Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The return of Mona: Race and friendship (The sequel)

Remember my ex-friend "Mona." I wrote about our "breakup" in a post called "Race and friendship."

The social construct we call race is complicated, but there are a few things about it that I know to be true. One thing is that everyone who grows up in this country absorbs some prejudice--everyone, no matter their race. Also, many people have no real relationships with anyone outside of their own culture. Most racial misunderstandings are borne of ignorance not malice. As a woman of color, I try to keep that truth in mind. Nevertheless, last year I lost a good friend. And our parting can be blamed on race--biases that I felt my friend was unwilling to examine and that I was unable to forgive.

There were other strains on my end of our friendship. My friend, let's call her Mona, could be overbearing and self-centered, and she possessed a frankness that sometimes crossed the line to rudeness. But to be honest, that was part of her charm. When we met, we were both working for a large public relations agency. I liked Mona the minute I met her. I have a soft spot for misfits, and she didn't fit in with the agency types--those skinny, stylish girls with their Kate Spade bags and rich daddies. Neither did I. Mona was smart, loud, sassy and a little hippie dippy. She liked to talk about past lives and "bad energy," and she would rail against the patriarchy and "the man." While I philosophically talked about politics, she would get in the trenches and volunteer to help Democratic campaigns in other cities. Mona and I became good friends.

It occurred to me sometimes that my friend's "power to the people" ideology was somewhat theoretical. I knew she had other friends of color, but I also knew that they were like me--educated and assimilated--friends who could slip easily into the mainstream. But aren't we all most comfortable with people who share our interests, values and likes? Race was not a precious topic between Mona and I. We discussed it openly. I explained the black women and hair thing. She talked about what it was like as a white woman to date black men. Then something changed.

About a year and a half into our friendship, Mona moved away to Washington, D.C. and I gradually began to sense that life in that black city was changing my friend. She seemed hardened and less tolerant. Maybe for her, familiarity bred contempt. Estrangement began with a comment here and there. There was the remark about a colleague that was a black woman but really sharp and pretty. Then something about how she usually didn't get along with Jewish women. Then, Katrina happened.

I was horrified watching civilization fall apart in New Orleans--people begging for water, bodies floating, towns keeping neighbors from crossing bridges to safety, the media labeling American citizens "refugees," and our president congratulating the inept crony who failed to grasp the magnitude of the whole disaster. In the aftermath, I talked to Mona on the phone. "Yeah, I sent money to the animal shelters down there," she said, adding "but I didn't send any money to those fucking people."

Those fucking people. Her words felt like a slap. I wondered if she meant those fucking poor people or those fucking black people. I didn't like it either way. I realize that internal and external factors affect one's situation in life. But those desperate people on my television set didn't need a lecture or contempt. They needed compassion. Though I sat warm and safe in a home more than 1,000 miles north of the Gulf, I identified with the Katrina survivors--those forgotten and inconvenient black people. And I felt attacked by my friend's inhumane position. We spoke for a long time that evening about poverty and race, but Mona failed to muster much sympathy for the victims of the hurricane. I hung up the phone feeling anxious and sad.

Some people would have ended the relationship there, I know. But I knew Mona as a friend who had always been generous, supportive and good to me. Her recent comments didn't square with the person I had known for years--the good liberal who had a guru and took annual treks to commune with nature in the mountains. We spoke sporadically over the following months, then it ended with one last phone call. We were speaking on the run, as long-distance friends often do. I was in the drive-thru at the neighborhood Dairy Queen and Mona was running some errand hundreds of miles away, annoyed she said by D.C.'s celebration of "fucking" Emancipation Day, a commemoration of the day the city's slaves were freed. "Everything is closed. It's ridiculous!" She said. "Between this, the Duke case and Don Imus, I'm getting really sick of this shit." I didn't have to ask what shit that was.

I ended that conversation quickly and I haven't spoken with Mona since, though she has left a few messages. I just let the figurative and literal distance grow between us. I feel like a coward for not confronting her and telling her why we can't be friends. Maybe she agrees. Maybe she was finding our discussions about race difficult and frustrating. I never asked. I feel guilty, like I betrayed people of color by not getting angry, not slamming the phone down at the first sign of my friend's prejudice, not immediately thinking Mona was a bad person--a racist. But what would that have solved? I am old enough to know that a lot of good people have screwed up beliefs about other races. You don't educate people and change minds by walking away. But I did walk away. It's just easier not to talk about race, isn't it?

