context, I will continue to act the way I always act and you will have to adapt to me.”
As I struggled to understand Deborah’s feedback I came up against a deep feeling of unfairness. Why couldn’t I be myself with Deborah? Wasn’t acting differently around people of color racist? Did I actually have to watch everything I said and did? What did people of color want from us? Would they ever be satisfied? What was I supposed to do if Deborah was going to see racism everywhere!? Looking back, the irony is that it was me that was looking through a universal lens—the lens of Individualism.
What I came to understand through Deborah’s feedback is that I was denying that we are products of our social and historical environment and that the past bears upon the present and the current conditions we find ourselves in. I was positioning myself as outside of culture and history, as if my interactions occurred in a sociohistorical vacuum. Yet to be able to think critically about the phenomenon of racism, we must be able to think sociohistorically ← 24 | 25 → about it. Insisting that our cross-racial behaviors are simply a function of our unique personalities falsely positions us outside of society. As a white person, my psychosocial development was inculcated in a white supremacist culture in which I am in the valued group. I was raised in a society that taught me that there was no loss in the absence of people of color; that in fact their absence was a good and desirable thing that should be sought and maintained. This has shaped every aspect of my identity and what I think of as my “self” or personality: my interests and investments, what I care about or don’t care about, what I see or don’t see, what I am drawn to and what I am repelled by, what I can take for granted, where I can go, how I think about myself and how others think about and respond to me, and what I can ignore.
I may be told by my parents that everyone is equal. I may have friends of color. I may never tell a racist joke. Yet I am still impacted by the forces of racism as a member of the society; I will still be seen as white, treated as white, and experience life as a white person. My identity, personality, interests, and investments will develop from a white perspective. In a society in which race clearly matters, our race profoundly shapes us, and if we want to challenge it, we have to make an honest accounting of how it manifests in our own lives and in the society around us. Although racism does of course occur in individual acts, these acts are part of a larger system of interacting and interlocking dynamics. The focus on myself as solely an individual prevented the personal, interpersonal, cultural, historical, and structural analysis necessary in order to challenge this larger system. Yes, this means I have to pay attention to how I am interacting with people of color.
Another example was brought home to me during a planning session for a workshop I would be cofacilitating with Deborah. One of the exercises we would be leading the group in was designed to illustrate the unavoidable internalization of stereotypes. In this exercise, participants are paired up, they choose a racial group that neither of them belongs to, and together they explore their stereotypes about the group.
In discussing this exercise with her, I shared my fear of accidently saying something racist. I told her I thought the goal was to be careful not to expose these stereotypes, thus surfacing them in this exercise seemed dangerous to me. What if loosening them up made it more likely I would blurt them out? Wasn’t it better to be careful about the racist ideas in my head? For me ← 25 | 26 → and other whites who see ourselves as racially progressive, this was our worst fear—that we would accidently “say the wrong thing” and be perceived as racist. Thus, being careful to me meant being racially sensitive, which was my goal. She paused and looked at me for several moments and then said, “Robin … do you think we can’t tell when you are being careful?” Chagrined, I had another fish-out-of-water moment. I suddenly felt uncovered as a white person. I realized that I expected my friend to see me as I saw myself—outside of race. I also had a sudden realization of what it must look like for people of color when whites are being careful around them. We look stiff, uncomfortable, uptight, and reserved. As I pictured myself being careful around people of color in this way, I also saw why they experienced that as racism. I certainly wasn’t warm, relaxed, sincere, or open when I was being careful. If they watched me with my white friends, wherein I was relaxed and open, the contrast would be painful.
For me, this was a great example of my own unaware and unintended racism and made clear why people of color so often shared that whites were reserved and cold around them and how awful that felt. This behavior is rooted in racism in that we are acting differently around people of color. This difference in behavior can be attributed to factors such as segregation, fear of people of color, and not valuing our relationships with people of color enough to build comfort with them. My friend’s question caused me to realize that while I needed to be thoughtful about what I said and not just spill forth every racist thought in my head, carefulness was not useful. I have come to realize that people of color expect us to make mistakes and are less concerned about that than about how we respond when these mistakes are pointed out, what we are willing to do to “clean them up,” and what we learn from our mistakes and do differently in the future. This willingness to repair is what makes for authentic cross-racial relationships between women.
