Even before moving to Maine, I’ve spent most of my life in primarily white spaces. I’ve learned to accept that if I want to be surrounded by people who look like me, I have to deliberately seek those spaces out. I’ve come to live with the constant underlying discomfort of knowing that everyone is aware that I don’t quite fit in. It’s become my norm, to the point where I hardly recognize it anymore. And I’m used to people being “polite” enough to pretend they don’t notice it either. Which is why I was taken aback when a colleague interrupted a spiritual breakfast sandwich experience to proudly share a story where she used my existence as a Black person in the periphery of her life to one-up a friend in a game of Who Is More Open-Minded.
She’d gone with her friend to see “Get Out,” a movie I’d deliberately avoided discussing with non-POC, and one they only considered worth seeing when it was being shown for free at a rooftop bar. Over post-movie beers, the friend conceded that she kind of gets it; there are places where she feels uncomfortable too. To which my colleague apparently angrily replied “No you do not! I have a coworker who comes to work every day knowing she’ll be the only Black person in every room!” After telling me this story, my colleague looked at me, seemingly with the expectation that I will commend her for so bravely standing up for Black people everywhere. Instead I took another bite of my breakfast sandwich (seriously, don’t interrupt my meals, particularly pre-coffee, especially with nonsense) and told her I had a lot of work to get to.
First of all, we already know how rude it is to expect Black people to be happy to drop whatever they’re doing and take up the emotional burden of discussing race with you. Second, you don’t get any cookies for not being racist. It’s the correct way to be. If that is the sole purpose of you engaging in a conversation with me, don’t bother; you won’t get what you’re looking for. Now third, let’s talk about tokenism.
It’s bad enough when people assume all Black people share one collective brain. Whenever I’m asked to be the voice of all melanated people, I’m quick to reply with a “I have no way of knowing what any other individual thinks, but here’s what I think and why.” Normally people get it, and reply with an embarrassed “Oh, I mean you keep up to date with facebook/blogs/think pieces so you know what people are saying out there; I didn’t mean that.” And we generally leave it, both knowing they meant exactly that. I won’t even get into how I respond to people who claim colorblindness. But what I find especially frustrating lately is the people who use me, without my permission and often even without my knowledge, to make a point about themselves.
Here’s the thing: there’s a difference between the friend who happens to be Black and The Black Friend. Usually, Ihave an idea of which I am to someone. A friend who happens to be Black is someone you regularly interact with in a way that that does not center around their blackness AND has nothing to do with commitment to work/church/family/etc. You know what is going on in their life and they know what’s in yours. Maybe they’ve presented themselves as a resource for you to educate yourself, but even then, you’re respectful of the emotional labor they’re investing in you. The Black Friend is the person you apologize to for other people’s racism; the one to whom you make a point to prove how “woke” you are. They are the person you think of when the news is full of reports of another person unjustly victimized, and desperate to separate yourself from “those people,” you send them a meaningless text that you’ve got their back, before you change the channel to GoT and move on with your life. The Black Friend is not really a friend at all, or maybe more accurately, you’re not really a friend to them.
In that moment at work, as my breakfast sandwich grew colder with every wasted moment, my colleague made it clear: To her, I am someone who exists solely as a symbol of how not-racist she is.
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