There is a statistic that explains much of white folks’ politics: that most white people do not have any non-white friends. This can be an uncomfortable thing to hear, and that discomfort is a major factor in the cliché of the white person’s one black friend, or the racist’s favorite phrase: “Some of my best friends are black!”
These clichés exist because, of course, most white folks won’t admit to not having any non-white friends. Maybe we’ll point to a co-worker, though it’s likely a co-worker we’ve never invited over for dinner or been out to drinks with except, maybe, at a company happy hour. Or we’ll note a person of color at our church — though seeing somebody every Sunday morning and being very kind and Christian does not make them your friend.
To my recollection, I didn’t have a non-white friend until high school. I mean a real friend. I was friendly with the two black girls in my middle school but that’s it, just friendly. Once I got to high school, I had a Korean-American friend, two Indian-American friends, and one black friend. Again, meaning true friends, the kind you hang out with after school or on weekends — or, in one of those cases, you go on a cruise with as your joint graduation present.
I bring this up because, while I certainly grew up in a white flight neighborhood, I come from (and claim great pride in being from) a very black city. It’s the same city Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about in his coming-of-age memoir, The Beautiful Struggle (c2015 Spiegel & Grau). But while I recognize many of the places he writes about, Coates’ Baltimore has absolutely nothing in common with the one I grew up in. And not just because he’s 13 years older than me and from the West Side.
Baltimore is a beautiful city. It is mine as much as it is Coates’s, but the two Baltimores might as well be different cities.
I recognize in Coates’s writing the names of places like Mondawmin Mall, Lexington Market, and Druid Hill Park — I’ve even spent time in two of those, Lexington Market and the park that gave the rap group Dru Hill its name. In high school I spent two nights a week on the athletic fields at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, aka Poly. And I once had a tennis match at Woodlawn High School, the school in the county Coates eventually graduated from (which also happens to be my mother’s alma mater). But just think about that: My experience of Woodlawn is that I had a tennis match there once.
In Coates’s story of growing up from elementary school through the college application process, I recognize many seemingly-universal experiences of American boyhood. Especially when it comes to being a smart kid trying to fit in with the cool ones — or at least trying not to stick out too much.
But I have no way of knowing — truly knowing in the way that experience makes you feel your knowledge deep within your bones and your psyche — the way that typical youth experience is different growing up in West Baltimore. The way it’s different being raised by a father who’s a former Black Panther and current publisher of radical black political, social, and historical writings. The way it’s different when the simple fact of having a father who’s present and active makes you an anomaly among your classmates. The way it’s different having to navigate a city being torn apart by the crack and AIDS epidemics — as a slightly nerdy, unathletic middle-schooler.
I can’t understand that, because it isn’t my experience. And because so many in the white community never look outside our own experiences, it becomes so easy to caricature a community that is different from our own, to other it, to pathologize its experiences. We condescend, blaming the poor for having been poor, blaming the black and the brown for not having had the good sense to be born white. We tut-tut, feeling superior, finding the minority experience utterly incomprehensible. To which someone might say, as Coates writes:
Fuck you all who’ve ever spoken so foolishly, who’ve opened your mouths like we don’t know what this is. We’ve read the books you own, the scorecards you keep–done the math and emerged prophetic. We know how we will die–with cousins in double murder suicides, in wars that are mere theory to you, convalescing in hospitals, slowly choked out by angina and cholesterol. We are the walking lowest rung, and all that stands between us and beast, between us and the local zoo, is respect, the respect you take as natural as sugar and shit. We know what we are, that we walk like we are not long for this world, that this world has never longed for us.
Reading a book by an author of color — like listening to podcasts hosted by people of color — does not solve the friend problem. It doesn’t solve things like housing segregation and hiring discrimination, broader social issues that feed the friend problem. But the willingness to listen, really listen, to people unlike yourself is essential to giving that respect that is, itself, an essential step to leveling the differences between us. The respect for our humanity, that we take for granted, that a black kid from West Baltimore could fight for his entire life and never get.
I worry that in using my new Book Report series to discuss The Beautiful Struggle, I’m making a common mistake, the mistake of the well-meaning white person that says, “Look how woke I am!” Or, put otherwise, “Look how racist I’m not!” That is not my intention here. The argument I’m making here, for my infinitesimally small audience, is one for simply listening.
My message is for white activists, the wannabe allies like myself, and also for the other side, the conservatives I know who use words like “progressive” and “liberal” as slurs. Every one of us wants to speak up and be heard. We all want to be right. But I firmly believe we could all stand to just listen, as a first step. Listen and truly hear what others try to say to us, acknowledge their personhood, and give wholly the respect we so easily give to ourselves.
Perhaps above all, my message is for myself, in an attempt to hold myself accountable. Don’t tell other people what their experience is like. First and foremost: listen.