The Obstacles of White Friendship and The Politics of Being “The Only”

August 26, 2006

When you are a Black woman who lives and works in the Midwest it is not unusual that somewhere in your daily life you are “the only”. You are the only Black face in the grocery store, your school, the library, the deli, and especially in your job. It can get to a point where you being the only Black person everywhere all the time becomes an intrinsic part of your identity. As an only, its almost as if you have that special responsibility because like or not you are the representative for the entire Black race to a great number of white people. You begin to feel like you are the agent, the promoter, the spokesmodel, and the PR rep for everyone with a hint of melanin in their skin. Next thing you know your friends are white, your co-workers are white, the baker is white, the guy who washes your car is white and you walk around every single moment of every single day knowing that you are always the ink spot.  Always.  As whites around you feel more comfortable, they let their lips get a little too loose and they get sloppy about letting their white privilege show through. They ask you the most insane questions that are totally inappropriate, as if you have “1-800-ask-a-negro” imprinted on your forehead. They make comments that at worst are racist and at best culturally insensitive and they don’t even seem to realize their error. When this occurs, as “the only” you basically have three options:

  1. Go scary black woman on them until they cry in the broom closet.
  2. Ignore totally and move the fuck on for the sake of keeping the peace and not being labeled the scary black woman obsessed with making everything about race.
  3. Use the instance to provide a learning opportunity and open up some dialogue and educate them.

At various times I have done all three. After being back in the Midwest for 2 years, I’m fucking exhausted. I’m tired of being the angry Black woman always bringing up that uncomfortable issue of race. I’m tired of having to educate white folks all the time on how to not be assholes, and why what they said or did is actually an asshole comment or action, and the history behind it.  And I’m tired of saying nothing in order to keep the peace, my job, or a friendship.

Not that this doesn’t occur all over the country,……or all over the world for that matter, but it’s a particular brand of ignorance and covert racism that you deal with when you deal with people who have honestly never actually had a conversation with a person of any color, much less a actual relationship. This is why I left this god-forsaken place in the first place. It is even more difficult to be back home after going to undergrad at Howard in the middle of chocolate city, where for four years I didn’t have to deal with being the inkspot.

Example: on at least 5 occasions in the past two years a white stranger has put their hands in my natural. It has happened in line at the grocery store, restaurants, bars, and on an airplane. I am shocked and stunned every time it happens to me. When it happens my mouth just sits agape and it’s as if a part of my brain shuts down from the shock and horror from the realization that I have just been petted. What the hell is up with that any fucking way? Did you really just put your white fingers in my fro and expect that to be okay with me? Do I look like horse to you? Did I make a wrong turn and I am actually at a petting zoo ….because I thought that I was in line at the grocery store just trying to buy some fucking fruit snacks? After my mind recovers from the shock the offensive white usually receives option #1: the angry black woman.

The trickier part is when a situation happens and it’s with a friend, a co-worker. To be a white friend of mine you have to be a lot more socially consciousness than the average. But even supposed conscious whites make the mistake of not respecting boundaries and playing into typical stereotypes at some point. This is where it becomes sticky territory. Co-workers and friends who feel like they have a certain level of friendship with you conveniently forget that you are Black and say the craziest shit to you on a regular basis. Time to apply option #3 and use it as an educational opportunity? Maybe, and I have. Maybe that is the stately, I’m the bigger person, very Martin Luther Kingesque way to go about things…..but let me just say this as someone who is young, black, and angry at heart….. I’m so fucking tired of educating whites on every goddamn thing from don’t touch my fucking hair…..to please don’t believe everything about Black people you see on T.V…….and yes just because your boyfriend is Black, you too can be a racist asshole….. to no affirmative action is not in fact ruining your life. I’m tired and disgusted beyond explanation.

However, I struggle with my disgust. As “the only”, if I don’t point out their missteps then who will? Isn’t the purpose of friendship so that you can learn from each other? Don’t we fight to end racism by education? Haven’t I learned so much from my diverse group of friends from other countries, cultures, religions, etc.? I know it’s a different situation because part of what is so offensive is that its coming from this place of white privilege and power and that it perpetuates the notion that anything non-Anglo is at best exotic and “other” and at worst vile, dangerous, and ugly. However, these are people I care for and while I don’t tip toe around anyone nor do I babysit my white friends on issues of race, it can still be a sticky situation trying to determine how and when to call someone on their racist shit. Some people deserve to cry in the broom closet for being called a racist, others just need to be corrected.



