I am nearly done reading “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which is a piece of fiction that has bowled me over in the best possible way. The central character, Ifemelu, writes a blog about race and one of her blogs includes the following:
One great gift for the Zipped Up Negro is The White Friend Who Gets It. Sadly, this is not as common as one would wish, but some are lucky to have that white friend who you don’t need to explain shit to.
It is one of the many dozens of astute things the author writes about race in the book, and I adamantly demand that if you haven’t given it your attention yet, you do your best to read it this year.
But I want to talk about The Good White Friend, or what I call the white person who gets it. Like any other job or responsibility, being a GWF is a heavy task to bear and is, as I’ll detail later, more often than not a thankless one, but it is a necessary role for whom we POC are always looking for more applicants.
Here are some basic rules of being a GWF, because I’m feeling very dictatorial about this:
1. You may not establish yourself as a GWF, at least not out loud, even if you know it to be true.
Good Behavior, or Niceties to Which We Are Beholden, come with many unspoken dictates, which extremely beautiful or wealthy people learn early in life – we are meant to accept compliments for traits without agreeing, we must pretend as if we have no idea how valid the praises really are, and the terms – like nicknames – only become true when bestowed upon us by others (and can never, ever come from ourselves).
My prettiest friend, who I am obsessed with staring at because she looks like living art, even though I’ve known her for years and it is rude to stare, is the easiest comparison. When people compliment her looks, she cannot agree with them. She must say, “Oh, you think so?” or fall all over herself in an effort to praise the person who has seen fit to acknowledge this beauty she neither asked for nor earned, but knows full well is there. She smiles shyly (she is not shy) and says things like, “Oh, goodness, thank you,” as if she is suddenly very flustered, and then precedes to bombard the complimenter with so many effusive and unearned titles that no one could ever, ever consider her even remotely conceited. If there were an Olympics gold medal for changing the subject, she’d have enough to cash in and start a new life in a very, very expensive city.
For this reaction, she is often gifted with the title “down-to-earth” or “easygoing” (and allowed to walk among us normals without being slaughtered for knowing just how beautiful she is, even though to not know would mean she is either blind or completely insane). It’s crazy and frustrating, I’m sure, living her life that way. She knows she’s pretty. She has eyeballs that work and mirrors in her house. She has never held a job where beauty is among the requirements but that’s because she’s turned down countless offers. Most of her days contain at least one off-the-cuff marriage proposal from a stranger. She is a person of color who has never experienced difficulty getting a taxicab or positive attention. I have been with her, multiple times, when people stop in the streets just to gawk. I have watched a man risk getting run over just to stop and look at her from across the street, plaintively, like staring a symbol of wealth he aspired to but knew he’d never have.
The point being, you may know that you are that GWF who doesn’t need things gently explained in order to see them for truth. But you don’t get to acknowledge that you are. If someone calls you some variable of the term, you are to coyly accept the compliment and ask about the weather. It’s not fair or right, but it’s life. Welcome to your bit of the struggle.
2. You must commit to consciousness as if it is a living thing (to be tended, not just obtained and left alone).
Your consciousness is a high-maintenance houseplant. You must water it once a day, at a minimum, rotating it towards optimal light sources and making sure to trim its leaves. It is not a piece of cheap artwork to be hung in your house and occasionally dusted off when you’re expecting company.
Once you come to a certain realization about the world, it is up to you to make sure that the realization never fades. It is easy to acknowledge how uneven the world is for so many people for reasons that are downright stupidly, offensively criminal, and then to go about your life as planned because it doesn’t directly affect you. But nothing stings me more than interacting with people I thought were GWFs who actually were just aggressively selective about the things they’d acknowledge and the things that would just call “so complex, so layered, not just about one thing like race,” or worse yet, dismiss with no thought at all.
