The first time I remember being the only black friend was in the third grade. Two years earlier, my parents had moved us from East Oakland to Colorado Springs, but my mother had done a miraculous job of sheltering me from the inevitable culture shock I would eventually experience. That year, my third grade teacher at the elementary school in the Widefield suburb where we lived made sure I knew I was different than my other white classmates
She made negative comments about my behavior when I reached out for help from the kids who would bully me about my weight, skin, hair, clothes, etc. Instead of creating a better learning environment for me, she was fundamental in perpetuating a hostile environment. Still, I had one friend: a white girl whose name I don't remember. I do remember her constantly reminding me how much of a sacrifice she was making by being my friend, and how her friends made fun of her for associating herself with me. I was the only black kid in our class, so I was her only black friend. This wasn't a long-lasting friendship, as I didn't need her extra added guilt. I spent much of third grade by myself at school
My fourth and fifth grade teachers both took note that I was more advanced in most subjects than almost all of my counterparts, and eventually I was recommended for entry into the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Program for junior high school. After a bunch of assessment tests and interviews, I was accepted into the program for sixth grade and became the only black student in all of my classes again. The MYP kids were separated from the rest of the school, so even though there were other black kids attending that junior high, I hardly ever interacted with them. And most of our interactions were negative, with them assuming I thought I was better than them. It was this year that I would learn what it was like to "represent" your entire race or ethnicity to voyeuristic people who would rather ask you questions off of sweeping generalizations than to do independent research
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Because my hair was permed, I didn't get many questions around that. But I was often asked where my family 'vacationed,' why black music sounded the way it did, and why I went to church so much. There were also lots of questions about why I never went to the mall after school with the group to shop. These kids were well-to-do or wealthy. Some of them had nannies who picked them up from school and some of them had stay-at-home mothers. I had two very smart working class parents with smart children and limited access to opportunity. Not only did I stick out ethnically and culturally, I stuck out economically. We were poor. My friends never understood why my homework was frequently late. Most of our MYP work required access to a computer for research and typing. We didn't have a computer, so I had to do all of my work in the computer lab at school
I also learned this year about being turned on for not being 'cool' enough. Though this scenario could play out among my own people as well, it never felt so cold, so perfectly mean-girl, as when the most popular girl in our class (who also called me her best friend) said loudly after an argument between she and I, "No one is coming to your birthday party, Dominique. Don't you know that we all hate you?!" As though I was literally in a teen movie, all of our friends crossed the room to sit beside her, except for one. That one girl was my only friend for the rest of the school year
Many times, being the only back friend also means the threat of becoming the only black outcast.As an adult, I'm less fragile to instances when I'm the "only black friend" because I think of the term "friend" extremely loosely in this sense. The white guy at work who swears we're friends but only ever speaks to me to ask if I've heard that new Kendrick (or any other black thing that he can't discuss with his white buddies), is mostly just an occupational hazard of existing in a workforce that doesn't take cultural competence seriously, and just uses diversity as a distracting buzzword to keep the HR workload low. If I feel that the person is genuinely interested in me, I might take the time to give historical or cultural context to their questions and comments, but most of the time, being the only black friend has been like being in a surprisingly abusive relationship, where I'm target practice for microaggressions or just plain ignorance
Yes, we're friends, but you asking me why we don't just get over slavery has me questioning the quality of our friendship
Yes, we're friends, but can you not touch my hair without asking? Yes, we're friends, but no I actually haven't seen NeNe Leakes' new clothing line. I barely know who NeNe Leakes is! Mostly, I've decided that being the only black friend isn't a role I want and isn't worth taking, anyway. It's me and my squad or nothing at all, 'cause this is stressful