Racism is a very complex, multilevel system. There are no easy and concise answers or solutions to it. While we need to develop strategies for challenging racism, no single strategy will work in every situation, and some strategies, if taken to the extreme, can become nonconstructive. For example, thoughtfulness is an important strategy. Thoughtfulness can include being cognizant of the history we bring to racial encounters, being considerate about the language we use, being sensitive to group dynamics, and being attentive to our patterns and blind spots. But thoughtfulness taken to an extreme can become carefulness, in which we are so cautious about making a mistake or offending that we end up engaging disingenuously. ← 26 | 27 →
Deborah was involved in an organization committed to critical self-awareness. While this organization is primarily white, heterosexual, and middle class, they work hard to educate themselves on various aspects of oppression and their role in them. Deborah was a member in one of the organization’s weekly study groups. She was the only person of color in the group of twelve. At some point, the group’s facilitator, a white male, informed her that for the next week they would be studying racism and asked her if she would teach that session. She told him she needed to think about it, and then she called me, very distressed. She was torn: on the one hand she wanted to give them this information because they desperately needed it; on the other hand, to be the only person of color in the group and have to explain to them how racism manifested—both in general and in the group—was terrifying. In so doing, she risked experiencing many common white patterns: minimization, defensiveness, anger, objectification, invalidation, and white guilt. She decided that she would share her experience as a person of color if I would come with her and speak to the group—specifically as a white person—about white patterns of racism, since whites are generally more receptive to hearing about racism from other whites. My presence would also ensure that she had a trusted ally at her side. I agreed.
As the days passed and she prepared her presentation, she called me many times to vent her fear and anxiety. This request to teach an all-white group about racism took a tremendous toll on her. In addition to the emotional work she was doing, she spent hours preparing her presentation so that it was clear in a way that could be understood by white people, and was as indisputable as possible so it could not be negated. Being in front of an all-white group also triggered her internalized oppression—as a Black woman she had a lifetime of messages from schools, white teachers, and society at large that she was unintelligent and had no knowledge of intrinsic value.
Finally the evening came. The group listened thoughtfully and then asked questions and made comments. One member of the group stated—in a way somewhat critical of the organization—“I am so glad this organization is finally teaching us about racism. I have been waiting for them to do that.” This statement triggered in me another fish-out-of-water moment in which I could see a cross-racial dynamic I had not seen before. I had watched the tremendous amount of emotional and intellectual work Deborah had done in order to make this presentation. Now, watching this group sitting comfortably ← 27 | 28 → on their chairs and effortlessly receiving Deborah’s presentation, I saw a metaphor for colonialist relations (one more powerful group occupies the land of another and exploits and profits from the resources and work of the people of that land).
Sherene Razack (1998), writing about whiteness and the pattern of studying those who are seen as “different,” states that, “The cultural differences approach reinforces an important … cornerstone of imperialism: the colonized possess a series of knowable characteristics that can be studied, known, and managed accordingly by the colonizers whose own complicity remains masked” (p. 10). Using this metaphor, the group was in essence saying,
We will observe you and seek to understand you. In doing so, we will relax while you work. You will provide us with the fruits of your labor. We will receive these fruits and consider them; we will decide what to keep and what to reject—what we deem worthy of consideration and what we don’t. We thank the organization for bringing you to us, for we have desired your knowledge. But if you were not brought before us, we would not (as we have not up until now) expend any effort in seeking it for ourselves.
Further, this group member positioned this as a shortcoming of the organization rather than of himself, so that he also managed to elevate his own moral standing. Still, his credit went to the organization, not to Deborah. While I am quite sure that this is not what the person meant to say or do, I do think that his response illustrates the dynamics of internalized colonialism (or internalized dominance).
And what role did I play in all of this? This is the question I haven’t wanted to ask myself. While I could clearly see the racial dynamics in the group’s behavior, I wasn’t asking what aspects of my own racism were reinforced for me. But looking back I realize that while it was painful for Deborah, I found it to be an “interesting” learning experience, one in which I was the “good” white person, there for my friend of color. I came away from that incident feeling proud of myself and how I had supported Deborah, and been equipped with new insights on how other white people’s racism worked. And I had accrued this racial capital at Deborah’s expense, for no matter how painful that experience was for her and what difference it might have made to her that I was there, I still received resources at the expense of her pain. I got to be the white savior, enacting my own form of colonialism.
