Sociologist Howard Winant writes (in academic speak) “The theme of race is situated where meaning meets social structure, where identity frames inequality.” I would add that the situated-ness of these spaces are encounters between whites and non-whites. These encounters — any and all — are historically loaded. The relationship between white and non-white cannot be unmarked by history and oppression.
Whiteness is a space – a historical space and a relational space.
Whiteness and blackness is about what happens in the in-between. It is a historical space because when I see, greet, or meet a non-white person, I feel the centuries of history bubbled up between us: slavery, Jim Crow, genocide, citizenship, favor, advantages, anger and rage, and ease and dis-ease. My visual reference is Charlie Brown talking about Pig Pen: “Don’t think of it as dust. Just think of it as the dirt and dust of far-off lands blowing over here and settling. It staggers the imagination!”
Can and white and black people be friends? Really good friends?
The answer is, “Of course.” Just look at the growing number of “inter-racial” relationships and marriages. But, the reality is that we whites are statistically the least likely to marry outside of our race. We are less likely to pursue friendships outside of our race than non-whites, as well. As comedian Chris Rock so humorously and honestly stated:
“All my black friends have a bunch of white friends. And all my white friends have one black friend.”
Why is that? Why are white people so (you fill in the blank) about making friends with other non-whites? Even well-meaning, socially conscious, and politically active, whites?
The question is not hard to answer: Because there are risks involved. Those risks are real and not real. Having an intimate friendship with a person of color forces white people to look at their own pre-concieved racist ideas. Yes, racist ideas. And, even more scary than admitting to ourselves that we might be racist, is saying or doing something that is racially offensive.
Which would you rather do? (A) Participate in a multi-cultural sensitivity training at work. (B) Go to dinner at the home of a Black, Hispanic, or Native American colleague that you just met?
The following are questions that might go through your mind:
One could argue that you might ask three-out-of-four of those questions the first time you went to any new person’s house. But would you? Really?
How at ease or comfortable are white people when they are around and outnumbered by non-whites? The risk involved is a risk of uncertainty. The prospect of dis-ease and dis-comfort.
There is an awareness and a scrutiny of the self that occurs when white people are placed in close proximity, in non-working environments, and/or in intimate situations, with people of color. This self-gaze is uncomfortable. It usually leads to self-censorship. It leads to an in-authenticity. It is hard work. It seems easier to walk away.
Don’t! Stay in that space of discomfort. Give yourself permission to be uncomfortable. Most importantly, give yourself permission to make mistakes. Be honest with your friend and colleague if you feel you have said something that was wrong, hurtful, or stupid. That is what relationships and intimacy are about, anyway. Some will work; some will not. That happens in all relationships.