Race & Identity
How to maintain friendships in the age of color blindness
Color blindness and the problem with "avoiding politics."
The two of us couldn’t have been more paradoxical. Me, a queer woman with a petite frame, cocoa skin, voluminous curly hair, brown eyes and liberal attitude towards both the political and social. *Vinny, standing 6 feet 2 inches tall, neatly manicured blonde hair, piercing green eyes, devoutly religious, straight and conservative in his worldview and his daily conduct. Kendrick Lamar blasted through my headphones, Christian rap and techno in his. My hands craved the feel of spray paint bottles and the raw, untouched canvas that would soon be covered in my own artistic vision. He lived for order, organization and the way workplace success made his heart race and fists pump.
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I lived in North County, five minutes from Ferguson, in a quiet, two-storey suburban home. Vinny lived in an identical house, 40 minutes away. Where I turned left, he turned right, and our profound differences stood stark as we sat across from one another. We were the personification of yin and yang, oil and water, morning and night.
Yet we thrived together.
We were teamed up for a temporary project that a few mutual friends requested help with. Our very flagrant differences were quickly overruled by what we had in common. We bonded over movies, developed inside jokes, threw popcorn at each other from across the hallways, and hopped around the city long after work ended. He could tell when I hadn’t gotten much sleep just by the way I walked into the door, and I could tell he was upset or overwhelmed within five seconds of speaking with him. We gave each other advice and had hours of conversation about relationships, God, faith, queer life, sports and everything in between. After a few months, the project partner label didn’t quite fit him anymore. He indeed became a true friend. We both opened each other’s eyes to worlds outside of our own; for me, an ultra-conservative religious outlook and for him, the perspective of a black, queer, woman.
Though I love to recount these memories with rose-colored glasses, there were a few moments that made shivers run down my back. The times in which we talked about politics and I had to remind Vinny that derogatory comments by a presidential candidate towards Muslims weren’t simply “rude”, but very dangerous as well. A candidate’s call to violence in response to protesters was personal for me. I recounted stories of my own participation in protests as my town was occupied. These were often met with a shrug. Calls of mass deportation and generalizations about Latinos shouldn’t be taken lightly. As a woman and someone who loves and respects women, the idea of a misogynist in office was not simply annoying, but downright horrifying. A vice presidential candidate who supports shock-conversion therapy for queer people was devastating to the LGBT community and a real gut-punch for those who have struggled to gain acceptance from peers and family members.
These conversations were heated and short lived. As my blood began to boil, and his voice would slightly raise, we both came to an unspoken agreement that as long as we didn’t talk politics, we made a great pair. As long as we didn’t discuss race issues, sexuality, Islamophobia, or womanhood, we’d get along.
There’s a problem with that, though.
“Let’s not talk about the election” is a fair request, as the whole thing has been a complete nightmare for everyone. But is acknowledging my race, at all, political? Is correcting your statement to inform you that the “Mexican guy” you talked to is actually Indian, also political? My existence as a black, queer, woman is inherently political. While I can engage in healthy dialogue about economic policy and the ups and downs that come with political discourse, my livelihood isn’t something I can remove bias from.
There are many things I can examine and dissect from an objective perspective. My race isn’t one of them. My sexuality isn’t one of them. My connection to the Latino and Muslim communities aren’t either. If we can only maintain a friendship so long as I ignore these truths, then is it a friendship worth maintaining? How much can I enjoy watching Lord of the Rings movies together for hours, if I know I can’t voice my concern over having my marriage rights taken away once the credits roll? How can we go out to dinner together when you don’t bother to acknowledge why I’m visibly uncomfortable when a police officer sits in the booth behind us? I’m a black queer woman. So can we be friends if I’m forced to ignore the black, queer, and woman part of me?
Vinny and I have since resolved many of these issues and questions. This only happened once I realized that the “leave politics out of it” mentality was simply another way of saying “acknowledging your race, sexuality and gender make things more complicated, so I’ll ignore those so that we can bond over the things that we do have in common.” Which in theory, sounds fine. It means that conversations are never messy, that we can spend our free time laughing and bonding over silly YouTube videos and ice skating and eating St. Louis style pizza. Except, if a house is on fire, focusing on the beautiful drapes won’t fix the problem. Being black is more than my color, being queer is more than my preferences, and being a woman is more than biology. With each of these identities come unique struggles, triumphs, cultural norms, and perspectives. And to ignore these facts is to ignore crucial parts of my very being. I cannot separate myself from these facts, as it would be literally ripping apart the fabric that builds me. It’d be walking around with a mask, biting my tongue to muffle out anything that would reveal my minority status. Which is as unfair as it is exhausting.
To maintain deep friendships we need to recognize and celebrate each other’s differences. A colorblind attitude only makes the minority party feel ignored and erased, as our differences are what have shaped us into the people we are now. Are you actually a tolerant, equality driven individual if you can only build friendships that ignore the other person’s innate qualities? Does your need to “ignore politics” come from a place of acceptance and understanding, or is it an attempt to keep the conversation comfortable for yourself? These questions are just the start of an honest dialogue that needs to take place if we expect to have meaningful relationships with those who are different from us.
Whether you find yourself in my position, or in Vinny’s, the first step is to open up honest dialogue and discourse. Differences are not harmful; ignoring those differences are what will lead to undertones of resentment, confusion and erasure. All parties need to feel like they are valued in all aspects including race, sexuality or whatever differs from the other. You’re allowed to ask questions that will give you deeper understanding. You’re also allowed to walk away if you feel that integral parts of you are being erased or ignored in a friendship. Know that you can enjoy each other’s company, laugh over romantic comedies and eat junk food together while also recognizing and celebrating the things that make you uniquely different from one another. You should be able to goof around and enjoy music while also feeling understood in terms of your place in society. You should never feel erased, or masked, or silenced for the sake of not “making things political.” Don’t settle for anything less.
*Names and some details changed for privacy.