I understand that Deborah asked me to support her in that particular way, and for me not doing so was not an option. But that does not put me outside of racism. And as I write this I realize that I never checked myself and my own ← 28 | 29 → racial arrogance in that situation. What might it have looked like if I had? I could have challenged the white superiority I felt as I watched the group interact with Deborah. I could have owned what was happening for me in that exchange. I could have checked in with Deborah afterward about how she perceived my engagement. But I did not do any of those things. Instead, on our ride home, I assumed for myself that she felt supported by me, and instead of asking, I proceeding to point out everything I noticed about what the white people in the group were doing. This had the effect of both reinforcing the racism for Deborah (in case she had missed any nuance of it I was making sure she noticed it all) while positioning me as the “smartest white person in the room”; the white person who “got it.” I didn’t give her much room to express any pain or disappointment she may have felt about aspects of my own enactments of racism.
Perhaps the most powerful interruption of white supremacy is building authentic cross-racial relationships. As I hope is illustrated by these examples, that will never mean that your relationship is free of racism. So what does an authentic cross-racial relationship look like? It is long term, equal, and based on trust and commitment. The white person will not give up when things get hard. In other words, these relationships are not temporary, contextual (I have a coworker of color I hang out with at work), superficial (we don’t talk about sensitive issues such as race), or easily dissolved when a conflict arises. I may be friendly with a coworker, but if they never come to my home, sit at my kitchen table, and break bread with me, as do my other friends, it is only a superficial friendship.
Authentic relationships cannot happen between people of unequal status—for example, between an employer and an employee. I have heard many white people refer to their housekeepers, nannies, and other employees of color as friends or “family.” While great feelings of fondness and affection may exist in these relationships, they are not equal, due to the differential in power between employer and employee. This power differential is both implicit across race and explicit across status in that, as their boss, you have the power to dictate the rules and fire them at will. This power differential does not allow for full honesty or trust to develop; when someone depends upon you for their livelihood they are likely to be careful about what they say and do, and that limits the authenticity in your relationship. ← 29 | 30 →
Most white people are not socialized in ways that would make the building of authentic cross-racial relationships easy—I certainly wasn’t. Segregation in schools and neighborhoods makes it unlikely for us to meet or form relationships with many people of color. Dynamics of internalized superiority—reinforced by the relentless racist messages in the culture around us—and the sense that cross-racial relationships are not valuable make it unlikely that we will seek them out. Whites rarely venture outside of their social circles in ways that would make cross-racial friendships more likely. When white people do have cross-racial relationships, they are often the result of a person of color entering their existing social circle. We may also notice that these friends tend to be of the same race—in other words primarily Asian or primarily Black. While this gives us some cross-racial exposure we might not otherwise have, it isn’t the result of our doing anything to seek out these relationships; we aren’t challenging any of the dynamics that keep us separate.
Building authentic cross-racial relationships usually requires that white people go beyond merely hoping that these relationships will happen. We have to interrupt the status quo of our daily lives and interactions. This will require getting out of our comfort zones, taking risks, challenging our racial apathy, and our sense of entitlement to racial comfort. But most importantly, developing authentic cross-racial relationships from an antiracist perspective includes developing the skills and perspectives that enable us to engage constructively with issues of race and racism. One of the most critical and intimate of these skills is the willingness to remain in the relationship when racial tensions arise (and if the relationship is authentic, racial tensions will occasionally arise). Over and over I have seen or heard of whites who give up at the first sign of racial tension, who walk away and blame the person of color: they were too sensitive; they overreacted; they have a personal problem. And over and over I have heard people of color talk about how painful it is when whites give up and walk away, using the privilege of individualism and universalism to insist the issue isn’t about race.
