Friday, August 23, 2013

primary colors

Earlier this year, one of my memoir essays was published in The Feminist Wire. It is called victory and chronicles the phonics of being a black girl in Amish country, praying at the altar of Judy Blume's timeless white girl protagonist, Deenie. Judy Blume colored my life at that time. Superfudge and Tales of Fourth Grade Nothing were on heavy rotation within my pubescant bedroom literature. It gave this black girl/woman a very complicated coming of age. However, victory, shared a small slice into my deeply layered imagery of white role models and sexual performance. More recently, an article called "The Politics of Being Friends with White People", by Brandy Cooper was forwarded to me based on its mention of Deenie and social and racial cues and duties. The writer discusses coming of age as a black person, her experience growing up and out of her white friendships, and how race can become a priority in relationships for some adults of color. I would like to continue the conversation.

I grew up in a predominantly...almost completely white town. I had one black friend. She was the daughter of my mother's principal at the elementary school where she taught. We didn't really spend much time together and didn't actually meet one another until I was in Junior High school. When we hung out, it was as if our mothers plopped us face to face into a sandbox like toddlers in juvenile solidarity saying, "Be friends." It may not have been that archaic or cinematic, even.... but it was certainly deliberate. Our families knew that we needed each other, however we both were resistant. We knew "why" we needed to be friends, but we weren't automatically in dutiful agreement that our race and culture were enough for us to break bread together. For a good solid chunk of time, we actually didn't like each other. We stormed one another with knowledge wars, fear tactics, and shaming. Neither of us knew what was up with our hair, and, for that matter, neither of us liked our small town. But we both had a slew of white friends and was okay with that. We found our actual solidarity in sharing stories as outsiders, amidst the snide comments from white fathers and athletic assumptions - volleyball for her and ballet for me. Our main connections lied in our not discussed girlhood, and sometimes books.

As I got older and moved out of my tiny town, I flung myself into New York City. My sister went to an HBCU, which, at the time was of no interest to me. I was seeking diversity. On long drives, my Dad would ask me what kind of school that I wanted to go to and I would usually respond with "as much culture and difference as possible". A big part of me was yearning, and I wanted to share that yearning with other people that did or didn't look like me. I had the not so unique desire of an eighties baby that was raised in the ninties - to uncover utopia. This glimmer of internalized racism indicates that I wasn't necessarily ready to look at myself as black, I was more ready to be amongst other people that were "different" and then seek safety there. Unfortunately, one of my first experiences with being "black" was when I was questioned as a shoplifter at Urban Outfitters on 6th Avenue. "Let me see that shirt you put in your bag," the security guard said. Tears burned my heart as I walked down 14th Street to Avenue A, wandering East...looking for someone to express my rage to. At that moment, there were few people that I could call to garner support from. My black friend quotient had grown, of course, now that I was in New York, but I was still negotiating these relationships for myself. When I was able to identify a friend to share this experience with, I felt one of my first connections to the importance of my community of color.

"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.... girls whose cultural experiences were and would be closer to my own."

My friendship evolution wasn't as "natural" or "predictable" as Ms. Cooper's. I didn't automatically start liking black boys. I can honestly say that the pictures on my walls growing up were of white girls and white boys, fantasies about their lives and public profiles. Sounds like a nightmare of confusion to most of my contemporary black and brown radicals, but it is an actual account of a very queer upbringing. Queer without being named as such. I was raised by powerful black parents that taught me to always think for myself, however my eyes were filled with whiteness. Therefore, my cultural evolution was morally sound but slow going.

The first college club that I belonged to was the Gay Straight Alliance. I was an ally with periodic cornrows and over sized t-shirts. I was a curious closet case that could have had "green" emblazoned on my forehead throughout my entire college career. While tabling during National Coming Out Day, I can remember a new pal asking my home girl, "Is Erica gay?" In my distinctive way, I blurted out, "do I have to be?" It's funny to think of that moment now. It's amazing the things that I thought I couldn't do. My definitions of blackness and sexuality had been wrapped around social duties that I was resisting. I had never really seen myself before.

Therefore, my heart echoed with a lot of the writer's experience. Feeling like a guilty outsider as a young girl was terribly uncomfortable. I shared a sink pretty regularly with a white friend in first grade. When she chatted up her father about the school day, she always included this tidbit. Once he asked her, "why? did you want to see if it would wash off?" She reported this back to me gleefully the next day as we resumed our bathroom dance. I can definitely recall the way those tears felt in my eyes, almost 25 years ago.

"When you are 9, or 12, or 17, it is easy to overlook racist comments. That your friends’ dad does not like black people has little to do with what your friend thinks, right? When you cannot yet vote, the fact that your friends’ parents are Republicans means little. With age, these things start to matter. At 25 or 32, it is harder to overlook the inevitable racially ignorant comment that will come, especially when you have had access to friendships where this is never an issue. At 30 or 35, the fact that your white friends now vote Republican alongside their parents strikes you as a choice that detrimentally impacts your material existence."

There are white people that I will never speak to again because of their political standings. They will never know how deeply their aim towards my silence wounds me. Some of these people are the source of many years of personal shame. Because of this, they can never be a part of my life. However, my father always told me to be friends with my allies as a formula for power and solidarity. Perhaps, this is why I don't hold an accountability compass of racial duty to my comrades to maintain a friendship color quota. I'd prefer for it not to be false or phony. That's just going to make me more uncomfortable. There are certain groups where I am one of few black friends. I don't feel like a mascot; yet I do take note. And, these are also the groups that don't necessarily live within the same arm's length/reach as my more familial priorities. This may change. I do make internal decisions based on some of the convoluted shit that comes out of some folk's mouths. Ignorant people could color the rainbow....some even look like me. This is why I don't find myself requiring such a declared distinction.

I just want to receive respect and honor for my experience in the same way that I expect the same. I feel that the denial of these complications can allow racism to become as real and intrinsic as its definition. Sometimes, it is just black and white, but in this case, I feel that it's not. I think it's a matter of identifying your kinship needs and perhaps limiting preconceptions of binary. Completely eliminating the ones that I love and that love me is not an option. I would like to continue to surround myself with people that believe in love, and have a willingness to unpack their diverse privileges--big and small, black or white. It is deeply profound when that love can be magnified by culture, background, and experience. I find this to be a part of my own personal survival and examination of rage. There is a protocol--I know the specific things that I can talk about with specific friends. But when I look another sister in the eye and discuss the fiery undercurrent of racism I have to regularly surmount at the nonprofit circus that employs me, I breathe a sigh that my mother's grandmother can hear. I also find this to be a safe examination of rage.

I inhabit a variety of circles. That is also a privilege. My close knit crew demonstrates an array of cultures, genders, sizes, ages, and interests. But my best friend in the whole wide world is white and that's rarely what we talk about. That is my identity information. So, I do think that it's political, but personal as well.

I could die of difference, or live, myriad selves. - Audre Lorde