I suppose I should’ve been ready for it. It was a Monday afternoon, after all. These sorts of things only happen during queer times. Like when the 13th of the month falls on a Friday, when the moon is full during its lunar cycle, and – of course – Mondays.
I was so relieved that the chime at my gate was not tendered by the pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses who had cheerfully promised to tell me about the ‘most precious gift that God ever gave’ upon their return in seven days that I let my guard down completely. Instead of two rosy-cheeked women dressed in pastels and lace stood my gaunt, strawberry blond neighbor. She was robed in a shade of green that reminded me of a cross between strained peas in the baby food aisle, her hair hanging limply in a loose braid. Her watery blue eyes met mine. I smiled and gave her a hug, telling her how good it was to see her. She struggles with depression, you understand. She rarely leaves the house, if ever.
She was looking for my husband.
“He’s out of town,” I said. “Can I help you with anything, maybe?”
She wanted to know if he had a contract template she could use to compel a client to pay her.
“I’ve done all this work, and I don’t think he wants to pay,” she said, her tone concerned and rising just above a whisper. “I’m so bad at business…”
I encouraged her not to worry. Even if Marshall wasn’t able to respond to her immediately, Google most likely had a wealth of information and resources at her disposal. We spoke at length about the woes of freelancing: troublesome clients, invoices that go unpaid for what seemed like an age while the bills pile up exponentially… that sort of thing.
Suddenly she interrupted me with a timid gasp. Her gave held mine deliberately, almost intimidatingly.
“I’m about to say something,” she announced. “You’re Black. You know you’re Black and I know it. One of my best friends from Nigeria is Black…”
I twisted my lips in amusement. What was she driving at? My ethnicity thus announced and confirmed, I smiled in order to encourage her to get to the point she wanted to make.
“You and I are standing here having a normal conversation. You can connect the dots. My friend Tim* – who is also Black, Jehovah’s Witness and gay – can connect the dots. But I have to tell you, I cannot stand these Black South Africans. The mentality is just so… They just don’t get it!”
She must’ve seen the dark shadow pass over my face, despite the lopsided smile I kept plastered on my face. How my spine suddenly went rigid at the words “these Black South Africans”. Those people – like her – were my acquaintances and friends. They work, they love, they try to make ends meet just like anyone else living in this country, a lot of them a heck of a lot worse off than she, with her cocker spaniel who dines on chicken livers and the Old World Venetian inspired McMansion she calls home. I remained silent despite my discomfort because despite all my wokeness, protecting white female fragility and sensitivity is conditioning I have yet to break, when by rights I should’ve told her to go straight to hell. She must’ve taken my silence for concession, because she continued.
“You’re not like them,” she sighed. “You’re not like these other Blacks.”
She said the words as though they were a prayer – a wish that had been pent up inside of her for eons that she had been too afraid to speak and had finally gathered the courage to. Her thin lips pulled themselves into a satisfied smile.
This, of course, was not new territory for me. As a model minority, I have spent the past 20 years in America being informed by astonished white people how ‘articulate’ I am, how much my work ethic is to be admired, and how that must all be due to my African upbringing.
“I’m sure you’re really grateful just to get the opportunity to make something of yourself,” they’d say. “Why do you think that is? Why don’t African Americans have the same work ethic, the same drive?”
Soon afterwards, I’d be recruited to lead a team and show them how to manage their time and conduct their accounts the same way I did; one of my superiors going so far as to inquire whether I could get one of our CSRs to pronounce the word “ask” as it was spelled, rather than “ax”. I gently, but firmly, told her that was impossible for me to do.
“He’s from Brunswick and he’s Geechee.”
How presumptuous of her. Does one go to Maine and order the natives to alter the way they pronounce the word ‘chowder’? To her disappointment, Cyrus carried on saying ‘ax’ during his calls until there was other cause conjured to fire him.
Here before me stood another white woman attempting to flatter me by denigrating an entire group of people. I was appalled and incensed, but my conditioning to protect white frailty was stronger than my anger. I met her eyes measuredly and informed her – without malice – that there were white people in America who thought the same as she did: That Africans were more morally fortified than their African American counterparts. That Africans were smarter and more driven. That African Americans were inherently lazy and also incapable of connecting the dots.
She seemed genuinely stunned by the revelation…so stunned that she reflexively doubted and denied its veracity.
“No,” she said breathlessly. “I believe Black Americans, like you, to be very different from the ones down here. Trust me. I’ve lived among them.”
What could I say? I allowed her to dwell in her mental bubble. There was hardly any point belaboring the issue. This was confirmed when she invited me over for coffee soon afterwards and declared her admiration for Donald Trump, asking me if I felt the same way about Fuhrer 45. Again, she reeled when I revealed something contrary to her beliefs.
“But surely you don’t believe Hillary was a better candidate do you?”
“It doesn’t matter what I believe about Hillary. She’s not president. He is.”
“But,” she pressed, “what about the pedophile island she and her husband have? The one with all the little girls they abuse?”
You can imagine how that aspect of our conversation concluded. Hopefully by its end, she felt the adequate amount of shame and self-depreciation that someone who has been fed a steady diet of Faux News and/or the National Enquirer ought to have the decency to feel. I have very little faith in that, however. Anyone who has carried on thinking this long that there exists a remote island populated with children for the sole purpose of abuse is only capable of so much logic. The logistics of travel to such a destination alone represent bad business. This, naturally, explains her deficiency in entrepreneurial acumen.
My neighbor is a lovely woman, and despite her inherent and very conscious biases: One of those ‘very fine’ people on the other side that Fuhrer 45 spoke about, to be sure. If you happen to fall into this category and are reading this, please take this bit of advice in good faith. It is NEITHER flattering nor appreciated to tell your Black acquaintances that they differ from others and are therefore more worthy of your respect and/or association. It is a divisive tactic that has been used to create schisms in our communities since colonization and before. It betrays your unconscious biases. It is revelatory of deep, inherent racist attitudes that you hold about Black people and stereotypes, despite your belief to the contrary. To continue to do so says more about you than it does your admirable Black friend, and it’s nothing to be proud of.
Has anything similar ever happened to you? Discuss.