(CNN)I didn’t have a single white friend when I left home for college in the fall of 2006.
I was raised in a predominantly black suburb outside Washington. Going away to Bucknell University — a small liberal arts college with a mostly white student body — was a complete culture shock.
For the first time, I had to navigate relationships with people of different backgrounds. This was also true for some of my white classmates who before meeting me had never interacted much with people of color. At times, my awareness of all of this made me feel like I didn’t fit in.
To cope, I began to tiptoe in conversations around the potentially sharp and edgy parts of my viewpoints as one of the 15% of the undergraduate student body who were of color. This often meant shrinking or adapting my own perspective, especially when the conversation was about race.
This approach worked for me for a long time, even after I graduated, until one day I just couldn’t do it anymore. Between last year’s protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the ongoing criminalization of blackness evidenced by the growing number of #whileblack incidents being reported across the United States, it’s clear to see in the most painful terms that inequality in America is alive and well.
As a journalist, I’m often confronted with the ways race defines how we see and treat one another as human beings. As a black woman, I’ve come to see speaking up about race in my personal relationships as a moral imperative.
A good friend and I were recently discussing white privilege. On paper, we have a lot in common. We’re both millennial women living and working in New York. We’re both well-educated and come from big nuclear families.
Typically, in the past, talking about race has been no big deal for us. We’d gone so far as to joke about whose grandparents would make the most racially insensitive comment if either of us came over to the other’s house for Sunday dinner.
But this time, while talking about white privilege, things got weird when in mid-discussion my friend blurted out: “If I’m white, but I’m not a racist, what role do I play in white supremacy? How can I fix racism if I didn’t cause it — and, should I even have to?”
I was shocked. Her questions were indeed legitimate, though I’ll admit they gave me pause. Probably because I couldn’t help but think that lurking somewhere behind her words was the notion that racism wasn’t her problem. I knew then I had to stop playing it safe in conversations with my white friends about race.
I told her I hadn’t created the problem of race either. I also described how racism in America has had real, negative implications on my life and the lives of people I love.
Then I said that she and every other white person in America who wants to end racism should commit to pursuing equality for the people they love — even when they don’t look like them.
She replied she was aware that racism existed, and of course she cared about me, but explained that she saw few tangible ways she could make a difference. She added that the guilt of acknowledging and addressing white privilege often felt heavy and confusing.
What she said helped me understand what she and other white people may be feeling at a time when so much racialized rhetoric is swirling around in the public consciousness. And it made me realize that in some ways, I could relate.
The idea of race as an emotional burden is very familiar to me. To quote the novelist and social critic James Baldwin partially, I find myself in a rage (about race) all the time, and that is exhausting. There’s a particularly resonant moment in the recently released trailer for Barry Jenkins’ upcoming adaptation of Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk” when you can hear Baldwin’s words in a voiceover: “There are days … when you wonder what your role is in this country, and what your future is in it. …”
This same question of what a person’s role is when it comes to race is also a huge part of Spike Lee’s recent film “BlackKklansman,” particularly for the character of Officer Flip Zimmerman (a white Jewish cop) in his relationship with Ron Stallworth, the black detective who asks Zimmerman to go undercover and attend Klan meetings in Stallworth’s stead.
Questioning if it’s worth the risk to his own safety to get involved in Stallworth’s plan, Zimmerman says: “For you it’s a crusade, for me it’s a job.” Stallworth responds, “Why haven’t you bought into this?” Zimmerman snaps back, “Why should I?”
When I was watching the film, this scene immediately took me back to the talk with my friend. Despite Zimmerman’s being Jewish — and thus a potential target of the KKK’s extremism along with Stallworth as a black man — in that moment he somehow didn’t feel a sense of conviction to be a part of the solution. When faced with discomfort, his inclination was to retreat.
Am I saying that I expect my friend to help me infiltrate and form a coup against a contemporary extremist group?
It’s an interesting thought, but certainly not.
What I am saying is that going forward I expect us to be more honest about race in our relationship. No, talking about it didn’t fix “the problem,” but obviously retreating wouldn’t have, either. Realizing that was huge for both of us. We heard each other’s perspectives, even though it was painful, and had a real conversation for once. It mattered to me she wanted to know how she could do more.
Since she asked: I told her I thought she could work harder to check her emotional baggage about white privilege at the door in conversations with people of color. She could be a more understanding listener by being slower to anger and working daily to become a better ally.
I encouraged her to start talking more with other white people about race. Sure, she can talk to me, but I’m black. I’m pretty much thinking about race every day. I suggested she find ways of connecting with others who find white privilege to be a confounding burden. That she talk openly with other white people about how to recognize and dismantle the kinds of white supremacy that don’t come dressed obviously in a white hood or a Confederate flag.
And then I reminded her: Girl, this shit is tough. Some of the tension broke, and we both laughed.
I told her it’d be OK for us to take a break from talking about race if we had to — but we could never, ever quit entirely. We could never go back to talking around it as we had before.
Years from now, when (I hope) our kids become friends, I want the two of us to look back on this moment in our friendship with pride — confident that our necessary dialogue helped make a more honest future possible.
Who knows, as small as that may seem, if everyone in America started doing it, it just might change things for the better.