In my early days doing this work, I dreaded getting feedback from Deborah on my racist patterns and assumptions. But now I welcome this feedback and I actually worry if I am not receiving it. Perhaps the most powerful lesson I have learned in building cross-racial relationships is that this feedback is a positive sign in the relationship. Of course, the feedback seldom feels good—I occasionally feel embarrassed or defensive. But I also understand that there isn’t any way for me to avoid enacting problematic patterns, so if Deborah trusts me enough to take the risk and tell me, I am doing well overall. Further, ← 30 | 31 → her feedback helps me see dynamics that are difficult to see on my own, and thereby I can continually grow; this is a gift. Many people of color have shared with me that they don’t bother giving feedback to white people that they don’t think can hear it; they either endure the microaggressions or drift away from the relationship. But they do not feel close to white people to whom they can’t speak openly and honestly about racism, and these relationships always have a degree of distance and inauthenticity.
“Getting it,” when it comes to race and racism, challenges our very identities as good white people. It’s an ongoing and often painful process of seeking to uncover our socialization at its very roots. It asks us to rebuild this identity in new and often uncomfortable ways. But I can testify that it is also the most exciting, powerful, intellectually stimulating, and emotionally fulfilling journey I have ever undertaken. It has impacted every aspect of my life—personal and professional. I have a much deeper and more complex understanding of how society works, I am able to challenge much more racism in my daily life, and I have developed cherished and fulfilling cross-racial friendships I did not have before. Of course there are many nights when I go to bed feeling hopeless. But in a society that is infused with racism, even hope is political. If I give up because it’s too hard or too big or because I believe it will never end, it still serves me as a white person; the impact of my hopelessness is not the same as that of a person of color’s. White hopelessness ultimately protects racism if it keeps us from challenging it.
Razack, S. (1998). Looking white people in the eye: Gender, race, and culture in courtrooms and classrooms. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
To my Mother, who refuses to see (and maybe all white mothers raising black or brown children):
Mom, You don’t see me. I can’t pinpoint the exact moment, but at sometime along the way, I stopped becoming real to you, three dimensional. I wonder if you ever really saw me. After all, you always said I was so much like my dad you felt like you were fighting with him. I want you to see me, and I want to see you, more clearly than I do now. I don’t know if it’s because you fail to see me and my siblings as Black or because you refuse to recognize your own privilege as a white woman. Whatever the reason, I am becoming unrecognizable to you. Like a transition shot in a student film, every time you see me, I become more and more blurry.
I have to write to you because words between us are like dynamite. I don’t know how many more fights I can recover from. How quickly words between us turn to rockets launched with no direction. Quiet is not possible with you. I have tried biting my tongue until I taste only copper and hate. I love you, but I love me more and that is why I can’t allow you to say and do things I would never tolerate from any other person, particularly any other white person. You have made me feel hopeless and in the process became a symbol. If you, you who have five Black children, who have fallen in love with Black men, aren’t ← 33 | 34 → fighting for Black lives and even worse, are the antagonist, then who does care. You make me feel as if it is impossible for a white person to be completely antiracist. The suspicion of white people, particularly those that would name themselves antiracist or allies comes from you. How is it so easy for them? What is their investment? Are they lying? Am I missing something huge and glaring? Somehow, if I just found the right Tim Wise article to send you or gift you that one bell hooks book for Christmas, you would come around. But you haven’t come around. I wonder if that’s even a possibility.
Mom, you would probably be surprised to hear this, but you’re on my mind a lot. Some days, when sadness grips me while my alarm beeps, I make the decision to stay in bed and call in sick. I choose to spend the day reading or writing or crying or watching Netflix or sleeping or reading my tarot. I realize that you never had that choice. You could not just decide to call off work, stay in bed, and get to know yourself a little better. You never had the chance to sit quietly with yourself. You never had that stillness. By the time you were my age, you had four Black girls, three jobs and a largely unsupportive family. Your life was no longer a mystery. You were so young; I don’t know that it ever was.
Thank you. I think you’re a fucking warrior for continuing to choose what you wanted to do, when everybody else in your life—your father, our father was telling you that you couldn’t handle another (Black) child. You made that choice five times knowing the brutal struggle, the sleepless nights, the bouncing checks and familial isolation this would cost. You made that choice. And I think you’re a warrior not because “it was the right thing to do,” but because I cannot imagine my life void of my siblings. Without them, I would be hopelessly lost.
The resentment is expected. Natural, even. Before I was eight, I realized the inevitable resentment you carried for us. The regret, “what if” questions you must have asked yourself. Sometimes you would tell us to our face, paint a picture of what your life could look like if we weren’t in it—as if we were mistakes to be edited out in the next draft. And I’m sorry. Sorry you never had the chance to decide to leave, move somewhere else, travel somewhere else or try somewhere else. You never had the option of flight like I have.