I don't hate Mona. In fact, as I write this, I feel a little protective, like I've painted her too negatively. In addition to doing the things that ended our friendship, Mona wrangled the photographer at my wedding, listened to me kvetch and moan when corporate life got to me, stayed on the phone with me during a late night hysterical drive from Chicago to Atlanta (don't ask), called herself my husband's "football wife" because she likes to talk about the NFL as much as he does. She did a lot of good things. And I miss her. I tried to understand her. I tried to educate her. I just couldn't accept feeling that someone who was dear to me held my people in disdain, even as she called me friend.

I wish race weren't so damned complicated.

Reading this post again, I am struck by how I have evolved over the past two years.

I had coffee with Mona two days ago. She called to say she was in town for a conference. We should do dinner, she said. I was ambivalent. Nearly two years of distance had erased any longing I had for our former friendship, but the wounds of her racist comments were as fresh as the day they were inflicted. Racism can be like that. It's poison spreads to obliterate good memories. But I agreed to meet in the cafe in the building where I work.

We fumbled for conversation.

"So, how have things been?"

How do you catch someone up on two years of personal happenings, workplace drama and general trivia?

"Oh, fine."

Mona and I could always talk about politics. We are both political junkies. Both Democrats. She has worked on The Hill and currently lives in D.C. I used to love hearing from her what was going on inside the Beltway. I asked how it felt to be in the thick of things during the inauguration.

My former friend rolled her eyes. "I left town. I hate that piece of shit Obama."

That pronouncement began a vitriolic monologue in which I learned that Mona was a P.U.M.A. I also learned that I had not misjudged the level of her racial prejudice. I had hoped it would be better--that I had misunderstood her somehow and that the Mona who was the first to learn when my then-boyfriend bought my engagement ring would show up.

"Oh, but you should have come for the inauguration. It would have been a nice moment for YOU."

I steered the conversation to a safe zone--work. And after less than an hour, our meeting was done. So, too, is our friendship.

Race and sisterhood: I've written about these topics many times over the last year. In the heated days of the 2008 Presidential Campaign, I debated, attacked, cajoled and found resolution online with many anonymous "sisters" who seemed a lot like Mona. Why, then, won't I try to heal a relationship with a woman I've actually met--a friend with whom I've gossiped, hung out and shared secrets?

Because it is one thing to debate a commenter on a feminist blog. I am not invested in whether Anonymous #5 respects me as a black woman. We can agree to disagree. But I need more from my friends.

You know, I've been thinking about the Paul Laurence Dunbar poem "We Wear the Mask" since it came up during my podcast a few weeks ago. As an African American woman, I wear a mask everyday, from the time I leave the house before 7 a.m. until the time I come home. I censor. I hide. I edit. I temper. That's just what black folks do to make it. But I am nearly 40 and the mask is getting heavy and stifling. I need to breathe. I breathe on this blog. And I breathe in my private time. I don't need more relationships that force me don that damned mask. So, Mona and I are through. And I don't feel guilty. I don't feel longing for a lost friendship. I don't feel bad at all.

This story isn't so complicated. It's not even so much about race. It's about self-respect. And I intend to keep mine.

We Wear the Mask

WE wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,

We wear the mask!


Lucie @ Unconventional Origins said...

My mouth actually dropped open several times reading this. Not much you can say about someone like that.

But if she says stuff like you, imagine what she says to her white friends (I am white, by the way)? Sure, maybe you could have said something, but like you said, it was more about self respect than race. I guarantee being an Obama hater in DC she has been around plenty of white people disturbed by her views, and let's hope someone calls her out.

And people wonder why I have trouble calling myself a feminist. Women like her and the hateful bigoted PUMAS (and all the racist fems that came before them) just make all white feminists look bad.

Lady C said...

Tami, Black folk have to have dual personalities. It sounds crazy, but I do think it keeps us from "going up side somebody's head" every single day we go into work.

I have two years of college, but I've managed to work steady and have even had some very good paying jobs because I know how to walk the walk and talk the talk.

However, when the pressure of being two people collide, I have been known to "go all the way Black."

