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In Black culture, the cookout is the proverbial gathering place for Black families, friends, and communities at large. We come together for all the trappings associated with such an outdoor party, but mostly, as an idea, to comfortably be ourselves. The cookout is often the best place to see blackness in its purest and often happiest, most carefree form. Recent instances in pop culture have seen an uptick of white people somehow deemed down, woke, or otherwise not racist, being invited to the figurative outing.

The first time I noticed this in the media was hearing some refer to former president Bill Clinton as America’s first unofficial Black president. What exactly got him this distinction? Liking jazz music (and playing the saxophone on Arsenio), eating fried chicken, and apparently halfway smoking a joint. It seems that being deemed cool, unconventional, and being able to keep up with some of the newer, more complicated dance moves, can be enough to get a coveted invitation to the Black people table. This good faith gesture is supposed to be a way to acknowledge non-problematic white people, but in recent years, things seem to have gotten a bit convoluted as many honorary attendees in pop culture and beyond have proven themselves not to be as down for the cause and the culture as we would like.

Of course, former president Clinton isn’t an anomaly. Other high-profile celebrities like Justin Timberlake come to mind, who was much beloved by Black folks for his catchy brand of blue-eyed soul. That is, for many, until he left Janet Jackson holding the bag after their ill-fated Super Bowl performance. And just recently, a childhood favorite of mine, Roseanne Barr, the actress and comedian many who grew up in the nineties loved and revered as some sort of down-to-earth, lower middle class domestic goddess, showed her true colors through a series of racist Twitter attacks. While I was saddened to find out that one of my favorites was trash,  it was also a much-needed reminder that likability doesn’t absolve someone of being problematic in some way — in Hollywood and in the everyday world.

Instances like this can leave some feeling betrayed by the people they assumed were allies. I know that very thing has happened to me in real life.

Growing up in the Midwest, my affinity for Riot grrrl, zines, and hummus made me a leper of sorts in my neighborhood. As I grew up, I began to run with a lot of people whose skin didn’t necessarily look the same as mine. For me, friendship and common ground meant we liked the same music and had a few classes together, and at the time, that was enough. But I found that as our personalities developed more, things like political affiliations and gender and race ideals took center stage. Luckily, I’m pretty good at respecting others for who they are, but I’ve definitely had to take a step back and reassess some of the people holding court in my life.

Once such instance occurred a few years ago when I found myself back in my hometown having dinner with a high school friend I hadn’t seen in some time. Somehow, we got on the topic of agency and power, and this Caucasian friend decided to school me on the clothing choices of Black men. Asserting that Black men wear sagging pants because it brings them “power” in a society where they are otherwise powerless, I was instantaneously offended by my friend’s words, and her audacity to try to tell me about the clothing habits of Black people and why we do anything in particular at all. I chuckled to myself thinking about how this woman considered herself an ally of sorts, yet instead of asking me about things more closely related to my culture, felt she had some sort of upper hand or insight on a people she could never be and would never fully understand. I said much of nothing in the moment. I could have gotten into a debate of sorts but didn’t feel like turning what was meant to be a light, nice dinner into a teachable moment.

A similar incident with a white lesbian couple I grew up with had me once again re-assessing just who I was allowing into my inner circle. Tammy and Jo were an older couple I met as a teenager and grew to regard as friends. Despite spending plenty of time together and sharing common ground over our queer identities, I couldn’t get over their constant use of the “n-word.” While not used in a malicious way, I could tell they believed their upbringing on the east side of Cleveland gave them the jurisdiction to use it.

I never told any of these so-called friends exactly how I felt, instead making the choice to exile them from my life. Perhaps the healthier thing to do would have been to talk it out in order to possibly salvage the friendship and help them see the harm in their way of thinking, but I simply didn’t feel like it. After all, why is it that the burden is on me, the person of color, to constantly bridge the gap and be understanding of their ignorance?

After these friendship snafus, I started to be a lot more cognizant of the company I was keeping and what warranted a friendship with me at all. It’s no longer simply enough for us to enjoy the same music and television shows or even be from the same economic background. In today’s shifting political climate, I don’t think it’s too much to ask that my friends be a bit more progressive on their own accord. While there are plenty of allies who have earned their invitation to the party fair and square by using their privilege to help amplify the voices of the underserved and to dismantle problematic parts of our society, we need to be a bit more picky when it comes to handing out invitations to “the cookout,” and to our lives. Because truth be told, there are just as many people pretending to be down in the hopes of benefiting and taking from the culture with no regard for the people who built it.

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