It makes sense you decided to return home after you realized my father was good for little more than giving you children. I understand the need for safety, comfort, security—and can only imagine the heightened need for those things when you have four little girls and a no-good man, who will inevitably leave. Is that why you kept us in Youngsville for so long? In that small small town? ← 34 | 35 → Your comfort, unfortunately, meant our otherness. Our lives as shipwrecked aliens who were captured and put on display, with no warning. Every day felt like a blinding sea of whiteness. I know you were working, rarely home. Do you have any idea the battles that we had to fight? That getting on the school bus felt like walking between active gunfire. I know we told you. All the times we were called nigger on the school bus, in the lunch line, during Sunday school. I know we told you about the times we were followed home, high beams flashing, making every turn we did until we cut through a neighbor’s yard. I know we told you about the mean old babysitters who rubbed our noses in their dirty, pissy carpet if we had an accident while taking a nap, like we were puppies to be trained. I know we told you how everybody else at the party got hats and cake, except us. And I don’t know if the older we got, the feelings became harder to describe or if they just became more normal, no longer news. At some point though, we stopped telling you.
I don’t know if this ever happens to you, but when I try and explain Youngsville, people can’t believe such a place still exists. People think I’m lying when I say that we were the only people of color for several counties. People shake their heads when I say it was an everyday occurrence to see an Amish on horse and buggy, but if a Black person came to town, everybody would turn and look and whisper and question their motives. Today, when you talk about our childhood you describe a very idyllic, bucolic little town. You refuse to hear us, challenge our stories even. You demand receipts, tell us we are exaggerating and gaslight us into thinking we are making it all up. It’s a good thing I have diligently kept a journal since I was eight years old. It’s a good thing I still have every single one of them, in a stack nearing three feet. My past is not malleable and my journals guarantee I have a record untainted by memory and time.
October 13, 1998: Youngsville, PA, age 8. Something is wrong with me. Cody asked me why I was brown but my mom is white. I don’t know why either. I am supposed to be halfwhite but I don’t see white anywhere except my feet and hands.
February 12, 2000: Youngsville, PA, age 11. I fucking hate slavery. I hate learning about it in school. I hate watching those stupid movies. I hate when the teacher uses me as an example. I hate being Black. Everybody looks at me. Jake said today that picking cotton didn’t look so hard to him. I wanted to punch him. I was sitting right next to him but I acted like I didn’t hear him. The next time he says something, I’m going to hit him.
Imagine it, Mom, your whole life you not seeing anybody who looks like you, except your sisters. Imagine being given this visible mark, visible ← 35 | 36 → difference with no explanation at all. Yet, you are the sole representative. For the majority of my life, my Blackness felt like this impossible puzzle I was tasked to solve with only a few hints here and there. Why did you provide us with so few hints? Why did you never talk about it? I felt wrong 100% of the time. Whether I was in school, at dance class, in the grocery store, even at home, I felt wrong.
Even when the smell of magnolias lured you to South Carolina the summer I turned thirteen, that feeling of wrongness transformed but never disappeared. You brought us down South with very little warning. I had no idea what to expect. After living my whole life in a town whose population was less than 1,000 people, Florence, with a population around 40,000, felt massive. It might as well have been New York. And I’ll be honest, Mom, I was drowning. I was breathing in water and you didn’t even notice. You were busy with work and your new boyfriend.
Moving South changed us all radically, that is undeniable. I am so grateful you made the choice to leave Youngsville before I entered high school, before I was swallowed up whole by insecure white teenagers, ready to use my identity for batting practice. The year that we moved to the South, is maybe when I can pinpoint the moment I started to become blurry and out of focus to you. When we stopped speaking to each other tenderly and only mumbled or yelled. Looking back now, I think you were drowning too, learning too. If that is true, I’m sorry I didn’t recognize that.