Cloudscome said...

What a touching and thoughtful post. I hope Mona knows what she has lost. Your friendship would be a precious treasure.

Talulazoeapple said...

Hey Tami,

I have lurked arounf your blog a time or two and have decided to comment on this post.

If you cannot be open and honest with someone then they are truly not your friend.

People sometimes know that their prejudices are wrong. By her venting to a black woman maybe she felt she was not such a bad person because at least she had one black friend.

This is 2009, I am not having a dual anything. If we can't be true then we can't be 'friends'.

bittersweet said...

I hear you on this post. I once read a book all about friendship- how me make friends, how we sustain friendships, how we "break up" with friends. I think you've experienced an "epiphany"... your friend revealed substantial, core pieces of herself that just no longer mesh with the core person you are and the weight of it is too much. You've blinked repeatedly, rubbed your eyes and tried to see if you are actually seeing things out of focus... but you aren't. So it has to end.

Good for you.

Lisa Blah Blah said...

Wow. This post made me feel so sick and so sad. It sounds like "Mona" turned away from openness to being close-minded. Sometimes that happens to people as they get older, but I'm left wondering in her case if she just had some really bad experience that messed her up. Not that that would excuse her bigotry, but her behavior just seems so bizarre and not in keeping with your earlier experiences with her.

I think you are doing the right thing by cutting her out of your life. She sounds very toxic in her current state.

BTW, I came here from Anti-Racist Parent and want to commend you for, well, pretty much all your contributions there. Stay strong and be well and don't let the PUMAs get you down. :-)

ac said...

Hi Tami - it's been a while. I've checked in now and again but haven't had anything to add to the conversation until now.
I've been struggling with the same issue having lost a friend during the primaries. I guess you and I are of a similar age and background because we sure think alike. You really hit the nail on the head in that it is less about race than it is self-respect. I need my friends to recognize who I am, all of me, and to be a friend to every aspect of me. I just don't have the energy anymore to compartmentalize my life to be more convenient, or less threatening, for those around me. I need to stand up and be me and be supported by those who want to be a part of my life.
It's sad that in the process people who were such instrumental parts of our lives are left behind but I really do believe that people come and go in our lives for a reason. Perhaps even just to give us the impetus to sit and ponder who we are, where we stand and what we want out of our lives.
I'll try to remember the good times I had with my friend before his ignorance and my self-respect collided. I wish nothing but the best for him and that includes that he become more educated and open-minded to the diversity around him in the future. Perhaps you're feeling the same way towards Mona?
As always, your posts are thought provoking in the very best way. Namaste.

Mayhem said...

Wow... I don't understand what could possibly be going on in her head that would make her think her attitudes or her expression of those prejudices could be okay.

It sounds like you exited the relationship with a great deal of grace.

By the way, the DVD arrived yesterday, so thank you! And you have beautiful handwriting! :)

jamaise said...

Wow. That was important. So many thoughts entered me while I read it.

I will never know what it is like to be a specific color, or have defend the color that I am. Never.

I do know what it is like to love people that do. I have black people in my family. I used to sit on the shoulders of my black grandpa & comb his hair - he would feed me circus peanuts. The best man I know.

I also know what it's like to feel guilty for specifying what color a person is. Why should I say the black man, rather than the man? But I do.

I don't see Obama's color. I see someone who represents the type of person we can all strive to be. I believe in his vision of America. He stands for something & is authentic - even if his skin were green.

I also know what it's like to loose a dear friend. It wasn't over race that I lost mine, but as I read, I felt as you did. I questioned this person who was my soul sister & it left me shocked, and bewildered and minus a part of me.

Although race is it's own entity, it is comprised of universal human elements that we all can relate to. We all experience prejudice of some sort both giving & receiving.

P.U.M.A.S. are negative, extreme cats ready to pounce. Negativity is bad for ones health & happiness.

Third Mom said...

Like several other commenters, I'm struggling to wrap my head around Mona. Whew.

Heart said...

Great post, Tami. I know so many Monas, I'm about ready to chuck it all, throw my computer out and move to women's land and lock the gate behind me. Only thing is, I'd probably encounter some Monas in there! Eeeargghhghghghghghghh!

