You’re not a racist; you’re my liberal friend, the one who applauds my Africanness. But one day, in your home, you asked me never to leave the window open lest some Black — you blinked, snipped off what you were about to say, and continued — lest some thief climb through it to steal something. In your mind thieves are most likely Black. I’m the exception that you boast about to others as your best friend. In my throat that day it felt as though a fish bone had lodged there, but instead of hacking it out, I swallowed it farther, hoping the discomfort would end on its own. Newly arrived in America from Ghana, I was barely out of my teens, struggling to understand.
You’re not a racist; you’re my church friend. I sang in the choir, and you clapped. In the hallways you smiled at me and said, Amen, sister. Praise the Lord. Glory hallelujah! But when I ran into you at the store, another white church friend by my side, you said hello to her and not to me. Though I smiled and said hello, you made no response. You looked elsewhere. Perhaps you didn’t recognize me, but in church you’d have said hello whether you knew me or not. In public I saw your fear, your need to scurry off. I recognized that fear: the one that makes you clutch your purse tighter when you spy a Black person in the same shopping aisle as you; the one that turns your Christian charity into an exclusive club.
You’re not a racist; you’re my literary friend. But when, at your dinner table, we were discussing Shakespeare’s Othello and a white guest looked away from me and said, Let’s be honest: every white person harbors prejudice against people of color, and I said, I guess I can understand, because back home they used to say only desperate girls married white men — when I said that, anger reddened the woman’s face, and you rose to put your arm around her, whispering words of comfort, leaving me to wonder why her hurt mattered more, why I didn’t deserve the same gentleness and delicacy after she’d made her comment with a careless shrug and a smile. Was her casual superiority all right with you? But I was a guest in your house, so I swallowed the feeling in my throat so that our friendship would continue. It was a onetime aberration, I persuaded myself. I was in my mid-twenties, still figuring it out.
You’re not a racist; you’re my singles’-group friend. But when you almost married an unkind man who disparaged your home country (not America), when you came to my house to bake bread and spill your guts two weeks before the ceremony, when I called your mother on your behalf and she thanked me for telling her, when you drew the courage to call off the wedding, when you met someone better, when we planned your new wedding — when I arrived at the reception, I found I had been moved from your table to a faraway one to sit with a bunch of old people I barely knew. You told me that someone else had decided to move me, and you hadn’t stood up for me. Later I caught you looking at me with sadness and regret, and I smiled to make you comfortable, even as I remembered your mother confessing to me months earlier that your grandfather was racist and apologizing in advance that I couldn’t come around when Grandpa was visiting. She wanted to protect me, she’d said. Oh, the times you and I had danced to salsa and Afrobeat and performed together; the times we’d drunk wine and had orgies of home-baked bread. Our closeness was a private one to be hidden from the white gaze. I said nothing and forced the bone in my throat farther down.
You’re not a racist; you’re my sister-friend. But you invited someone you knew was racist to lunch with you and me. When she arrived and would not look at me and then left without even accepting a drink, you said you had no idea she would be that bad and proceeded to tell me what a lovely lady she was. You had recommended her handyman husband to me to renovate my home. I had never stopped to ponder why he always talked to you but seldom to me, why he almost never looked me in the eye. I had assumed he was shy, you see. Now, at lunch, I understood he was uncomfortable with my skin color. You said that was how things were in Mississippi and that you had family who had been Klan members. Now I knew why, at your daughter’s wedding, your father had stared at me with inexplicable venom. Oh, how many times you continued to invite me to your home, trying to force me on racists with complete disregard for my comfort. I said nothing, even when you casually mentioned that your father couldn’t wait to get back to the South, where he said people knew their place. Oh, how we hosted each other’s children for days on end. Oh, how we cooked together, how we fell asleep together on the couch watching movies. The whole time I ignored the choking fish bone in my throat. I pasted on the smile you loved.
You’re not a racist; you’re my daughter-friend. I held you when you were hours old, counted every lash on your eyelids. Sometimes you called me Mama. I taught you literature in your homeschool group. But after dinner one day you sat on my couch and voiced your disgust that the Zulu in the musical Ipi N’tombi wore animal skins. Aghast, you spat out that they were just like animals. You said it was no wonder that people tied them to trucks and dragged them through the streets. You told me your father had taught you that history, saying it was wrong, but now you understood how it could happen, when Africans acted like animals. Never mind that you wear animal skins: your rabbit-fur coat and leather boots. Never mind that in old movies we watched about Vikings or Robin Hood, white people wear animal skins. I understood what your twelve-year-old self couldn’t articulate: white people can wrap themselves in animal skins because they’re humans, whereas Black people have to prove their humanity. You were homeschooled by your parents. I taught you To Kill a Mockingbird and Dickens. Where did you learn to dehumanize Black people? Did you inhale it from the atmosphere? I had wiped your bottom and dried your tears, and now I watched you stab me. The fish bone in my throat punctured the skin, but I bore the pain so your beautiful eyes wouldn’t fill with tears; so our families could remain family. Ah, the hateful memory of not correcting you.
You’re not a racist; you’re my almost-like-family friend. Your father-in-law, who lived with you, did carpentry work for me for free. He gave me cards on my birthday and called me family. When I was spending the night in your home and you went into labor, I helped deliver your baby. But when Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election, you said Black people didn’t deserve to vote because of the way they had voted en masse for him. And yet you didn’t wish that on whites who voted for him or against McCain. Did you feel Black citizenship was a privilege and not a right? When your children shared how their classmates had vowed to kill Obama, you said nothing; in fact, you nodded and almost smiled. Oh, Christian almost-like-family friend! I spoke out then and made you uncomfortable — so uncomfortable your aged father-in-law pinned me against the wall, his elbow at my throat, causing the hot tea I clutched to scald me. I feared to push him lest he slip and fracture a limb, this same man I’d railed against because he’d tied a noose around Obama’s effigy and hung it on his bedroom door; this same man who’d laughed and said, Yes! when Rush Limbaugh had joked Obama might fall into an elevator shaft at the White House, and wouldn’t that be lovely. After twenty years of friendship, I knew then I was the rare Black person you loved. You didn’t see color, you said. You didn’t see me.
I am not angry with you, liberal friend, church friend, literary friend, singles’-group friend, sister-friend, daughter-friend, almost-like-family friend. I’m ashamed for all the times I did not tell you how your words and actions wounded me. You see, I was filled with a false sense of your delicacy, as if the truth would cause you to crumble into pieces, as if our friendship wasn’t strong enough to withstand the tension. I’m guilty of doing you a disservice, of not allowing you to look at life through a clearer lens. I’m guilty of not helping us both grow.
I will stay silent no more. I will cough up this bone from my throat and speak freely. We’ll endure growing pains together and become stronger, and perhaps closer, as you travel this path with me. And I hope we’ll remain friends. But if not, I will wish you well. And I will thank God you’re not in my life.