The Politics of Being Friends With White People
Photo Credit: Johana Lopes/Shutterstock
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A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, which found that 40 percent of white people and 25 percent of nonwhite people have no friends of the opposite race, caused me to reflect deeply on the friendship segregation that has characterized my own life.
These days most of my close friends are black. No. Let me be honest. All my close friends are black. One of my BFFs likes to joke that all of my white friends were grandfathered in before 1998, the year I graduated high school.
In third grade, during the Presidential election of 1988, my grandmother asked me whom I was voting for. To her utter dismay, I proudly announced “Bush!” unsuspectingly mimicking the overwhelming choice that my young classmates had made during the class “election.” She looked at me, shook her head forcefully and said, “Naw, Girl! Dukakis!” It would be many years before I understood that the difference in political orientations was just one of the many substantive differences between me and my classmates.
I had only begun to have white friends the year prior when I found myself newly “tracked” into the higher-achieving second grade class based on superior reading ability. Scattered into a predominantly white classroom among only a handful of black students left me desperately wanting to culturally fit in and sound like my peers, especially since the vast majority of black children I knew stayed concentrated in the “B” and “C” tracks. My awkward attempts to fit in resulted in me being teased mercilessly by my black peers, who from then on through the better part of high school both accused and found me guilty of “talking too proper,” “acting white” and, perhaps most egregious of all, “thinking I was white.”
I was grateful for the friendship of a white girl in my class, Amanda. I’m not sure why we were drawn to each other, but more and more, we became each other’s primary playmates during recess. By fourth grade, Amanda and I were joined at the hip, so much so that our teacher, a Black lady named Mrs. Gaulden, still my all-time favorite teacher, called us Ebony and Ivory after the famous song. Amanda directed the classroom production of “Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott,” starring yours truly as Rosa Parks.
It was Amanda with whom I had my first deep philosophical conversations. In fifth grade, I asked her what she thought about interracial marriage, probably after meeting a kid who had both black and white parents. She told me, “My daddy says people should marry their own kind.” Having never heard it put quite that way before, I simply nodded my head. It sort of made sense. Even I knew that my friendship with Amanda was an anomaly.
Still, it was Amanda with whom I shared most early adolescent memories. I called her when I got my period. It is she who saved me from being mercilessly teased by letting me know that even though all of us had read Judy Blume’s “Deenie,” we should never say the word “masturbation” out loud. Gross! It is she who put up with my obsession with the “Baby Sitters Club” series even though if I remember correctly she preferred “Sweet Valley Twins.” And there is a picture somewhere of Amanda and me dancing to Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” at our first junior high dance.
By the end of junior high school, as adolescent friendships go, Amanda and I had drifted apart, but in an amicable sort of way. We couldn’t giggle about the same kinds of boys since our tastes fell along racial lines, couldn’t trade makeup or hair products, or move through each other’s social circles with ease any longer, because increasingly these things were defined by race. So I decided that I needed black girls for friends, girls who liked the boys I liked, who went to churches sort of like mine, where we didn’t have “youth group” but youth either joined the choir or the usher board, girls whose cultural experiences were and would be closer to my own.