Great minds, though. I wrote along these same lines in the comments thread of a post I wrote yesterday. Very, very upsetting, all of this. Who did Mona think she was talking to, anyway when she said all this stuff to you?

I think you gave Mona an awful lot.

Niki J said...

I just think you gave Mona too much leeway with you. Her comments should have been addressed right then and there.

Jennifer said...

So many of these posts echo what I think and feel--and I just wanted you to know that I've appreciated the blog-friendship/sister-ship I've developed with you. And as you can tell from the other comments on this post, you've got so many friends in the blogosphere who really get you and get race (well as best as any of us can get race)--and you certainly don't need someone like "Mona" to not share and respect things in your life that are so central/important.

You are also truly generous of spirit to want to give her a second chance by meeting up with her for dinner after you original post about her.

Jaceeel said...

Lady c, I thought of this when reading your post.

Tami said...

Thank you everyone for the comments:

bittersweet: I think I read the book you mention. I love this part of your comment:

"...your friend revealed substantial, core pieces of herself that just no longer mesh with the core person you are and the weight of it is too much. You've blinked repeatedly, rubbed your eyes and tried to see if you are actually seeing things out of focus... but you aren't. So it has to end."

Jaceel: That is my absolute favorite Chappelle skit.

All: I had no idea this story would provoke a reaction in so many people. It has made me want to explore the idea of interracial friendships...maybe in my next podcast. If anyone thinks they might like to be a guest on the show, shoot me an email. (

baiskeli said...

It's a lot easier to take racism and racial attitudes from a stranger than it does to take it from a close friend or even family. Racism or prejudice from a stranger can be easily intellectualized (can't think of a better word) than from someone close to you. I've lost friends too the same way, granted, not as extreme as yours and each time it took me by surprise and left me very sad. I'm easy going and tolerant in most things but for me, since as a black man racism can impact and has impacted me in the past, I'm super sensitive to it. I definitely had a hard time with the attitudes expressed by acquaintances during Katrina and in some cases I had no problem with opening a can of verbal whoop ass (its easier with acquaintances than friends) but for the most part people I consider friends understood where I was coming from or if they didn't had the good sense not to scratch at a raw wound.

I'm African, and I've had friends (well, former friends) who let it be known that they didn't really see me as 'black' (and our friendships ended soon after that choice comment). Who I am, my race, is integral to my identity and how I relate to and navigate this world. I don't want friends who see themselves as my friends 'despite' my race. It's not my job to try and dispel people's negative stereotypes about being black (though I do admit that I fall into that trap way too often).

Also, this election has lost me a few friends, people who seemed fine but then displayed some pretty racist assumptions about Obama and his ability solely based on his race.

Family, well, its a whole other matter. My wife is white, and her aunt is originally from Greece (she immigrated here a few decades ago). She is a nice person, but I do have to say I consider her a racist. She is extremely anti-immigrant (ironic), conservative and just says the dumbest things. She is warm to me but I can't reconcile that with her general attitude about immigrants and minorities. But like they say, you can choose your friends but not your family.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, PUMAS totally slime the whole feminist movement. So sad.

Claudia said...

Tami, I often save your posts in my feed reader until I have the time to really sit down and read through them carefully. And I'm so glad that I didn't overlook this one! I, too, have had to let go of a few Monas in my life. But I especially appreciate your honesty about how exhausting it can be to wear that "mask." We want to give the benefit of the doubt to our friends, but sometimes the best thing to do - for our own sanity - is to cut all ties. Thanks for sharing this!

PureGracefulTree said...

Thank you for this touching and soul-baring post, Tami. As has happened many times before, I draw so much strength from you. It is so painful to lose a friend because you choose to stick to your principles and your identity. There are so many who would claim that friendship requires forgiveness, and that forgiveness equates to overlooking even that which offends the very core of your being. I don't believe it, but it feels very lonely sometimes. I'm grateful to see a woman whom I respect so greatly respond the same way I would.

Anonymous said...

