Can My Children Be Friends With White People?
Can My Children Be Friends With White People?
By EKOW N. YANKAH
NOV. 11, 2017
My oldest son, wrestling with a 4-year-old's happy struggles, is trying to clarify how many people can be his best friend. "My best friends are you and Mama and my brother and …" But even a child's joy is not immune to this ominous political period. This summer's images of violence in Charlottesville, Va., prompted an array of questions. "Some people hate others because they are different," I offer, lamely. A childish but distinct panic enters his voice. "But I'm not different."
It is impossible to convey the mixture of heartbreak and fear I feel for him. Donald Trump's election has made it clear that I will teach my boys the lesson generations old, one that I for the most part nearly escaped. I will teach them to be cautious, I will teach them suspicion, and I will teach them distrust. Much sooner than I thought I would, I will have to discuss with my boys whether they can truly be friends with white people.
Meaningful friendship is not just a feeling. It is not simply being able to share a beer. Real friendship is impossible without the ability to trust others, without knowing that your well-being is important to them. The desire to create, maintain or wield power over others destroys the possibility of friendship. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous dream of black and white children holding hands was a dream precisely because he realized that in Alabama, conditions of dominance made real friendship between white and black people impossible.
History has provided little reason for people of color to trust white people in this way, and these recent months have put in the starkest relief the contempt with which the country measures the value of racial minorities. America is transfixed on the opioid epidemic among white Americans (who often get hooked after being overprescribed painkillers — while studies show that doctors underprescribe pain medication for African-Americans). But when black lives were struck by addiction, we cordoned off minority communities with the police and threw away an entire generation of black and Hispanic men.
Likewise, despite centuries of exclusion and robust evidence of continuing racism, minority underemployment is often couched in the language of bad choices and personal responsibility. When systemic joblessness strikes swaths of white America, we get an entire presidential campaign centered on globalization's impact on the white working class. Even the nerve of some rich or visible African-Americans to protest that America, in its laws and in its police, has rarely been just to all has been met with the howls of a president who cannot tolerate that the lucky and the uppity do not stay in their place.
As against our gauzy national hopes, I will teach my boys to have profound doubts that friendship with white people is possible. When they ask, I will teach my sons that their beautiful hue is a fault line. Spare me platitudes of how we are all the same on the inside. I first have to keep my boys safe, and so I will teach them before the world shows them this particular brand of rending, violent, often fatal betrayal.
Let me assure you that my heartbreak dwarfs my anger. I grew up in a classic Midwestern college town. With all its American faults, it was a diverse and happy-childhood kind of place, slightly dull in the way that parents wish for their children. If race showed in class lines, school cliques and being pulled over more often, our little Americana lacked the deep racial tension and mistrust that seem so hard to escape now.
What's surprising is that I am heartbroken at all. It is only for African-Americans who grew up in such a place that watching Mr. Trump is so disorienting. For many weary minorities, the ridiculous thing was thinking friendship was possible in the first place. It hurts only if you believed friendship could bridge the racial gorge.
Of course, the rise of this president has broken bonds on all sides. But for people of color the stakes are different. Imagining we can now be friends across this political line is asking us to ignore our safety and that of our children, to abandon personal regard and self-worth. Only white people can cordon off Mr. Trump's political meaning, ignore the "unpleasantness" from a position of safety. His election and the year that has followed have fixed the awful thought in my mind too familiar to black Americans: "You can't trust these people."
It is not Mr. Trump himself who has done this. Were it not for our reverence for money, Mr. Trump would be easily recognized as the simple-minded, vulgar, bigoted blowhard he is.