Mother Nature got the memo that it was November and without fanfare or warning, adjusted the weather accordingly this week in Northern California. My son, who seems to be growing overnight had, of course, grown out of all of his warm clothes, so I asked one of my best friends to go shopping with me for Fall clothes for him.
We went to an upscale outdoor shopping center that is about two miles from our home. My friend suggested that we try Lucky, which I thought was a great idea since I used to love their jeans when I was younger.
The two of us walk in. I’m dressed “PTA-corny”: black, tailored, designer cropped jeans, black ballet flats, a V-Neck dark gray cashmere sweater and a Chanel Black bag (I am adding the details of my clothing for the purpose of this story—not to be obnoxious—I promise). A young woman in her early 20’s, immediately greets us and stands next to the table where there are stacks of different winter shirts and sweaters for men. My girlfriend and I continue gabbing away about how much we loved Lucky when we were younger. Simultaneously, I am picking up shirts without looking at the prices (not because I’ve got it like that, but because I sometimes forget that I don’t have it like that) and am stacking them on my arm — pausing to ask her for a particular size when I can’t locate it.
In other words, I am being middles-class fabulous: shopping like there are no limits –mostly because I’m starving. I just want to grab a few shirts, some jeans and go to lunch with my friend.
By this time, I’ve picked out a few shirts, sweaters and a jacket. I then tell the sales lady that I need some jeans for him, and ask her which ones are straight-legged? I do not want the skinny jeans (because my son would kill me). “He wears a 30/32 I believe. I need a couple of pairs,” I say.
The sales lady looks at me skeptically and replies, “Umm, our jeans start at $99.00.”
OKAY – STOP. For anybody who needs a translation, what I heard her to say was, “I don’t see you, your attire or your purse. I only see Black; so therefore you must be poor. I am assuming that you will not be able to afford jeans that are $99.00 and above, so there is no use of me pulling them down and wasting your time and mine.”
I simply smiled and said, “okay.”
“So do you want to see them?” she questioned.
“Yes,” I said biting my tongue.
My girlfriend walked away and went to the furthest part of the store.
Afterwards at the Cheesecake Factory, my girlfriend and I talked about what happened and she said, “I couldn’t believe that you didn’t go off on that woman.”
I responded: “No matter what I did, I would’ve somehow ended up looking like the bad guy.” There were several other shoppers in there (all of them white). I know that had I raised my voice or complained, regardless of the quality of my grammar, or the tone of my voice, I certainly would have come off as the angry Black woman attacking this innocent, White, coed. I’ve lived long enough to know this outcome.
I then asked my friend, “Is that why you left to go to the back? Did you think I was about to curse the woman out.”
“No,” she said, ”I was. I was about to go off on her ass!”
Later, I thought about her statement, our conversation and the incident and I knew I had to blog about it. The incident itself was no big deal: I laughed with my girlfriend later: “see, little shit like that happens to Black people all of the time. I‘ll be waiting in the butcher line and he will call on the White person before me – even though the other customer arrived after me. Or I will be obviously followed by security in a Walgreens. And so when we Black people go off, you guys think we are nuts because we are flipping out over something that seems so minor; but understand, you are probably also receiving the cursing out for the nine insults/microaggressions that happened before you.”
The incident at Lucky Store was not that unusual, but I realized that mine and by friend’s friendship was. She’s White and I’m Black (and by Black, I don’t mean—Ben Carson, Raven Symone, let me work hard to assimilate Black. I’m closer to the Angela Davis, “no justice, no peace,” Black Lives Matter Black person). And she is most definitely a Foo Fighter/Metallica-listening, politically-conservative, Malibu-raised White girl. Our friendship struck me in light of the statistics that 40% of White people don’t even have a single Black friend (not even a “we do lunch once a quarter work friend”) Black friend. And we aren’t just friends, we are sisters.
The vast majority of my friends are Black. For 11 years, me and my White girlfriend have been through what some could view as racially dividing situations. So I considered what makes our relationship work despite us being racially and culturally different. I think that she innately gets it. I was thinking that she should write a list of rules for fellow White people of how to be friends with Black people (but I’m the writer, so I’ll take a stab at it).
