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?
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!