I did recognize other things. You started celebrating my sister’s and my light skin, our longer hair, “proper speech.” You worked hard to make sure we were set apart from the other Black girls. That we knew we were better. Even though we lived in the same trailer park, took the same classes and stood in the same “free lunch” line, we were better. You did everything you could to remind people that we were half white. I remember getting written up for one thing or another in the eighth grade. I brought it home for you to sign and you were more outraged that they put Black on the write-up slip than whatever infraction was listed. You demanded that they change my race to white. Even at thirteen, I saw that for what it was: a shallow attempt for them to see me as white. To see me different from the other Black girls. If I was Black, I deserved the write-up. If I was white, there would be leniency, phone calls instead of write-ups. You were attempting to transfer your white privilege to me. Attempting to erase any trace of Blackness that betrayed you. Do you remember what I told you then? The teachers don’t see me as white, so it doesn’t matter what the paper says. ← 36 | 37 →
That’s when we begin to fight. Physically. You did not like who I was becoming and I did not like you. Ironic that in public, at school, you demanded we be classified as white, yet when we argued, you had no problem reminding me what I am. What I already knew to be true: I’m nothing more than a nigger.
I’m not going to ask you, because you have no idea how that feels. Do you know that a white person saying that word literally elicits a physical reaction from me? That when said with hatred and aimed like a loaded gun at a person, I feel electrocuted. I feel shocked. I feel like my body is filled with the rage of an angry bull watching a matador practice behind a closed gate. It fills me with a killing rage toward whoever has delivered that verbal blow. Do you know how it feels to feel that toward your own mother? Sometimes I wonder if I am absurd for continuing to love you, to passively forgive you. There is no other white person in the world whom I would have forgiven.
Chosen family will ask me, how could I forgive you? How could I still see you after that? And my answer is always the same: My little brother is ten. If I stop talking to her, I stop talking to him too.
And I guess, this is the reason I am writing you this letter in the first place: Joshua. When you told us you were pregnant, we were furious. All we could think about was ourselves. How this was disrupting our lives. Hadn’t we lived fifteen years, just us? Then he was born and we all dropped our weapons, took off the armor and banded together around our baby brother. He was our little peace offering to one another, he brought us all together in our collective need to protect and care for him. But he’s not a child anymore. He’s nearly ten. When he was younger, my sisters and I protected him, raised him. Now, we are all grown and he is alone.
I see you, pushing him toward whiteness, becoming angry if he calls himself Black and not biracial. I can only hope your fights do not escalate to the levels that ours did. You cannot protect him from white supremacy. Have you seen the news? I’m sure you’ve seen the images of his body, splayed on the ground by now. I’m sure you’ve seen his picture, plastered all over the news, the papers—there is no escaping that a boy was lynched in America today. I know you’ve seen it, because here in Mexico City, I’ve seen it. His face is on the front page of papers here. American coverage playing over quick commentary on the 13-inch TV in the corner store by my house. Students at UNAM are talking about it. The friends I’ve made, asking me in slow Spanish so that I can understand, “Vi las noticias. Estas bien?” and my reply needs no translation: No.
I’m not okay. I feel sick. I feel like I want to get on the next plane out of here, run straight from the tarmac to your house and run up straight up the ← 37 | 38 → stairs to Josh’s room and just hold him in my arms and keep him safe and never let him go.
Did you know that every 28 hours a Black person is killed in this country by police, security guards, or another vigilante? Every 28 hours. And you can teach Joshua that he’s mixed, refuse to cut his curly hair and force him into soccer and Boyscouts all that you want to. You can demand he wear a sign around his neck that says, “I AM A HALF WHITE,” and still the world will see him as Black. Because the thing is, people already have their mind made up as to who Joshua is, who Trayvon was, before they even open their mouths. You can teach him all the right things to say, but what happens when they shoot him before he gets a word out?
You’re probably rolling your eyes right now, if you’re even still reading this. I know you’re sick of hearing me by now. I know you dread when I come home and the topic veers toward politics, race, or police. I know because I dread them too. I dread when words catch fire and cause physical pain. When you turn into a defensive frat boy at a bar who just said something racist or touched my hair. For a long time I projected my feelings toward you onto all white people. You became a symbol for me. If I couldn’t even make you care about the liberation of Black people, I sure as hell couldn’t make other white people. I put in work. I bought you books, wrote you letters, choked down my rage and listened to you say things like, “it’s only a word. You’ve called me a bitch after all.” And years pass and every victory I celebrate with you is quickly snatched. To be honest, I feel pretty hopeless right now. When I realized that my mother, who raised five Black children, couldn’t even care, there’s no way in hell those other random white folks do.
