“I Just Think That All Lives Matter”: When Your Friend Of 20 Years Is Racist

July 14, 2016  |  

black history month


We’ve been doing this for a while now, haven’t we? When I say “this,” I mean dealing with police terrorism in the age of social media.  Many of us have strengthened our “unfollow” fingers, expertly silencing so-called Facebook friends  when they’ve said something prejudiced. I know I have. High school teammates and old co-workers disappear from my timeline with the push of a button. But what happens when you encounter racist friends in real life? How do you “unfollow” the friend who has seen you through bad times? How do you disconnect after 20 years of friendship?

It’s a hard pill to swallow when you realize that some of your oldest friends harbor racist sentiments. Maybe the signs were always there, or perhaps it took a second to notice because they’re not very vocal, nor do they have ill intentions. The thing is, as we continue to galvanize around ending police terror, Eldridge Cleaver’s quote comes to mind: “If you’re not a part of the solution, you are a part of the problem.” I’m left wondering if my friendships are a part of the problem.

A few Sundays ago, an old friend asked me what I’d done before meeting her for brunch, and I told her that I had gone to a Black Lives Matter rally.

“Oh,” she said, looking at me and then her menu. “I just don’t know what to make of all this.”

Before I could respond, she launched into a diatribe about not understanding BLM. She confused being anti-police brutality with being anti-police, and lumped the actions of the Dallas shooters into the actions and message of the entire movement and/or, all Black people (I’m still not sure which). She educated me about how some police were actually pretty awesome (because she assumed, as a Black woman, I didn’t know any personally), and then ended with the quintessential quote, “I just think that all lives matter.”

Now it was my turn to look down at my menu. I didn’t come to brunch to educate the ignorant, and yet here I was, face to face with one of my oldest friends, having to explain to her why Black lives do indeed matter. Here I was, instead of delving into bottomless mimosas, delving into systemic racism, helping her understand that if folks really thought all lives mattered, Black people wouldn’t be bleeding to death in cities across the country.

I felt anger rising inside of me, but when I looked her in the eye it softened. I’ve known her my whole adult life, and the questions she had probably lived in her heart for our entire friendship. I did what I know how to do: I answered her questions. I felt detached from my emotions, treating her like a student who’d stepped into my office. If she asked a question, I answered it. If her perception seemed skewed, I did my best to correct it. I even concluded our conversation asking her to recount some of the points I brought up.

“Do you understand a little better?” I asked, sincerely hoping that I’d changed her opinion.

“Yeah,” she said. “I think I’d like to know more. And I know it’s on me to educate myself, but…”

“Well,” I cut her off, “next time I go to a rally or panel discussion I’ll invite you.”

“Yes,” she said. “Please do.”

We changed the subject before my second mimosa. We talked about the things we always talk about: dudes, work, and our lives in the same city. We talked about how much it sucks to online date, and how neither of us want to live in America anymore. We had a good time, but when we got our check and parted ways, I found myself walking toward Central Park with tears in my eyes.  How could someone so close to me hold so many strange and damaging views about my people? How could she see a movement so clearly rooted in love as something inherently threatening? How could she be using the same phrases my friends and I judge so harshly? I’ve blocked people on Facebook for less…

The sad reality of life is that no one, not even the Facebook racists, are completely terrible people. It’s easy to silence a high school friend that you only experience through pictures, but its harder to do that when you find yourself in a loving relationship with an ignorant person. Is it your job to help them understand the world?  Maybe it is, but what I think gets lost when we’re asked to explain and interpret what is obvious to us is how much explaining can hurt. The act of asserting that our lives have value is a deeply heartbreaking endeavor, and when you strip away all of the intellectualizing and arguing — having that brunch conversation with an old friend was f–king painful. Though it may help change her mind, I wonder if I become more human or less human in the process?

I don’t know.

What I know is this: Those of us pushed to the margins in this country must find spaces where we are loved. It’s not the time to find ourselves in places where we feel “othered.” By all means, do the work that you feel called to do. Have the difficult conversations you feel it’s worth your time to have. But in the end, find nourishment, restoration and a sense of peace in those communities where you feel seen and understood.

For what it’s worth, I see you and I understand.

Patia Braithwaite is a black woman who believes justice, equality, and the sanctity of brunch. To learn more about her travels, both physical and spiritual, you can find her at http://www.menmyselfandgod.com. She Tweets and Instagrams at @pdotbrathw8

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