I recall the day I first found out I wasn’t Black. I was in middle school hanging out with my White friend “Kristin.” I had come over to spend the weekend at Kristin’s house, a beautiful home just a few miles from the beach in South Florida. We were sitting on her bedroom floor playing cards and talking with effervescent, pre-teen abandon. I don’t recall the precise topic of conversation. We may have been comparing our circle of friends—uber-nerdy math wizzes in a magnet program for gifted kids—with the “regular” kids who were geographically assigned to our school. We may just as well have been discussing hair styles or music. Strangely, there is a dark void where my contextual memory should be, but I remember as plain as day when Kristin uttered these five words, “You’re not Black. You’re smart.”
In the very brief conversation that followed, Kristin outlined further reasons why I wasn’t Black while my 12 year old self fell into a haze of shock and bewilderment. You see, I have never been confused about my racial identity. Though I have often been the only Black friend, the only Black neighbor or one of the only Black students or employees, I never lost my sense of self in the sea of whiteness. Somehow I have managed to be comfortable in my black skin and to think of my achievements as merely incidental to—not in spite of—my race. So her words were very hurtful, though undoubtedly meant as a compliment, At this tender age, I was confronting the reality that my good friend was actually a racist. Sure, she wasn’t a Confederate flag toting, Dixie whistling, white robe wearing racist. But she was a racist nonetheless, and I’d had no idea up until that very moment.
At my current age of thirty-something, I now understand that the racist mind tends to views things in sharp, qualitative dichotomies: white v. black, smart v. dumb, citizen v. criminal, etc. It was easier for Kristin to believe that I wasn’t Black than for her to believe that a real live Black person could be smart. That being said, racism itself isn’t really black or white. It is various shades of grey. Kristin welcomed me into her home, shared food with me, and genuinely valued my friendship. On the other hand, she believed that Black people couldn’t be smart, own their homes or speak proper English.
This grey area is at the heart of modern racism in America. It is an area where beliefs of general inferiority can give way to perceived exceptions, where actual friends can be subtle enemies, and intentional acceptance commingles with subconscious rejection. It’s a condition that most Black people understand inherently, due to their experience, and a reality that most White people find to be completely incredulous.
Let’s say Kristin grew up to be a manager. In the course of hiring or promoting diverse job applicants, would she remember the smart Black friend of her youth or would she tend to assume that Black applicants aren’t intelligent enough to do the job? Will she protest (openly or internally) if her only son wants to marry a Black woman? Will she be suspicious of a 17 year old, unarmed Black teenager walking lawfully through her neighborhood on the way to his father’s house?
Therein lies the rub.
There are millions of “Kristins” in America subconsciously carrying around notions of racial superiority, notions that have been carefully cultivated by centuries of deliberate policy and a few decades of arguably benign neglect. And sometimes they make decisions that directly impact my life. It’s not their fault, really. They live in a world that has been constructed to affirm and celebrate them while vilifying and devaluing others. Some of that is certainly changing, but just because we’re past the era of lynchings and color-coded water fountains doesn’t mean that we are in a post-racial society. The more that we can bring these grey areas into the forefront, the closer we will be to true equality.