You remain one of the most difficult puzzles in my life. You make me wonder if it’s even possible to love through white supremacy. I am unapologetically Black and that is not going to change. That is fixed, not malleable. My ancestors saw that for me before you did. I love you, Mom, and I don’t want to leave you behind, but I will continue to fight for Black lives, for my life until I can’t anymore. I will not stop until liberation, and I will fight anybody who stands in the way of that. Even you. This was my last attempt, I hope you’ve seen me.
Love, your daughter Nelle.
As a professional who works in diversity, equity, and inclusion education, my daily work calls me to be both provocative yet hospitable, risk-taking yet careful, patient yet outspoken. As you can imagine, balancing and navigating this world and work creates a great deal of tension. There are days when my emotional and intellectual pendulum swing so far left and right that I lose sight of center. And, at the center of this emotional journey is my own complicated experiences of identity as a woman of color, as an Asian American, and as a product of a predominantly white environment.
Over my lifetime, I have traveled a twisted road toward embracing my racial and ethnic identity. I was born in the United States to immigrant parents, two young doctors from the Philippines who moved across the globe to begin a new life filled with hopes of opportunity and promise. Though they landed in Boston and spent the first few years in a predominantly Black neighborhood and community, my parents were socialized to believe that the suburbs were the ideal place to raise a family. Within four years of their arrival in the United States, after working double shifts and alternating work schedules, my parents moved my sisters and me from our racially diverse apartment building to a predominantly white suburb twenty-two miles outside of Boston. Though I spent the first formative years of my life living among people who ← 39 | 40 → looked like my family, I spent tumultuous adolescent years in the suburbs trying to fit in.
See, for most of my life, I wanted to be white. I hated my brown skin, my almond-shaped eyes, and my straight black hair. Instead of embracing my identity, I spent my developmental years perfecting the spiral perm and crimped hairstyle of the late 1980s. I experimented with fake tanning lotion, not because I needed to darken my already brown skin but because all of my white friends were saving up their babysitting earnings on beauty products to make themselves look darker. I borrowed my friend’s green mascara. I arched blue eyeshadow over my lids. And, in the summer, I used a hair bleaching product—one that came in a white spray bottle with a picture of the happiest blond woman I had ever seen—that made my friend’s hair the color of sunshine but turned my black hair into a Halloween-like shade of orange. I dated white boys. I fell in love with white movie stars. I taped pictures of beautiful white women next to my mirror so I could imitate their makeup tricks. I joked along with my peers who made fun of the nerdy foreign exchange Asian character in our favorite movies, the one who never got the girl and was only invited to the party so others could poke fun of him.
I was always trying to get on their level; I was always trying to be one of them. I never thought about racial diversity growing up in my Irish and Italian suburb. I never had to. My goal was simple—try to be white.
But, college was different. College was an awakening. On move-in day, my family helped to shuffle my suitcase, computer, and desk supplies from our 1989 Chevy van into my basement dorm room. My parents and I took turns carrying bedding and desk supplies from the parking lot to my new room. Whenever my dad, who is best described as a man of few words, and I were alone, he blurted out different gems of advice like, “Always walk with a friend” or “Don’t go out late at night” or “You are here to study, not to have fun.” I waited until he left before I opened up my beer-filled backpack and arranged the cans neatly in my mini-fridge.
When my parents left, I was alone. After living nearly eighteen years with five brothers and sisters, being alone was something I had never truly experienced. I needed to find a friend, someone to talk to or meet.
Soon enough, I heard someone walking down the hallway toward my room. I hopped off of my regulation-sized twin bed, peeked my head outside of the door, and was surprised by the woman standing across from me. She had long, black curly hair that fell halfway down her back; dark brown skin; and a book bag so overstuffed with binders that the top zipper was praying to make ← 40 | 41 → it through the day. “Oh, hi,” she said. “I’m Seema. I live next door.” From that moment on, Seema and I were inseparable.
With Seema, I talked about race every day. We stayed up late at night, dipping salty, curly french fries into disposable paper cups filled with ketchup. We talked about our romantic relationships and bonded over common things people said to us in high school about “being good at math” or “about being so American.” Seema introduced me to Ericka, her roommate, an African American woman from Hartford. And, Ericka introduced me to a dozen other Black women who hung out in our residence hall.
