“A friendship based on hard work and personal truth is worth the effort.” This story is not about racism, but about overcoming racial bias.
Benicia resident for 8 years
Like most white people, in my age group, racism was an integral part of my childhood. I lived in the Midwest with my grandparents. My grandmother who, although never used disparaging language in front of me, clearly felt superior to people of other races and cultures. Grandma occasionally made negative comments about the Black family across the street or the Catholic family on the corner but only very quietly so she couldn’t be overheard. Our Black housekeeper, whom I adored, was “good enough” to watch over me when they went out of town, but not good enough to invite to dinner or a party. And when I asked my grandmother why our housekeeper was never included in family events when she was definitely part of our family, she dismissed my question with, “It’s just not done that way.”
When I moved in with my mother at age 7, everything changed. We lived in an integrated apartment complex far away from my grandparents’ community– and it was great! There were lots of children from all backgrounds, and we all played together. The families watched out for one another. In hindsight, my social life suddenly became uncomplicated and unhindered. I didn’t have to worry about what Grandma or anyone else thought about my friends. My best friend was a Black girl, and she and I did everything together for the three years I lived there – sleepovers, family dinners, trips to the zoo, etc. My mother socialized with wide variety of people and never discouraged me from making friends with whomever I chose. It was a very different experience than my earlier years. I felt culturally liberated.
I tried to live my life using the model I had learned from my mother. Then, in 2002 while attending graduate school, I had a life changing experience involving racial relations. I was in an educational psychology program and part of a cohort of about 60 individuals. We were carefully screened for our potential to be change agents within a school system. The program was very racially and socially integrated. Much of the curriculum was focused on racial justice, cultural awareness and sensitivity, and appropriate interpersonal interaction. The class was divided into two groups, and I took most or all of my classes with the same 30 people. We were further divided into two groups for our counseling internship. This smaller group of fifteen grad students met twice a week to discuss personal challenges in our fieldwork and our lives.
One of the Black women in my group fascinated me. She frequently rushed into class at the last moment or shortly after class began. She seemed scattered and harried. But no sooner did the professor ask the class a question, she offer a response with a calmness and a wisdom that was completely different than the manner in which she had arrived to class. Clearly, this woman was possessed with a deep intelligence and the ability to focus her intent without pausing for breath. She was also one of the fifteen in my internship class. Unlike in the others in the classes, she didn’t share much. She seemed uncomfortable talking about her personal life. Instead, she would sit quietly, curled up in one of the armchairs, only speaking when prompted, and then as little as possible. I couldn’t wait to get to know her.
I finally had my chance when we were alone in an elevator on our way to class one day. It happened to be my birthday and someone had given me flowers. She commented on them, and I shared the reason I had them. “Oh – It’s my son’s birthday, too.” Okay, I thought, she’s a mother. We have that in common. “How old is he?” I asked. She told me, and I asked if she had other children. She told me she had two boys, the other one younger. I told her I had a son, too, and gave his age. And then I asked her if she was a single mom. The tentative friendliness she had extended at my encouragement immediately evaporated. I didn’t quite understand why, but I was sensitive enough to realize she had a lot of feelings around her marital status. I didn’t want to pry, so we finished our ride in silence.
About two weeks later, the students in my internship class were discussing racially based micro-aggressions, when the woman I was wanting to meet uncharacteristically spoke up. She said that someone in the cohort had used a micro-aggression against her. Without revealing any indentities, she shared the story of being in the elevator with a white woman, ending with the white woman’s “assumption” that all Black mothers are unmarried. There was a long, shocked silence in the room. I took a deep breath and drummed up my courage. “That was me. And I’m sorry you feel upset. Help me understand what happened.”
She was angry – really angry. She saw this as a typical attack against the integrity of Black women from a white person who was coming from a place of superiority. She passionately argued her point while I tried to explain where I was coming from. The class sat there witnessing this exchange in silence. I felt the discomfort growing as the conversation continued for the better part of 10 to 15 minutes. I finally blurted out, “Any woman can be a single mother. I have been a single mother. And I’m now going through a rough patch in my second marriage which may well put me there again.” I have to add that this was very hard for me to admit at that point in time. I continued, “I noticed that you regularly arrive to class like you have way too much on your plate. It just struck me that you being single was a possibility, once I learned that you are a mother, too.” I paused, “I just wanted to get to know you!” The other woman looked stunned, and a silence fell between us.
The professor took this momentary break as a good time to end the discussion. “We can talk more about this next time,” he said as he dismissed the class. Meanwhile, I was trying to maintain my equanimity. I fervently hope the discussion wouldn’t have to be continued at all. I felt depleted, troubled, and embarrassed all at once. I concentrated on gathering my things in preparation to go home. As I turned around, my contender was standing there. “I’m so sorry…” I started to say, but was cut short as she gathered me into one of the biggest hugs I have ever experienced.
Nearly 20 years later, this woman and I are still close friends. We’ve travelled together, celebrated together, laughed till we peed our pants, and held each other while we cried. She was there for me when I did eventually go through a second divorce. My son took her boys under his wing. We now live several states apart, and I miss her. And now that pandemic related travel warnings have been lifted, I need to visit her – or her me.
I wanted to share this story because it contains some very valuable points about getting to know others outside of your regular social group.
And although my experience (and probably my friend’s as well) was uncomfortable and challenging, we got through it, and it was worth it. I am profoundly grateful that my friend had the courage to express what she felt. And even though her anger frightened me, I stayed with it, and I learned from her side of the story. So did the rest of the class. I am proud of myself that I had the strength and the tenacity to really listen without judgment, without letting emotion get in the way; to be authentic; and not to shift the compassion of our witnesses to myself by breaking down and crying. This is an example of how to bridge the gap dispite ethnic and cultural barriers.