My first encounter with a black person was at the age of 14 when I entered high school. Up until then – while it probably occurred – I have no memory of meeting a black person. In 1974, when I was a freshman in high school, our town – like many in rural America then and now – was nearly 100% white. Our high school had a single black student – Michael Johnson – whose name I remember precisely because he was unique.
This is what I remember about Michael. He was a good basketball player, one of the stars of our team. He was quiet, polite, neatly dressed and always smiling. If I ever said anything other than “hello” to Michael, I don’t recall. Indeed, I don’t remember anyone at our school ever saying much to Michael other than “hello” and “good game.” When we graduated, I have no idea what became of Michael. Indeed, I haven’t thought much about him until recently.
This week, I was trying to determine when I first had a black friend. I was acquainted with a few black students at college, but with no one I would call friend. I interacted more closely with a couple of black peers in grad school, but mostly in the classroom. I eventually made a couple of closer friendships in my early 30’s through our church, where a few black folk attended. I would have called Rick my first close black friend. He and I had lunch periodically, attended movies and worked on church projects together. His family had dinner at our home.
Looking back, Rick and I never spoke about racism. I never asked him about his experiences as a black man in America. I treated him as if he wasn’t black, as if the color of skin was irrelevant to our relationship, even while thinking our friendship proof of my enlightenment. I was proud of having such a close black friend. Rick was humble, generous, funny and always smiling.
Over the last few years, I have finally developed a few genuine relationships with black men and women. These are relationships in which we talk about race. Sometimes they allow me to see and hear their rage, sadness, frustration and even their suspicion of me. They challenge me about my words, attitudes and actions. They have helped me understand something I never understood – I never really knew Rick.
Michael and Rick were black people operating in largely white environments where it wasn’t wise or safe for them to reveal their true personality. Michael may have been quiet, polite and happy, but I suspect that behavior was more expediency than transparency. I wonder what he was like when he attended his family reunion. Rick may have been humble, generous, and funny, but I suspect he’d also learned how to make white people like me comfortable.
Eventually, Rick and I drifted apart. Looking back, I worry much of that growing distance was about my discomfort. I remember thinking and saying that Rick had changed. Did he really change or did I finally see the more authentic Rick and find that less palatable?
When we talk about the racial divide in America, we need to understand how few genuine relationships between black and white people actually exist. A recent study found 80% of white Americans do not have a significant relationship with a person of color. In the rural towns where I grew up, the figure was 100%. But, even in urban settings, our neighborhoods, schools, parks, churches and social institutions are largely segregated. There are few genuinely organic opportunities for black and white people to become friends.
This leaves many white people open to a gross misunderstanding. Most of our encounters with black people are on “white turf” where black people present not as they are, but as they know we wish them to be – quiet, polite, humble, generous and always smiling. Paradoxically, most of our encounters with black people from a distance – through media or external observation – are of black people who are loud, assertive, self-possessed, proud and sometimes angry. What we don’t understand is many of those black people are the same people. It never occurs to us that black people are as emotionally complex as white people.
We misunderstand because – when it comes to race – we’ve never had to present two versions of ourselves to the world. We are free to be our white selves in each and every situation and encounter. This white privilege means I can present my true self to the police officer, to the judge, to my teacher, to my employer and to my friends without fear of consequence. I can be my white self when I encounter black people, aware that if anyone is going to have to adjust their behavior, it will not be me. They must make me comfortable.
This reality is central to our present racial divides. Those black people who bravely present as themselves often face censure, threat and attack. Therefore, most black people continue to operate in two worlds, of which only one allows them to be genuine. Many black people allow us to think we’re friends, presenting whatever they think we need to be comfortable. In the present racial climate, though sad, that is a time tested strategy for survival.
While I am convinced cross-racial friendships are essential to changing our society, I am aware of who bears the most risk in that work. I deeply appreciate the black men and women who have befriended me in recent years. I no longer see them as evidence of my enlightenment. I see them as courageous in their trust of me. I am also thankful for their willingness to make me uncomfortable.
They don’t always smile at me.