I wasn’t sure I’d heard her correctly over the deafening bass and snare. The 12-inch speakers were barely a foot away. Surely she hadn’t said, “You’re the whitest black guy I know!”
But it turns out she had. My close friend of almost a year finally breached that ground. I can’t recall what provoked the comment. Was it my knowledge of Seattle’s local indie rock scene? Maybe it was my tan loafers. I left my J’s at home that night. Whatever preempted it, this was the last straw. I had grown accustomed to shrugging similar remarks from strangers and friends off. But this time, I didn’t have enough wit to mask how deeply her remarks hurt me. Disarmed, speechless, and fairly inebriated, I felt the night’s potential crash down into somber sobriety.
It was disempowering to hear. It raised so many questions. Was it so bad that I’m black? In what way am I “white?” If I began drawn-out discussions about race theory in a bar, would I be the asshole? It was so unexpected that I could only ask with disappointment, “Why would you say that?” Her eyes filled with despair realizing that she’d said something to upset me. I imagine that, from her perspective, this was the highest of compliments. I wondered why she thought her language to be complimentary. Did she expect me to start groveling in thanks for affirmation as her honorary white friend? Does she believe such a status is something to which black friends everywhere aspire? Her response confirmed my suspicion.
“I meant it as a compliment, you know! You’re intelligent!”
Instantly I thought of Frederick Douglass, my teenage hero. When he published his autobiography, critics were convinced it was ghost-written by a white man. I thought of the dangerous lengths he went to learn to read and write, skills forbidden to people who looked like me. Of the literacy tests that were once used to prevent blacks from voting. Of the gap in education between blacks and whites. Of the gap in income. Really, I thought about the gaps in just about everything. I thought of her blatant subjugation of my black intellect to personify it as white. Of our completely different socio-economic upbringings. I was reminded of the many times the supremacy of whiteness has been used as a litmus test to determine my own humanity.
I wondered if she realized she was disavowing my blackness so that my intellect, my agency, my body and mind would become less threatening. I wanted to explain that my blackness is more than just a physical condition for me. It determines how the world responds to my presence, this exchange being a direct reflection of how my skin color determines my interactions with those around me; even from the most well-intentioned people. I wanted to rake her over the coals and challenge her conflation of intelligence with whiteness — with the idea that intellect, speech, education, music genres, dance, clothing styles, and more all belong to white people to pick and choose from. That they hold an exclusive right to declare ownership over whatever they choose, including myself, a black man.
I was reminded of the time in middle school when a white classmate reassured a group of white students that I was cool because I wasn’t “that black.” I promptly pushed him out of his chair and warned him against speaking about me as if he knew me. As if that’s what I needed to do for black affirmation. I wonder, did he find me “black enough” after I put my hands on him? Another time, in high school, a close friend of mine questioned why I talk “like a white dude.” When I asked him how I “should” speak, he told me I should sound more illiterate, uneducated — without actually using those words, of course. An impressive feat, if nothing else. “So thizz how ya wants me ta speek massa?” He was not amused. I’m not sure if I was speaking too black, or not black enough.
When I was young, similar comments always left me ruffled. They infuriated me for a reason just beyond my grasp. I wasn’t able to comprehend why on an intellectual level, but I did realize the common theme was the focus on my black skin. That if the measure of my worth was how well my black skin compared to white skin, I was never going to come out equal, much less ahead. And that’s precisely what the “whitest-black friend” suggests.
It’s a well-intentioned but back-handed compliment. As if the person declaring it doesn’t know how to validate you without letting it be known you’re still not shit. That somewhere out there is a white person identical to you and you’re just the second-rate version. The white-black friend. You get this sliver of hyphenation, but you have to be reminded what comes before it, who gave it to you, and to whom you’re in debt.
Mind you behave yourselves, white-black folks. Because they can just as easily take your hyphenation away.
How thin is that hyphenation that separates me from blackness? That is the intent, right? To co-opt my identity? When a colleague or friend suddenly has me toeing the invisible line of honorary white personhood, I always consider how thin and invisible that line really is. What, as a white-black guy, is denied me? What are the forbidden fruits of a black man co-opted by white peers and colleagues? One wrong move will expose how fleeting and temporary the respectability of the whitest-black guy truly is.
A lot of this is simply thinking critically about the cultures we come from and how they inform us. Sociologically, we tend to nest in communities with those most similar to us. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. But if that’s how we decide to live, it is also important to stop feeding ourselves full with hyper-racialized imagery when we live in social enclaves of people that look and think exactly like us. All of us experience this uniformity at one point or another, but not everyone is forced outside of it while others (like myself) are. And that seems to be the point at which I come around, whether it’s to sit alongside you on the bus or to order a drink at the bar. We can talk about music (yes, even gangsta rap), or why Stone IPAs are overhyped, or anything, really.
But first things first: if we get into a conversation, don’t make it awkward. We can have cultural, racial, and ethnic differences without one subjugating the other or declaring how colorblind we are. If at some point you feel compelled to remark on my interests or intellect, remember that I’m not seeking affirmation to be an honorary white person. I am simply a man, the same as any. While we have many things in common, being white, figuratively or literally, is not one of them.