Race and Friendship: A Love Story
I know there is probably some curiosity about my silent retreat experience, which I am still processing and will write about soon. Until then, here is something I wrote about friendship, racism and being a privileged white woman who realizes her own blind spots. I wrote it months ago and have been hesitant to publish it because the topic is so complicated, so uncomfortable, for me and for others.
In my life lately, and also in my dreams, race and relationships have been a theme. A few months ago I started having dreams in which interracial relationships were continually a topic. Around the same time, I also became part of a group of racially diverse women-writers for a project on which I was working.
At this time and since, my dreams and my reality have swirled in my head. I find myself having conversations about race with other women continually. In each conversation, I try to tentatively explore where I am being led.
For my ethics class, we read a series of letters written from Kate Cannon, a black woman, to Carter Heyward, a white woman. In the letters, the two theologians explore the topics of racism, sexism and the victimization of women in a very personal context.
At one point in the letters, Heyward writes to Cannon, “I would be lying if I said I am comfortable discussing race- even with you, or maybe especially with you; my fear is that you’ll leave me; that you’ll notice my racism- which I certainly notice- and you’ll leave, close the door.”
I can relate to this sentiment. While I haven’t ever considered myself as racist, or certainly never said it out loud, racism is a wretched and malignant disease that infects our society at large, and individuals in particular, through our unexamined perspectives and the culture we inhabit. I admit, very uncomfortably, that I have been intimidated by black women and men in different settings. I admit that I notice when a black person is in my very white neighborhood, and that I might even wonder why.
What do these things say about me? Nothing I want to admit. Nothing I want to acknowledge or notice. And yet. In the words of Cannon, “rebirth is only possible when we face terror face to face.”
This is not just about race. It is about unconscious fear-based choices transforming to the active decision to love. It is about negating “otherness” through personal connections unmitigated by where we happen to find ourselves in the social strata, culture or larger world.
A day not so long ago, I realized that for much of my life the majority of my friends were from the same racial and ethnic group as me. And most identified with the same gender identity. And were in the same socioeconomic status. And were probably even in my same weight class. How did this happen? I have no explanation and no idea.
And yet. Things are changing. My life is changing. That is a very good thing.
I have a close friend who is black. She notes to me when she is the only black person in the room- and then we talk more about it. She tells me what it is like to try and raise emotionally healthy African American boys into men who understand:
A. What they are up against in a society that enforces fear of black people, and in particular, black men
B. Who they really are- regardless of race
I try to imagine looking into the eyes of my five-year-old son and telling him that people will someday look at him with fear, and it is not because of anything he has done. I try to imagine telling him that he is beautiful, and kind, and so loved, even as the world will see him as a threat. The thought alone leaves my chest aching.
The friend of whom I spoke came to a writing group that I used to host every month, and because my life is changing, I was relieved to look around the room and see that there were women of different races, sexual orientations, religious beliefs, and ages- ranging from early 20s to early 50s.
In writing group that day, we discussed the topic of race through a number of lenses. One of the quandaries we explored was the balance between recognizing our own privilege and position in society and how it might be different from others, while also honoring the fact that each of us are deeply human, interconnected and in many ways much the same.
On one side of this conversation are realties that some of us have the privilege to ignore, like the day-to-day reality of the black community in Ferguson before and after the shooting of Michael Brown, the boy whose eighteen-year-old body stayed in the street for four hours in the middle of a residential neighborhood after he was killed.
We can ignore the fact that the police communities surrounding St. Louis had institutionalized racism and reinforced the poverty of the black community systematically. We don’t have to be aware that black families were on the verge of homelessness because of the financial strain caused by tickets for minor, non-criminal violations. Obviously, those families are not so lucky.
So, on one side of the conversation is this: the impactful and emotional depiction of the events in Ferguson called Ferguson: In Occupied Territory. Please watch it, with your families if possible. While these events were in the news for a long time, watching this video a month ago was a shock to me, and I believe it may be to others as well.
On the other side of the conversation is us: women around a table, baring their lives as mothers, daughters, educators and activists. Women who cry with one another, who share the pain of severed relationships and abusive situations, the pain of loving and losing, the pain of hoping we are all “enough” to receive the love we want from the world.
How do these two sides: the reality of social and political conditions and the human desire to connect on a deeper level that supersedes these conditions interact with one another? Perhaps it is though deep knowing, through silence, listening, and sharing. Through a mutual facing of fears and realities in partnership with one another- through a deep and abiding friendship that cuts sharply into each of our humanity.
In the letters, Cannon shares these words from a poem:
“Strolling down the sidewalk a woman-pair
Holding quadraphonic conversations in our heads
Sure of words
not sure of the genus of our souls
Agonizing the same truths
Embedded in the common womb
of wrestling supplications
Posing difficult questions
with piercing X-ray vision
inherent in the friendship”
There is truth in the exposing nature, the vulnerability, of true relationship. There is abiding power in the love that develops between those who choose to take this uncomfortable yet humanizing journey together into deeper interconnectedness. And love is healing, and not just for individuals who create it between them, but also for the world(s) in which each interacts. What is sowed by few is reaped by many. This is the gift of grace.
“When I touch other individuals, they feel touched by me, and in a miraculous way the healing happens, slowly but surely.”
-Kate Cannon, “Can We be Different but Not Alienated: An Exchange of Letters”
How you you deal with the reality of privilege and injustice in the world in healthy and life giving ways? What does it mean to be “white,” “black”, “brown” in a world where color matters? How do you find love and connection in the midst of difference?