I know that there will be some people who will be offended by these rules and say that they are unnecessary. But if you think about it, there are codes of civil conduct in all circles. Black people have followed a code of conduct on how to best get along with White people our entire lives — at school, on teams and at work (You don’t believe me: How many times have you heard of a Black person calling a White person a racial slur; or declaring their indifference to race; or being accused of racial insensitivity?). White people have never had to learn such rules, just as men didn’t have to learn how to communicate, without offense, with women in the workplace until the last 40 years. This is a benefit of privilege. But should a White person want to know how to keep or have a Black friend, these are the top 10 rules of conduct:
Rule #1: Trust that we know what being Black is more than you do
Look, women would go bat-shit crazy if a man ever said, “Labor isn’t really that painful.” Similarly, White people, you can’t speak on what it is to be Black. You can’t tell us that something shouldn’t cause us pain, shouldn’t offend us. You can’t pontificate on how much better you would handle a situation were you in it—you have no idea. You really don’t. Leave the Black-ing to us. Trust our experience.
Rule #2: Don’t try to excuse poor White behavior
Perhaps because White people don’t want to believe that people can be as cruel as they are, oftentimes White people are quick to dismiss poor white behavior. “Oh, I am sure he didn’t mean ‘you people’ like that.” “She’s from the South. She didn’t know that was offensive.” “I’m sure she just didn’t see you standing there waiting for service.” This is one I particularly despise: “She is the nicest woman ever. I am sure she didn’t mean any harm.” News flash, a person who is completely nice to you, may not be nice to me. Just call a thing a thing. I appreciate when my White girlfriend says to me, “Yeah, that was fucked up.”
Rule #3: Don’t give us your Black resume
You let Black people know immediately that you are uncomfortable with us, when you provide us with your Black resume. “My best friend in 3rd grade was Black.” “I screwed a Black guy in college.”
You don’t have to volunteer that you voted for Obama, just love collard greens, or have a crush on L.L. Cool J. Really.
Wouldn’t you find it odd, if you were out to lunch with a Black person and they just started listing the White people with whom they had affiliated? “By the way, my co-worker and I go to lunch sometimes. She’s White. A nd my dentist is a White guy. I really like him. And I just love green bean casserole, by the way. “Just Stop!”
Rule #4: Don’t try to “act Black” / co-op the culture
I’m cringing at even using the term “act Black” because being Black means so many things. But, I think that term will best communicate what I am trying to say. Don’t become the caricature of what pop culture has deemed Black in order to bond with your Black friend. I don’t need to be your “dawg” or your “girlfriend”. You don’t need to turn on the R&B/Hip Hop station. Be who you are. If we mesh, we mesh. But no one wants to be friends with your representative.
Rule #5: You can never ever never use the N word
You just can’t.
As dumb as it is, we all use offensive language with people within our “club” or “group.” A woman can call a woman a “bitch”. If a man does it, it’s a problem. I have gay friends who call each other names that I can’t even bring myself to type.
I’ve heard a young White guy say that he calls his Black friend “Nigga” and he’s cool with it. Listen, you will find a Black person who will be cool with a lot of stuff to fit in. But, as I told the young man, I wouldn’t try that shit in the general Black population.
Rule #6: If you don’t know something, ask.
One of the first times I hung out with my White girlfriend, we were at lunch talking about something that must have had a race component. She asked, mid-conversation, “What’s up—do you prefer African American or Black because the whole thing confuses me.” At that moment, following that question, I knew that we would be close. If you don’t know something, just ask. Be honest and comfortable with what you know and don’t know. Everyone appreciates a person that is coming to them sincerely and from a good place.
*Note-But please pose your questions to a person you are friendly with or feel comfortable with. For instance, people who ask relative strangers to touch hair or how much we wash our hair are just weird and offensive.
Rule #7: Be consistent—Be our friend in all times with all people
I went to school in a racially mixed school, but an entirely White neighborhood. I had one or two friends who would hang out at my house during an afternoon and then barely speak to me the next day at school (of course I cut them off).
Don’t go to lunch with a Black guy everyday, but then run into them at a sporting event and treat him coldly. If you have a party, invite your Black friend even if it may make others feel uncomfortable.
Rule #8: Don’t try to act like you understand
I don’t know what it’s like to be White. I don’t know what it feels like to get kicked in the balls. You don’t know what it’s like to be Black. Sympathize when bad things happen, but don’t try to act as if you can empathize. We can bond over stories of discrimination, absolutely; but understand that the legacy of slavery makes discrimination/racism of Black people in the United States different than for instance, sexism, homophobia, etc..
Rule #9: No Colorblindness
Don’t, just don’t, ever say that you don’t see color. You do. We all do. Stevie Wonder does.
Rule #10: Don’t make us your Black friend. We just ultimately want to be your friend
This is the most important rule. I’m not one of these people who says that we are all the same. We are all different. That’s what scares us, if we are honest. Differences in socio-economics, culture, race, gender, etc. can make communication more challenging; but respect for and the desire to understand those differences can open your life to incredibly fulfilling relationships.