Game of Privilege

It’s late. I should be asleep. As I begin this, it’s 1:23AM in my corner of New England. I had a fabulous and productive day cleaning and waiting for the arrival of some of my favorite people on the planet. My birthday was Thursday and they came down to celebrate the weekend with me. As per usual, fun was had by all. Also as usual, after the drink was poured and the conversation flowed more freely, I was left with the same desperate feeling.

I need more black friends.

I’m used to being the only one. I’m also accustomed to being the token. While I’m fairly certain that’s the role I used to fill, I’m equally sure it’s not anymore. This person is family to me. To large degree, they would do (and have done) anything for me. My family and I are in good hands when they’re around and of this, I have no doubt. So, what’s the problem.

We randomly started talking about Game of Thrones. He read the books whereas I watched the show. As it just ended, we compared notes since he wasn’t aware of all the different storylines that varied from one medium to the next. As we chatted, he asked me if I knew this story.

I did.

I also knew the story of other famous men – all black – who had been harassed by police while simply trying to go about their day. The traffic stop of Tyler Perry was one such example I brought up. He suggested that if a different cop (in this case, the third and black cop on the scene) had pulled him over at first, the situation would’ve been totally different.

True, but also beside the point.

He also takes issue with the “social justice warriors” who seemingly ruin the lives of racist who are caught in their acts of bias.

I, on the other hand, couldn’t possibly give less of a fuck.

I don’t want to deal with the emotional labor of teaching someone why they shouldn’t call the police on folks having a BBQ, a couple of men waiting for a friend at Starbucks, someone wearing socks in the pool, someone falling asleep in their dorm’s common room, someone trying to eat lunch in their university’s cafeteria, a little girl selling water, or a little boy with a big backpack.

The story of the black man stopped while babysitting white children especially terrifies me as his daughter is my goddaughter. At the very least, he shouldn’t want his own baby traumatized if someone thinks I’ve kidnapped her and tries to intervene. That’s not to say it wouldn’t be a bad (and quite possibly deadly) situation for me, but at this point, I’ll appeal to what I have to.

So, here again I sit. Alone and awake at 1:53AM. Wondering again whether or not I can “agree to disagree agreeably” with someone who takes their privilege for granted and genuinely doesn’t understand the potential danger I could experience just existing in America. He maintains that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery, has had questionable opinions about what he sees as Affirmative Action vs its reality. Over and over, again and again, I find myself having this inner conversation.

I’m black. It’s easy for some people to ignore that because I don’t “seem” black. At least not like those featured on Law & Order. But, I am. I am black. It’s not something about me that doesn’t always factor in. It’s how I experience and engage with the world – especially since 2016. It’s taken me awhile to articulate this (something I was able to form a language for after listening to Heather Heyer’s mom’s testimony before Congress). But my friend isn’t anti racist, he’s just not racist. Biased as all fucking hell, but not (overtly) racist.

I didn’t speak to him for months after Trayvon Martin was killed because he “understood” how it happened. In fact, I kinda avoid him whenever an unarmed black teenager is murdered. Each and every time I wonder how he can love my kids so fiercely and still not see the humanity in anyone else’s.

2:05 now. And, again I wonder how I can keep this up. I love my friend. I adore my friend. And, I know he loves me, too. But he can’t really know me. Not…ever. At the very least, he doesn’t see me. He doesn’t see how his wife (who is essentially my sister) and my husband had to calm me down when I had a paralyzing anxiety attack in Target because someone (not an employee) had followed me around and tried to figure out why I was there (“are you gonna buy something?”). He didn’t see how the manager had to get my inhaler from my purse because I was too overwhelmed to look for it. He didn’t see how it had to be explained to the employees that calling for an ambulance would’ve made things worse because the site of uniformed officers is a huge trigger of mine.

He doesn’t really get to know that person because, to a large degree, our friendship has required that we pretend that side of me doesn’t exist. That was my choice. It seemed easier and the more time passes, the more old habits long ingrained sit as the elephant in the room rotting and festering while everyone looks away.

And, yes, I know how painfully and utterly stupid that is. Twenty year old habits are pretty hard to break.

2:13AM. I still don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I have this friend. I love this friend. He loves me, too. We’ve been through a lot together and he truly is a good person.

Just not an anti racist one.

2 Replies to “Game of Privilege”

  1. Monique, what a frustrating and unwinnable situation to be in. I’m so sorry to hear that his person has chosen to invest in you for twenty years – without ever really committing to investing in *you. It must make your friendship feel so artificial sometimes – and it’s clear that, knowing he really does care genuinely, you also feel some form of guilt for “not believing in” him.

    The error here is his – in being unable or unwilling to truly know and hear you. I’d *love to say some blithe, happy thing, like “have him watch PBS’ Race: The power of an Illusion, so he can learn to question some of his assumptions about the way our world works.” But the reality is – he has had twenty years of the best resource available, for him to learn, and he has chosen not only to not-listen, but to create an environment where your friendship appears to depend on you not saying things that might cause him to feel discomfort with those views that he chooses not to examine.

    Is it possible to broach this topic with someone else in your friend group, and explore the possibility of an “intervention” that comes from a third party? That might make it feel like less of a complaint/conflict – more a focus on peer/group pressure to understand that he’s not behaving well and you are being gracious about paying the price for it. Sometimes that makes a conversation easier to hear – or at least reduces the damage done by telling someone something they need, but don’t want, to hear.

    Only you can decide whether you receive as much from this friendship as it costs you to maintain. I hope you find an answer to that, that you can live with, and I’m so sorry that you’re placed in this position.


    1. First of all, thank you truly for your kind words of understanding. His wife is like a sister to me. I set them up back when we were in college together. Since they were dating, she’s been the main one pointing out the flaws in his way of thinking. I can’t remember what he’s said the first time we needed to stage an intervention, but she led that charge along with one of our other best friends/sister (both of them were my roommates in college; the one who helped talk to him is the one who died). I didn’t have to do a lot of speaking up during that first conversation as no one wanted me to have to engage in emotional labor to unpack and confront his bias. He spent the whole time crying and apologizing.

      Things have gotten better in the last 20 years, but ultimately, there’s still so much that I have to do. When Marvel cast Idris Elba in the Thor movies, he thought it was wrong because Heimdell is part of the religious war (and therefore couldn’t be black because, in his view, all Vikings were white). He also thought it was wrong for Hollywood to whitewash roles that should’ve gone to poc or were depictions of actual poc (such as films based on true stories). He sees these problems as equal and not indicative of the fact that Hollywood believes you must cast whites to sell tickets (despite Hollywood repeatedly saying this exact thing).

      His wife (my sister) still tells him when he’s being wrong. She’s been in the middle of our stuff our whole relationship and it’s not something I want to have her keep doing.

      This past summer, I wrote a children’s book that had immigration as part of the storyline. I refused to let him read it as I was writing and editing it (he was basically the only one who didn’t get to). When he found out that I was deliberately keeping it from him, he was hurt. I didn’t think he’d *want* to read it, and I didn’t feel like dealing with the fallout. I apologized for assuming that he would hate it, but I realized after that he created the situation that made me keep it from him. He largely doesn’t read anything I write unless I ask him to, so I’m not worried about him reading this.

      Ultimately, I’m stuck. I’m not sure how to navigate this situation without compromising a large part of who I am. We’ll definitely be in each other’s lives, I’ve just given up on the possibility of having the deep and rich friendship that I can have with someone who actually *gets* me – ALL of me.

      Again, thank you for your kind words. I greatly appreciate them.


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