ADAM: Some of my best friends are black. Some of my best friends are Jewish. Those statements are supposed to somehow justify the next one which is usually along the lines of…”so I know how Jews are” or “so I know about the black experience”. Tabitha and I hear these statements from time to time and we bristle every single time. If you ever catch yourself about to say something like this, don’t.
When the phrase “some of my friends” is used, the intended belief is “I know you”. Somehow, because the offending person has certain friends, his/her knowledge of these friends is directly applicable to the person they are talking to. They think that they can understand your circumstances because of what someone else has experienced and what they perceive their experience to be.
But it’s just not that simple.
Know that moment when Bill de Blasio and Hillary Clinton made the joke about CPT? It was a little while ago and Tabitha’s reaction is here. I remember Leslie Odom Jr.’s face when they said it. He is the actor from Hamilton who shared the stage with Bill and Hillary. His reaction looked something like: “Holy crap, they just actually said that. I know Mayor de Blasio’s wife and kids are black, but that’s not OK. What do I do?? What do I do?? Keep it together. Just smile and keep it together.” This reminded me of something that happened while I was growing up as one of 2 Jewish kids in our elementary school in Minneapolis. Our school scheduled a mandatory class trip overnight on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. My mom went in to ask if they could move the trip because we couldn’t attend. The school administrator heard her out, then said, “Listen, some of my friends are Jewish, so I understand.” My mom’s face was exactly the same as Leslie’s. “Wait, did he really just say that? He doesn’t know us. He doesn’t know our experience.”
As we raise Baby SBJ, we want to make sure that he knows how to consider his own uniqueness when people say certain things like “some of my best friends are black” or “some of my best friends are Jewish” or even “some of my best friends are mixed”. We want him to be able to call people out for their biases and be able to recognize his own. There may be similarities, but before making a general statement, it’s important to realize how your world view actually relates to yourself and how it relates to other people. It is especially important coming from a place of racial disparity to be aware of this and the fact that there are certain experiences that other people will never understand. Tabitha and I are close but I will never fully understand what it is like to be a black woman in America. My frame of reference for life just simply doesn’t include some of the experiences she shares with me. Nevertheless, we are a unit. We are a family and we see each other minus the racial aspect on an everyday basis.
TABITHA: It is important to me that Adam understands that he is not a black person. I want him to understand the experience of being a black person but I bristle when people of other races take liberties with their knowledge and closeness to people of color. No, you can’t use the “n” word. No, you can’t make the same jokes I do related to race. No, you can’t claim Oprah. I don’t care if you think it’s not fair. The same applies to me. I can’t make jokes about Jewish people and wealth even after Adam makes a similar joke. Those boundaries need to be honored.
ADAM: The key for us in raising a conscious child, let alone a race-conscious child, will be that he knows when he can relate and also when he cannot relate to other people’s experiences. That said, circumstances are also not individual. Groups that connect around common themes need the space to connect on those themes without outside judgments and interference. People are multi-layered and we all have connections on various individual levels but if you are not part of that community, it is best to not pretend like or imply you know what that communal experience is like, no matter who you are friends with. Connect over another communal experience, like hating how frustrating it is to wait for the subway. I was recently at a conference where a speaker used poetry and visuals to touch on a few themes, including Black Lives Matter and his experiences living with dark skin. At the end of his very moving presentation, an audience member asked how he thought she, as a white woman, should relate to his experience. While well-meaning, this was a loaded question. Here is a great way relate to someone else’s experience: shut up and listen. There are plenty of marginalized people willing to share their stories. It’s never okay to claim another’s person’s experience as yours to tell and have liberties with. It’s up to you to listen with an open mind and seek out ways to deal with racial disparities in a manner that is necessary and requested by the community, especially if you’re the one with the privilege.