Hello. It’s me Renee, your Black friend.
One thing I liked about the sewing community and my position within, is a feeling that I could show the wider white sewing community that they had something in common with a Black person. That we could be friends, that you would see how I lived and be able to identify with me as a person. After 30 years of practice, I’m an excellent Black friend.
I speak well, I went to college, I’m not outwardly radical in my politics, I date(d) men of all races, I live in multiracial neighborhoods you can feel comfortable going to, I listen to a wide range of music, my parents are professionals, I travel, etc. I do all these things that make me more palatable. First, there is more than one way to be Black. Period. But, more importantly, while all the above things remain true, I stifle myself online and in the world.
What’s happened is, I’ve made myself “the Black friend”. I’m often put in a position to speak for the Black community because I’m THE Black person that people know. But, do I speak? Do I give truthful answers? If I’m being honest, I don’t. Because I’ve learned over the years what it takes to make people comfortable so they continue to accept me professionally and personally.
Let me start by saying some things I hold to be true. The United States of America was founded on white supremacy. The remnants of white supremacy continue to impact the daily way of life for Black people regardless of class every day. I’m lucky (and yes, it’s luck and not just hard work) that gave me the upper middle-class life that I appreciate and enjoy.
Donald J. Trump is a white supremacist. After he won the election with 53% of the white female vote, I stopped trusting random white women. Yes. If I met a new white woman, until they proved otherwise, I assumed they voted for an admitted sexual assaulter that wants to keep the status quo and relative comfort of white supremacy that has benefited his family and friends for generations.
Black Lives Matter. Black life is not held in the same regard in this country as white lives, never mind white female lives. Every experience in my life has reinforced this. Being a Black American, never mind of Caribbean parentage, is a balancing act of figuring out who you are and where you fit in.
The racism I experience is the kind of persistent microaggression that chips away at your being on a daily basis. Blessedly, I don’t recall exactly being called a nigger. I have some vague recollection of being called a dirty black bitch in middle school. But for the most part, it’s the small chipping away at my person that keeps me in a constant state of low key stress. Wanting to make sure I act right. That I’m good. That I keep people comfortable because my career and my life require it. And before you think I am overreacting to a life you do not live, please know that you do not get to tell me how to think or feel.
When the riots were in Baltimore in 2015, I worked at a very wealthy private equity fund. Despite being professional staff, I was not one of the many multimillionaires in my office. While the white staffers who lived in Baltimore city limits were being offered places to stay and asked where they could go to be safe, no one asked me. I also lived in Baltimore city. I lived in a transitional neighborhood that experienced crime on a regular basis. I did not live in a waterfront home with kids in private schools and weekend homes in Annapolis. But no one was worried about me because I’m Black. Either I would be safe because I was Black, or there was no need to worry about me, because I wasn’t white. Trust me when I say we slept with one eye open those nights, our dog in the bed, a baseball bat at my side and a can of bear mace at the ready. I was no more safe than them, but no one ever checked for me.
A former white roommate was house hunting in a predominantly Black, less safe neighborhood. A mutual friend said, “She can’t’ live there as a white woman!” Oh! I didn’t realize that Black women would be safer in a dangerous neighborhood! How silly of me! When in fact most crimes committed to and by Black people are done by other Black people. Somehow her whiteness, her femininity were more at stake than my Blackness and my womanhood.
At my boarding high school, a group of us were watching an international beauty pageant. It took another classmate exclaiming, “She’s very pretty for a Black woman,” for me to understand that I was not pretty because I am Black. When I left and went back to my dorm room embarrassed and emotionally beat the fuck down, it was ME who had to accept her weeping on my floor deep in histrionics apology. When I wasn’t trying to talk to her because I needed to process my own feelings, her sister came to my room and asked why I couldn’t just accept her apology. Then it was a roomful of white women telling me “She didn’t mean it that way”. So I accepted her apology, because I had no choice. I needed to be good to get by.
I was once asked by an older colleague if I knew a family. I didn’t, I asked him why and his face went red. Turns out they were a family his children go to school with. I don’t have kids. I was not an alum of that $50k a year private school. I didn’t live in the same neighborhood as that family. So in a city of 600,000 that’s 60% Black, he thought I might know them.
A few years ago I was with my husband at his federal bar swearing in. One of the men being sworn in worked in my building, went to law school with my husband out-of-state and I knew his boss, who was there, through some charitable work we did together. We talked for several minutes because of all these coincidences. A week later, I walked into the elevator at my office building and there he was! I gave an enthusiastic “Hello!” and received a blank stare just before he turned his eyes back to his screen. I have never felt so invisible in my life. I went back to the office and shared the story with two Black women. They both slowly nodded, knowing that same feeling of being invisible. I told that story to some white women, they suggested he was having an off day, a bad memory or I should have introduced myself to him again. We can accept that women become invisible as they age, but not that Black women are regularly invisible.
This is the kind of racism I experience. It is absolutely not the same experience that Black people in poor and marginalized neighborhoods experience. I’m not over policed. I have access to fresh and healthy food. I can walk to and from my car without worries. My trash gets picked up. My zoned school is a Blue Ribbon school. I’ve always had access to good healthcare. There aren’t men on corners selling drugs or police breaking up gatherings of people talking. For the most part, my interaction with law enforcement has been pleasant (hey, I’ve even dated a few cops). While I’ve been pulled over (not for speeding) more times that most of my white friends for being in an area known for drug activity, each stop has ended without incident. I do know if I were in a negative situation, I have many resources, contacts and a greater amount of power than most. That’s MY privilege.
No one told me to be nervous around cops. There was no sit down with my parents. Maybe because I’m a woman. Maybe because where my dad came from in Jamaica, the police were a sanctioned hit squad, so not having to directly pay a police officer money seemed like a boon. But, I remember two instances that told me what I needed to know about how to act around police.
When I was a very young child, we were driving in a van through South Carolina (we lived in August, GA at the time). My Jamaican – American father was speeding and got pulled over. The trooper asked my dad to step out of the car. He called him boy. My US Army officer mother got out of the car. The trooper told my dad to tell my mom to get back inside. My dad kept his eyes down, his voice soft. He was given a ticket and we drove off. The car was icy with silence, then later low murmurs between my mom and my dad. I wasn’t more than six or seven, but I’ve always remembered that night.
Later, in high school, my dad and I drove by a young Black man, cuffed and seated on the side of the road with a Maryland police officer talking to him. My dad circled around saying, “I just want to make sure he’s okay.” By his actions, I learned that there was something to be concerned about if you’re Black and the police pull you over.
When I was in a college literature class, we read Barbara Kingsolver’s “Pigs in Heaven” which addresses transracial adoption of a Native American child into a white family. College was the first time there was enough Black people around for me not to be THE Black person. A Black male student said he didn’t agree with cross-racial adoption because “who was going to teach a boy how to be a Black man”. I’ll never forget that.
My very favorite thing though, is being told I’m not Black, particularly by white people. What they are saying is I don’t fit into their ideas of how Black people should be. When pressured, no one wants to admit that it’s because I speak well, or have a professional job or interests outside of hip hop music and club going. What they mean is they’ve decided how Black people should be and are happy I’m not one of them. Because I make them comfortable. You do not get to weigh in on someone’s Blackness.
But, I don’t want to go through the rest of my life making people comfortable. I want to be able to talk freely about these experiences and how they shaped who I am and inform my behavior. I want to address and call people out when I see them acting in a way that reinforces white supremacy and prejudice. I’m frequently afraid that photos of my happiness with my white husband might misconstrue the idea that everything is OK. That we’ve solved racism! We haven’t.
Trena and I both read “Warmth of Other Suns” about the Black migration from the south up north. Trena was amazed at the progress our country had made over the years. I was left with a sense of how bad things still were.
I have dozens more stories like the ones above. If you know me and have followed me over the years, I hope you know my heart and my spirit. If you’re waiting for things to go back to normal, realize that your normal is a daily emotionally and physically draining hardship to the Black people in this country. So, what am I trying to say here?
- Vote Trump Out. He incites people to act on their baser instincts and protect the status quo.
- Diversify your social media feed and your life. Accept that people are multidimensional and make an effort to get to know people who aren’t like you. BE UNCOMFORTABLE. Sit with it. Think about why you’re uncomfortable, what it means and where it comes from. I’ve been to 50 weddings in the last few years between helping a friend who has a photography business and all of Jordan’s friends getting married. Most of them are 99% white. That tells me a lot about the circles people keep.
- Your words and actions have power. If you care, please take the time to reflect on what you can do to be anti-racist.
That’s what I wanted to say. I am not okay, but I’m used to it.
— Renee, Your Black Friend
P.S. Gonna keep the comments open. Honestly, say whatever you feel. I know I have.
P.P.S. Hey everyone, thank you for the dialogue over the past 36 hours. I’m going to close the comments now. I’m moderating another site and busy with work. I’d like to catch up with the comments here and need some time to do so. If you’d like to email me, please do at miss celies pants at Gmail dot com.