Within a week of moving into college, my entire friend group was women of color. I craved their company, our conversations, and the ease with which we connected with one another. I knew that despite our different ethnic and racial backgrounds, I felt supported and guided by this group.
While my in-dorm group of friends was all women of color, most of my friends outside of dorm life were white. I took classes with mostly (all) white students, sang in an acapella group with mostly (all) white students, and served on student government with mostly (all) white students. These spaces were familiar to me. In many ways, they felt like home. But, as I dove into my identity as a woman of color, I began to feel less connected to the culture of whiteness and began to resent the absence of people of color in my school environment.
Around my senior year of college, I learned, on my own, more about communities of color, my own people, and my Asian American identity. I read and reread Ronald Takaki’s Strangers from a Different Shore (1998) and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1990) until their bindings began to break. I read fiction by Asian American writers and nonfiction works like Yell-Oh Girls! by Vickie Nam (2001). I threw myself into literature that showed me how white supremacy kept me from learning about other communities of color. And, I got angry.
By the end of college, I grew angry with white culture. I felt angry at whiteness and systems that kept whiteness in place. I began to feel cheated out of a curriculum and an education that never taught me about my cultural heritage. I began to resent that I had such a strong desire to be white for so many years. I was angry that no one in that circle of whiteness had told me it was okay to be me—to be Asian American-me. I was angry that I had, for so long, missed out on learning about Asian Americans who shaped our communities while I was so busy laughing at the nerdy foreign-exchange student character in the movies. ← 41 | 42 →
As an act of self-preservation, I decided that I would only surround myself with people of color. I found it protective, affirming, and necessary. I avoided spaces, as best I could, where I would have to socialize with white people and kept my relationships mostly superficial. I chose a graduate school in New York City where I knew I would interact with a diverse group of people, and that many of those people would be people of color. But, then, I met Missy.
I didn’t want to like Missy. Missy reminded me of my childhood. She reminded me of the white girl I always wanted to be: liked by everyone, visible in every space she entered, and heard by everyone. And, yes, she was blond.
I kept Missy at arm’s length, even though we were in the same graduate school classes and socialized with a similar group of people. I wasn’t ready to be friends with her; I wasn’t ready to be friends with her because she was white. But I grew to learn that Missy was fierce.
I soon noticed that Missy stood out wherever she went because, frankly, she was the only white woman in a sea of Black and Brown friends. I began to notice that the majority of her friends were people of color, and she had immersed herself in predominantly Black spaces. She led workshops on race and racism, and she deeply engaged in conversations about injustice.
But, most meaningful to me was that Missy was the first person I met who was aware of her whiteness. She named her whiteness. She knew she was white, and she knew what it meant to benefit from whiteness.
Despite all of this, I was slow to get to know her. Could I trust her as a white woman? Could I trust her to have conversations with me that were genuine about race? Could I trust that she wouldn’t say, “You sound so American” or “Could you help me with these statistics?” Could I trust that she’d understand that my own identity was complicated? I could. And, I did.
As the years went by, Missy and I explored issues of social justice, leadership, and intergroup dialogue together. We sought out professional opportunities that opened doors in these fields, and we also supported each other through our own personal growth. After graduate school, Missy and I traveled separate paths. Over the next few years, Missy’s career continued to soar. She sent me books that she had published—all of them about race, identity, and empowerment. She collaborated with strong women, many of whom were women of color and scholars of color, who intellectually pushed the boundaries of education, race, and gender.
Missy was the first person I knew who acted on being an ally to people of color. I identified her as an ally to me. Through Missy, I began to trust that there were white people who were committed to social justice. I began to trust ← 42 | 43 → white scholars invested in racial equity. I allowed myself to see white people who were willing to do the work around dismantling race and racism. Of course, as with any generalization, sometimes I was disappointed. Sometimes I thought an individual was down for the cause, only to hear microaggressive comments or a denial of systemic oppression.
- XVI, 230
- ISBN (PDF)
- ISBN (ePUB)
- ISBN (MOBI)
- ISBN (Book)
- Publication date
- 2018 (April)
- New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Vienna, Oxford, Wien, 2018. XVI, 230 pp., 2 b/w ill.