Thursday, January 15, 2015

How to Win Friends of Color

The title of this blog entry is not a tease. Well, just a little bit. I needed it to be a bit punchy; it should read, "How to Have More Authentic Friendships with People of Color." And it applies to white people and people of color alike. I should know because I didn't have many authentic friendships with people of color for a good portion of my life. This is because the degree to which you internalize white supremacy is the degree to which your relationships suffer, particularly those with people of color. As readers of my blog know by now, the white supremacy that I tend to write about is not the "master race" and "hate group" variety but the vernacular kind that is more difficult to recognize. It is still possible to decolonize your mind of this kind of white supremacy, albeit slowly. I regret that this blog cannot lay out a process that is as step-by-step efficient as this magic spell that tells you how to fall in love with anybody. After all, mixed-race marriages have a divorce rate ten points higher than marriages within race, with the black-and-white rate higher still. Having authentic relationships--friendships, marriages, filial, you name it--with people of color demands a lot of a person, and what it demands can be the most difficult part of yourself to let go.

Recent events give us insight into how difficult it can be to let part of yourself go in order to improve relationships. Like many, I have been closely following the aftermath of the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris. As well, I witnessed Margaret Cho satirizing a North Korean official on the Golden Globes. But this entry is not about these texts; it is about what happens when we interpret them and texts like them. Both texts have given rise to vocal online communities explaining why we should not be offended by images of black people as monkeys or by Cho pretending to be a white person pretending to be Asian. We are told that our feelings are off the mark, you see, because we are not French and do not understand the full cultural context of the Charlie Hebdo drawings or because we do not understand the literary trope known as satire. We are told that upholding free speech is in our best interest (until, well, it is not). Trust me: people of color know the relationship between satire and free speech. Only when we are with one another do we freely dare to satirize the racist white people we know, usually by pretending to deny the existence of racism: "Hmm, that doesn't seem racist to me." If you want to have better relationships with people of color, consider this: when they tell you that something is dehumanizing to them, don't sally forth to explain to them why you think they are wrong. It is paternalistic and backward.

Better than anyone I have read, James Baldwin has articulated the insidious nature of white supremacy and its progressive dehumanization of white people. From The Fire Next Time:
The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed that collection of myths to which white Americans cling . . . Negroes know far more about white Americans than that; it can almost be said, in fact, that they know about white Americans what parents--or, anyway, mothers--know about their children, and that they very often regard white Americans that way. And perhaps this attitude, held in spite of what they know and have endured, helps to explain why Negroes, on the whole, and until lately, have allowed themselves to feel so little hatred. The tendency has really been, insofar as this was possible, to dismiss white people as the slightly mad victims of their own brainwashing.
Baldwin is saying that black people gave birth to white people, in more ways than one. He is saying that most black people and other people of color have a better grasp on reality than most white people. (I told you this would be difficult.) This is what I think Ta-Nehisi Coates meant when he said that it is a privilege to be black. "But the burden of whiteness is this," Coates writes, "You can live in the world of myth and be taken seriously." Let me be clear: I do not mean that people of color have a better grasp on their own realities than do white people; I am saying that people of color, on the whole, have a better grasp on reality in general. And youth is no solution when white Millennials may be even "more deluded about their own beliefs" than their parents. Now, is there any better reason than self-interest for wanting friends of color?

The sad reality of the state of our relationships is that people of color can be denied their own version of reality by those who are, in Baldwin's words, slightly mad. When we are told that what we know in our gut to be racism is, in fact, satire, a clash of epistemologies is taking place. One party asserts that its way of knowing is superior to ours, which therefore must be misguided, naive, even disingenuous (the so-called "race card"). As Allan Johnson explains in Privilege, Power, and Difference, members of advantaged groups are socially conditioned to believe that they know what is best for the less powerful, to pronounce what members of marginalized groups ought to be thinking, feeling, or doing. Women should be flattered by catcalls, not offended or threatened; gay people would have no problems if they didn't act gay all the time; poor people would be better off if they didn't spend their money on smartphones or broadband. White people are not always aware of their ventriloquism, but people of color are. Unfortunately, some people of color internalize this dynamic, second-guessing and burying their felt experiences (if you are a person of color who wants more white liberal friends, here is a tip: like what they like). But others are right to be annoyed or angered by the didacticism, by the assumption that we do not have the mental or cultural capacity to understand what is being done for us (civilization, salvation, democracy) or how it is delivered (satire, religion, war). This is no way to make friends.

