For years, I have had White friends.
I made my first White friend when I began taking private harp lessons for my sixth birthday. My harp instructor planned recitals for all of her students, and when I arrived at our first practice, I found myself surrounded entirely by White people. As a six year old born and raised in Detroit, this was my first time being left in a room where I was the only Black person. But I was a child, who was idealistic, naive and confident, and I quickly made my first White friend—Emily. Emily and I remained friends until I left the Ruth Meyers’ harp troupe the summer before I entered high school.
But not to worry, because it was during high school that I made even more White friends. And I am still very close friends with most of them today. I have found them to be supportive, reliable, and fun. We’ve seen each other through high school, college and beyond, and I am confident we will remain close friends for the rest of our lives. I look forward to homeschooling their White babies.
I consider my White friends “friends” because they have never had the gall to ask me to choose our friendship over the historical implications of our race and gender differences (did I mention that they are all cismen, too?). What I mean by this, Mr. J, is that my White friends are my White friends because they do not burden me with their White guilt, they do not seek “Black passes” for hurtful behavior simply because we are friends, and they do not try to persuade me that because we personally have such a strong friendship, it is time that the Black community “let bygones be bygones.” My White friends realize that although we are great friends, with wonderful memories and secrets shared between us, and great hopes for the future together, they are still White, and I am still Black.
And because they are still White, they still benefit from a system that has been carefully designed and tailored over centuries to prefer, protect and advance Whiteness. And because I am still Black, I am still oppressed by the same system that privileges them. In fact, their entire White (and male, for that matter) privilege rests very uncomfortably in the small of my back. Without my oppression, they would experience no racial privilege. If it weren’t for the brutal enslavement, rape and mass murder of my people, the wealth accumulation experienced by friend’s ancestors could not have occurred. If it weren’t for the carefully maintained residential and economic segregation of our communities, the wealth advantage still experienced my friend’s parents, and even them, could not be maintained. Inevitably, all White people benefit from the oppression of all Black people—friends or otherwise.
So friendship is not the answer to this problem. It is not enough that we “walk a mile in each other’s shoes,” that we make some derisive attempt at understanding each other’s culture (but really, Mr. J, comparing the Confederate Flag to a du-rag?), and it is not enough that we simply say (or sing, or rap) that it is time to let bygones be bygones. The injustice that we have endured and continue to experience can only be corrected with the absolute and complete abolishment of privilege. Privilege was not abolished through the ending of slavery, or Jim Crow, or any other nominal “victory.” White privilege continues to exist and permeate every realm of life, from wealth to health to residence to education.
If you encounter a White person who feels guilty about this, as it seems you might have with Mr. Paisley, well, that’s just fine. It is not your job to relieve them of their guilt. In fact, some might argue (ok ok, by some, I mean me) that your incredulous sensitivity to White guilt is a slap in the face of all of your community members whose suffering can be inextricably drawn back to White imperialism, supremacy and privilege. Because, Mr. J, in order for us to really make a step at dismantling privilege (of all sorts), we need people who are brave enough to stand firm against racism, privilege and power, even when it is experienced by our friends. I appreciate your attempt at compassion (I mean, I guess), but what oppressed communities really need right now is courage.
And if members of the privileged classes are genuine about wanting “bygones to be bygones” they will abandon their cultural artifacts of violence and hatred, they will seek no sympathy for their feelings of guilt and they will renounce their privilege. Until they are able to that, Mr. J, they are no friend of yours.
And by forging this laughable alliance with them, you’ve become an enemy to yourself. And to us as well.
I get it, Mr. J, because I have White friends too. But at what expense?