When you find yourself a GWF, it is heaven. Conversely, it’s hell when you realize that perhaps that momentary GWF alignment was actually a performance, a kind of hipster-like nod to injustice as if it is an inconvenient but not terribly ruinous circumstance of life, like paying taxes or cleaning up after your puppy’s third accident. Do not be puppy’s third accident. Cling to your awareness and cultivate it with all your might.
3. There is no syllabus for being a conscious human being, though there should be. Create your own!
Read books by authors you’ve heard about. Soak up knowledge like a desperate sponge. Expand your Internet horizons by making pages that discuss modern injustice your home page. Ask people who spout interesting ideas what they’ve read, or watched, or listened to recently. Challenge yourself by not cutting yourself off from people with whom you disagree.
Consciousness is a spectrum. Sometimes we are more aware of who we are and the spaces we inhabit. Sometimes we are less aware of those things. That’s normal. But do what you have to do to make sure that your compass is always pointing North, regardless of how quickly you find yourself sprinting in that direction.
4. You are obligated to spread the inconvenient truth.
As a black woman, there are things that I notice, and say, that have less effect on the white, privileged people I’m saying them to. Sometimes, it’s just easier to hear the hard shit from someone who looks like you. It’s not unlike growing up with annoying siblings: I could waste hours talking about what an asshat my brother is, but I dare someone unrelated to say something (true or not) because that is the day that person will meet their reckoning if I have anything to do with it.
Sometimes it is easier to concede that, maybe, your privilege awarded you something you were not actually entitled to when you are discussing the issue with someone from your same class and/or race. I do not have this ability with every white person I talk to. I can’t get them all to understand what I mean about intersectionality, race, or privilege. But I’d bet a hundred dollars that the same message from you is likely to mean even more to that person. It is another example of your privilege, yes, but it is something that you are able to work within and use for good.
So when you hear those casually racist or misogynist jokes, or someone spouts of “facts” that have no basis in truth, it is your responsibility to say something. You don’t have to be a jerk about it. But being silent looks too much like complicity, my friend. And I can’t count you among the GWF population if I’m not sure whether or not behind closed doors, with people who share your superficial traits, you are an entirely different, unconcerned person. What you talk about with your “aware” friends is what you need to at least bring up with your currently-unseeing brethren.
5. You are entitled to no cookies, parades, or awards of any kind for being a decent person.
To be clear, being a GWF is just you being aware of how the world works and willing to talk about it. You are not entitled to my praise. I’m not indebted to you because you pointed out that something is fucked up or because you fell on the “white privilege is not a thing” grenade for me at that house party last week. I will not bake you a pie or immortalize you in an oil painting. Your reward is knowing that you are a decent person who is trying to make sense of the world around them, and help others make sense of it, too. If you are in it for any other reasons, you are likely not a GWF. Examine what it is to be a GWF and why it matters to you before embarking on the path.
6. Know that you will fuck this up.
We all do it. We start to get a little cocky in our understanding of something, or we assume we know something about somebody that is based on nothing we real. We overstep. We do some stupid shit. We may accidentally feed into an oppressor’s mindset, or laugh at a joke that is cruel, or behave in a way that puts our blindspots on blast for all to see.
It is not comfortable, this GWF life, nor is it easy. Occasionally you will say, do or participate in something that is wrong, and if you have friends around you who give a shit, they will call you out on it. This will not feel good, even if you know they are right. It will feel, sometimes, like an attack. It may feel even more abrasive if it comes from someone who doesn’t know you well. But that is life, and that is how it happens: quickly and slowly, with ecstasy and pain and awe.
Just like with anything else, when you are confronted with your wrongness or the possibility that you have caused pain, own it and apologize for it. Your intentions, while probably well meaning, do not matter. Sometimes you hurt people even when you’re trying desperately not to. Be the kind of person who can account for his or her mistakes without making it about you. Learn to say you’re sorry and mean it. Learn to let go of the need to explain what you were intending to do.
Being the Good White Friend is hard and constant work, but the reward – of being a human being who is committed to equality – is more than worth it. Soldier on, GWFs.