White people should also know that people of color may want to be around them but may not want to be their friends. In her excellent Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, Beverly Daniel Tatum, a clinical psychologist and president of Spelman College, cites Troy Duster, a researcher who studied diverse student groups at UC Berkeley and discovered that groups had different goals for interracial contact.
White students wanted to make friends with African Americans, but they wanted to do so in informal settings, and were less likely to want to participate in special programs, courses, or activities that structure interethnic contacts. African Americans were far more likely to want special programs and activities and were less interested in developing cross-racial friendships and social activities. Both groups wanted interracial experiences but on different terms.
What does it mean that black students prefer not to "do lunch" or to watch a football game with white students, that they aren't as interested in becoming friends? Tatum notes that black students begin to self-segregate (in the cafeteria and elsewhere) at adolescence. One important reason is a shared attitude toward racism. "Not only are Black adolescents encountering racism and reflecting on their identity," Tatum writes, "but their White peers, even when they are not the perpetrators (and sometimes they are), are unprepared to respond in supportive ways." Unsupportive ways include denial, minimization, or changing the subject altogether. So how do I believe that friends can support of people of color?

Making and keeping friends of color requires the suspension and gradual eradication of interpersonal impulses borne of white supremacy. One begins by understanding that white culture is actually white supremacy culture. People of color have always had to know white culture better than white people themselves; past and present, their lives and livelihoods depend on making the white people around them comfortable. Most people of color are socially conditioned to give comfort to white people (smiling, removing hands from pockets, not talking about racism), which is one of the reasons why some white people overreact so dramatically when their assumptions about the relationship are confounded. But what if white people entered into friendships with people of color knowing that the relationship would have to be uncomfortable much of the time? Clearly, divorcing yourself from white supremacy culture generates quite a lot of discomfort, a feeling that arises from committing to the belief that your friends of color have a better grasp on reality than you do. For how do you correct them--much less try to help them--from a position of ignorance? What is left for you to do but to listen without conjuring a response? Listen like you are being read to, for there is no greater intimacy between two people. Listen closely like you are a child again, nervous about a new tale. "The role of the artist is exactly the same as the role of the lover," wrote Baldwin. "If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don't see."

Alas, there is no magic spell for making lifelong friends of color. But there are some best practices, and the most important one may be this: unless people of color regularly come to you for advice about their lives, assume that your first reaction to a story about racism is wrong. Humor me here. You may not always be wrong, but you can practice being wrong less often. You can practice decolonizing your mind of white supremacy by doing what must not feel natural for the privileged: assuming that your interpretation of something is dead wrong. Of looting. Of #AllLivesMatter. Of #IllRideWithYouOf The Interview. Of LBJ and Selma. Of who satire punches. Of French civilization. Of the bad day your friend of color had. Assume that you are, indeed, slightly mad. Know the very real possibility that your first reaction is hegemonic and borne of white supremacy. This is the most difficult part of yourself to let go: your trust in yourself when it comes to anything, even what you don't experience. Too many of my own first reactions are still wrong, to my deep disappointment. I was Charlie, too, riveted to the TV for a few brief moments. But then I remembered this is because I was also Charlie when my father's white business associates asked if I was his "number one son." And I was Charlie when my ninth grade classmate told me that I'd better not be Vietnamese because he hated the Viet Cong. I was never any of these Charlies, all of them fantasies and phantoms of white supremacy. I know that now thanks to my friends of color and writers like James Baldwin, all of whom did nothing less than save my life by teaching me how to live outside the world of myth and, finally, to be a grown-up.

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