Good post, but I'm surprised by the comments about PUMAs. Mona is not representative of PUMAs at all. In fact, in my experience I've seen a lot more "behind the scenes", "real life" racism from pro-Obama feminist supporters than from PUMAs. Obama feminists are typically way more isolated within their own communities than most PUMAs, and therefore subscribe to way more stereotypes about other races and classes. They are just really politically correct about it, and sort of purge themselves of their white guilt by supporting someone like Obama. That's been my observation consistently since day one, and it is one of the most misunderstood dynamics of this election year. Many POC who pick up on this end up feeling much more comfortable with PUMAs than with pro-Obama white feminists...anyway, just saying...not everything is always what it seems....

brownstocking said...

another excellent post, Tami. I am completely feeling your frustration with having to wear the mask around other POC.

I haven't, honestly, had a Mona in my life, but I've been emotionally betrayed by someone I thought was my cut buddy. It can hurt worse than a romantic relationship! I know I'm still grieving over it.

I'm also glad you're not expending negative energy behind it.

Thank you for sharing.

Megan said...

I remember very clearly your first post about Mona and being touched and saddened by what happened.

Maintaining close friendships is hard enough, but when you add the layer of race, it's kind of like a rich person not knowing if someone likes or dislikes them for themselves, or for their money.

Thanks for sharing this very personal story with us.

Lisa Stone said...

Tami, amazing post. I find it agonizing to grow away from friends. And to grow away from them because they turned toward hate? Awful.

And yet I find your story emancipating. These days, I don't just vote at the polls. I vote with with my wallet, sure, but also with my time -- only people, places and initiatives that I believe in get that precious commodity. It's an un-masking in a way, where I don't have to throw-down with everyone with whom I disagree, but I can still make myself clear.

Jory Des Jardins said...

Tami, congratulations! You were nominated for BlogHer of the week because of this post. We wrote about it here: This was balanced and timely. Thank you for the illuminating read!

(For Lisa, Elisa, and Jory, BlogHer Co-Founders)

heartafire said...

This is the first time I've read your blog---wonderful, wonderful post.

My only question is, how could you have not known sooner what was in this woman's heart?

It's not DC that changed her; it's who she already was. She just let her truest self show under stress.

Personally, I have always wanted a black friend. I have prayed for one, in fact. I do have several black friends but not really a "girlfriend" friend. I am bookmarking your blog; it may be the answer to my prayer. For some reason, I have been given a longing to understand this issue-- race and friendship, and your blog looks like an excellent resource.

Viz Mona: Tami, you're such a solid writer---if it keeps plaguing you to have not dealt with it head on, what about a letter? It would be a kindness to her.

Liz Henry said...

I feel similarly as I hit 40. I just don't have the energy any more to keep up diplomacy with people who can't meet me at least halfway.

Thanks for a great post and the powerful poem & your thoughts on the poem!

Revena said...

I followed a link over here, and I just wanted to say that this is a fantastic post and I'm really glad I read it.

claire said...

thanks for this wonderful post, Tami.

Being multiracial Asian, I've been on the giving AND receiving side of racial offenses from and to white, Asian, and black friends and acquaintances.

What hurts me most about taking offense from other people is that they are excluding me from groups they belong to and value; and that they are ignoring who I am for what they think I am.

What hurts me most about GIVING offense is that often, I don't know exactly what I've done or said wrong and my friend won't tell me.

In the anti-racist blogosphere the general attitude is that it's not the duty of POC to correct or educate random white people who say or do racist things, and I agree. But when it's your friend? When it's someone whose soul you care about?

The thing I regret most about the friends I've let go for their racism is that I never sat them down and told them what the problem was.

I have one friend with whom I argued for years about his disgusting sexual fetish for Asian women. I was very open to him and said some pretty harsh things, too. But, possibly as a result of my openness, we're still friends, though, and his attitude has changed a lot.

ConverseMomma said...

Blogher sent me here, and I have to tell you that I will be back. I'm struggling so much these days with what it means to be a feminist, to exist with other women and be supportive. I feel a little lost. Places like yours are roadmaps, I think.

As for race, I'm a white woman. I was raised on Long Island, which is considered one of the most segregated suburbs in the country. I remember going to college and just putting my damn foot in my mouth over and over, not really understanding white patriarchal power at all, or what my skin color gave me that it denied others. I still would never profess to know what it feels like to live in another skin, but I do know that your "friends" words were stinging and hurtful for me too.

Wanderlust said...

There are so many things I could say considering that this spoke to me in a number of ways and I am struggling with a very similar friendship right now. However, for now, all I can say is a heartfelt thank you for sharing this.


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