  1. The energy we have to expend…

    I know a brother who lives in Paris. He told me how he couldn’t write for two years in the States. Then he moved to Europe for a teaching position and he could write again. (He’s a poet)

    He’s one of the first people to hip me to the way in which we are depleted here, drained by energetic vampires. We get sucked dry. I never felt as free to be my own black self as when I got out of the country. This place is hazardous to a nigga’s health.

    Who wants to spend their life teaching some dumb MF who doesn’t want to learn anyway? What’s in it for me? I gotta ask cuz I ain’t doin’ this shit for free anymore.

  2. Exactly thefreeslave……and welcome!

    It is why I am addicted to leaving this country and continue to temp so that I can have the freedom and the funds to do so. The disheartening part is that no matter where you go, its always something.

    If it isn’t that you are disgusting because you are Black, you are disgusting because they assume you are a recent African immigrant. Damn near isn’t safe to be Black or African anywhere, and I’m so tired of being despised and being the educator…….even to supposed well meaning white people.

  3. I can’t say that I know how that feels, for I’m not the only white person…ever. Even going into a south side baptist church in Chicago I never was or ever have been the ONLY. It makes me feel like you could be a superhero and makes me want to draw a funny book all about being “The Only”. I never knew, I still don’t really know. I’m running for President.

  4. Saucy, I think its all a matter of degree. There are places that have a milder form of racism – and perhaps there’s a language. France is tough because its French, but I can speak a little bit and I can learn more. But its a completely different culture. One has to ask themselves how much change they can put up with. Yes, they might think you’re an African in France, but perhaps not in Amsterdam. You might want to try Trinidad or Brazil. I went to Brazil and no one suspected I was American – until I spoke. Its a tough country and its incredibly beautiful and violent in the big cities. And Portuguese is a tough language for me. But I could do a French speaking place – Martinique, Guadaloupe, Senegal. We can go wherever we want and why not? There are definitely other lands that are more hospitable than here.

  5. While there are other lands that are easier, I personally haven’t found one where there wasn’t some sort of race/culture/nationality bullshit to go through. I have been able to escape a lot of the heartache that comes with being Black as soon as my American accent flew out of my mouth, but that acts as little consolation for me. I’ve been through most of western Europe and was o so disappointed that this place that was supposedly a safe haven for Blacks many years ago still suffers from racism that is just as perverse as it is here. Whenever I travel in predominately white countries I always seem to have much more interaction with people of any color. When they are immigrants or 1st generation, it is almost as if they immediately sense that you too are a foreign brown person so you immediately have some kind of kinship. After people found out we were American, the first thing they want to talk about is racism here and compare notes. I was in Paris two weeks before the riots and after having traveled with them, among them, and being mistaken for a recent African immigrant I acutely understand why they were setting every damn thing they could find on fire. It is a whole different ballgame in other countries that seems to have to do more with prejudices associated with being a foreigner, and culture issues than strictly based on race ……but it seems to me that it all pans out the same. Some European countries are easier to deal with then others….. but overall, my personal assessment is same shit different day.

    I’ve been to Trinidad, where oddly enough I wasn’t even considered Black there because their working definition of Black is much more narrow than ours. That was a whole new experience for me. My entire life being so aware of my blackness and everyone else being so aware of my blackness….. and now suddenly I’m white? It’s interesting to be considered “white”, on a Black island and some of the underlined hostility that came with it. People were dumbfounded when I went around declaring that I was in fact a Black woman, then they laughed to themselves like “hahaha…..silly American”. Almost as if to say, who would be Black if you don’t have to?

    I’ll be traveling through South America this fall and my trip will end in Brazil and I am interested to see how this all turns out there. I have read that in Brazil it is much the same as it is in Trinidad, that if you have a level of light brownness to your skin and it is clearly noticeable your ancestry is mixed then you are white. If you can pass, you pass. Nobody hold a rally, no judgments are made, no snickering behind your back about thinking you are better than anyone, everyone understands, because the thinking seems to be after all ….who really wants to be Black? This brings up a whole other host of race issues for me so it should be an interesting experience if it is indeed true.

    I’m excited to go to South American though, I was in Caracas, Venezuela for only a short time but there was something about it and the people that felt like home. Maybe my view on all this will change.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: