My Black Friend

          I don’t have a black friend, that is to say, a Black friend, an African American friend. It was the TV the other night that got me thinking. A commentator, a professor at the university, an African American woman, was saying that the problem was that so many white people let themselves be isolated.

          “How many white people say they’re not racist, but don’t actually socialize with African Americans, have never had African Americans in their homes?”

          I had to admit, that was me. The professor’s voice was full of anger, of outrage. Although we’ve never met, I felt her anger attach itself to me. That seemed only right. It was the truth. She was speaking to me. She knew who I was.

          I'm a middle-aged single white woman who lives in a small city in the Midwest. We don’t have many black people here. I work at a bank, taking care of the database. The bank has no black employees. In the downtown where I work, not many of the businesses have black employees. The black people I see are usually either janitors or the homeless. Obviously, that fact in itself is witness to the racism we struggle with in this town.

          Given my actual situation, it’s difficult to think about being friends with a homeless person. I know I shouldn’t be limited that way, but I am. If I were friends with a homeless person, white or black, then I would essentially have to take care of them. It’s too unequal.

          I could be friends with a janitor though. I’m not better than a janitor just because I write code for a database. I would go to a janitor’s house. I would have a janitor to my house for dinner. If the janitor at my bank was black, perhaps I could strike up a casual friendship, over time. I’d notice something about him, maybe the ball cap of a team from a faraway city and ask him about it. That would give us a start. Then, eventually, I could ask if he wanted to come over for dinner.

          But that might make him think I wanted a romantic attachment. Not that I would rule out a romantic attachment with someone because he was black and a janitor. Absolutely not. But in this version of what I’m thinking, I’m trying to have a friend, and not a lover. Sex complicates things. A sexual relationship is by definition something out of the ordinary. Also, white people often have sexual relationships with black people without losing their racism. Look at Jesse Helms! That kind of thing is definitely not what I’m getting at.

          What I don’t have, what I lack, is an ordinary friendship with an ordinary black person.

          Please understand I’m saying black instead of African American because it’s hard to type it every time. It also feels affected for me to write Black each time, as if I were that professor, as if I possessed that kind of certainty about what was the right way to say or write these things. We say “black” informally, and I feel that I need to be informal, if I’m going to be truthful.

          At any rate, the point is moot because Sven, the janitor at the bank, is white. He’s in his sixties, married, fat, and not a particularly pleasant man. I’ve talked to him—I’m not too good to talk to the janitor—and honestly, I don’t want to have him over for dinner. I don’t think I can go across the street to another building, find a black janitor, strike up a conversation with him, or her, and then ask her or him, or them, to come over to my house for dinner. That seems like it would be forced, awkward, unnatural. And, as I said, what I’m looking for is something ordinary, natural, organic. I would like to naturally have a black friend, or friends. The fact that I don’t is painful. It reflects a failure on my part.

          When I said the professor on TV was African American did you picture her in a dashiki, or with an Afro, or dreadlocks? In fact, her hair was short and straight, and she wore a red pants suit and a white shirt. She was very well put together, very professional, middle class. She would have fit in at my bank. She could easily have been a manager at my bank, perhaps my manager. I thought about her being my manager, and about trying to please her and be responsible and responsive to her, as any good employee should be. I thought about coming into her office, standing obediently in front of her desk, while she sat behind it and reviewed my work, the work that I did for her. She might be leaning back easily in an expensive and comfortable chair, one leg crossed over the other, drinking coffee as she reviewed my efforts, perhaps offering me constructive criticism, or pointing out how I could be more productive, or even giving me a dressing down for ways in which I hadn’t satisfied her. I would have no problem with that scenario. None whatsoever.

          What I really need though is not a boss or a janitor, but an equal: someone at my level, so to speak. A colleague, a casual acquaintance. What about the gym, you might say. What about the yoga class? I belong to a gym and go to a yoga class there, but there are no black members at my gym. It’s not an exclusive whites-only country club-type gym. It’s just the regular YMCA downtown. As I said, not many black people live in my city.

          I think it would be easier to be friends with a black woman than a black man. We might be able to bond over the way that women, black or white, can have a pretty tough time in this world. Not that I think that my experience of being a white woman would be the same as her experience of being a black woman. Her experience of being a woman would probably be different and a lot tougher than mine. I probably have a lot of unconscious assumptions about all that. I know that white feminist women can just be the worst! I’ve read about that online.

          It’s so frustrating that I only read about or watch these things, because how far can that take you? Real lessons, real growth, can only come from real life experience. I truly believe that. And I truly want to learn and grow. I’m open to the idea that I have a lot to learn.

          What worries me most is that if I did have a friendship with, say, a black woman, someone who, say, moves into my apartment building, someone who, say, also takes care of a database for a company, someone also single, someone not close-minded, but who was starting from a place where she might be sympathetic to the kinds of problems a white person like me might have about race, if, say, my issues weren’t just an immediate turn off, a reason to close the door on me (and who’s to say she wouldn’t be completely justified in doing so), would I then be exploiting her openness, her sense of generosity, her kindness? Would I be her friend because I was her friend, or would I be using her friendship just to deal with my desire to learn and grow? Because me learning and growing is not her problem! At least, it shouldn’t be.

          You see how frustrating this is. I had a friend once who was Catholic. By the way, I don’t think that’s anything special. Lots of people are Catholics, although not many around here. My Catholic friend (he was a man, and no, we did not have sex; I did not experiment to find out what it would be like to have sex with a Catholic, although I did think about it because I was a little curious what it would be like to not use a condom because of a religious belief, instead of because the guy was a jerk) anyway, my friend explained about the problem you have as a Catholic which is the moment you’ve repented of everything, the moment you’re completely sorry for your sins, you feel a sense of relief, as if you weren’t guilty anymore, but that itself is the sin of pride, and you’re back where you started from. It’s a little like that.

          I used the word scenario, a little while ago, when I was thinking about the professor of African American studies being my superior at work. Frankly, my choice of words seems a little disturbing. Reading over what I have written, it seems to leave the door open to an unhealthy interpretation. As if what I really wanted was not to learn and grow and become a better person in the future, but rather to be punished for the kind of person I am now, so that I can keep living with it. As if I wanted to indulge myself in some theatrical relationship in which a Black person was my superior, and I was inferior, all though obviously such a relationship would really be all about me, about my needs. I can imagine some low-minded person thinking what I really wanted in that office was verbal humiliation for its own sake. I can imagine someone thinking I’d take perverse pleasure in subjecting myself to abuse. I think my choice of the word “scenario” obliquely implies something like that, as if it were subconsciously on my mind, and frankly, that subconscious choice on my part disgusts me in more ways than I can name.

          I notice that in describing the scene above that I am definitely not thinking about, I naturally wrote “Black” instead of “black.” I’m not sure if that’s progress or not.

          I don’t mean to imply that I’m better than the kind of woman who would want to have an interracial relationship of domination and submission with another woman, whether it was purely verbal or otherwise. I‘m open-minded about those kinds of things, a lot more than you probably think! I believe two consenting adults working out their needs are entitled to do whatever they want. Although, I can see that I was judgmental about that kind of relationship just now. I apologize to anyone offended, including anyone who was disgusted by the scenario itself, which would be an entirely reasonable reaction.

          My point is that it is not any Black person’s burden to take the time and trouble to punish me for my internalized racism. They’d just be helping me act out my self-hatred. Who needs that? What would be in it for them? Nothing! Exactly.

          I have to confront the possibility that while I badly need a friendship with a Black person, it is possible, even likely, that no Black person needs or wants a friendship with me. That’s sad to contemplate. I have a lot to offer anyone, as a friend. I have flaws. I know that. But everyone has flaws. I have good qualities too. At least I’m trying. That has to count for something. Underneath it all, I mean well. I mean so very, very well about all of this. I really do. My heart is full of love. All I want is a chance.

EDWARD PORTER’s writing has appeared in Glimmer Train, the Hudson Review, the Gettysburg Review, Colorado Review, Barrelhouse, Best New American Voices, and elsewhere. A former Madison, MacDowell and Stegner fellow, he teaches creative writing at Stanford University.