By Devryck Weaver – Spring 2011
I realized quickly when I knew I should
That the world was made up of this Brotherhood of Men
For whatever that means. ~ Linda Perry
I do not know what the process of permanent separation is for a long term friendship. I have only ever lost touch with friends because of distance or simply because of time passing. An active effort to terminate a platonic relationship is an odd concept for me, but it seems my only option.
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I moved here from Virginia back in June of 2005 with stars in my eyes. I remember hammering out all the reasons in my mind for making such a drastic geographical move. Mostly, I wanted to experience life as a gay man in a city where “gay” was almost embraced as a part of the culture. The racial demographics did not strike me in any way, as I had lived in a city with similar numbers for most of my life. Plus, the fact that Portland has a fairly large population was even more reason for me to jump into the experience. Friends, lots of people, and an active gay culture all solidified my decision to take this huge step in my life.
My first experiences here were wonderful. I met great people the first summer and Portland had really come through with its promise giving me all the things I expected from a progressive, “green friendly” city. I aligned myself mostly with my best friend, Adam, who was raised down in Canby, OR. We met at Eastern Mennonite University, where we both went to school back in Virginia. He was a part of my “Crew” of friends when we moved out here, and he had friends here in Oregon with whom he had grown up who also hung out with us.
One Saturday night, while hanging out with some of his high school friends, I noticed a couple of the guys off to the side playing around and shadow boxing. It was light and jovial, then one of the guys boxing shouted “NIGGER!” My gut reaction was that someone had called me out. I swirled around and it was one of Adam’s best friends from Canby, Bobby. Everyone immediately stopped talking. The guy Bobby was playing with continued being somewhat lighthearted, but he clearly had been shaken by the slur as well. I wanted to leave immediately, but I didn’t because I didn’t want to cause a scene. I later talked to Adam about this incident and I had concluded that Bobby was not intending to offend me or make me feel bad, he just happened to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. I realize now that I had fully bought into the individual-guilt model, which told me that his devastating yell of “NIGGER!” was alright because he clearly didn’t have a problem hanging out with me, he was joking and he simply misspoke (Allen, 114). His accidental utterance was made harmless in my mind, despite making me feel like less than a full person as I stood alongside my “peers”. I talked to a couple of the guys and they confirmed my sentiments: that Bobby was a good guy who accidentally did a bad thing. The incident and the topic of using nigger quickly passed, then we all just got along, as Rodney King recommended. I was certainly willing to put the past behind me, partly because I was no stranger to the word nigger. My cohort, all the people of which were White, did the same.
At this point in my life, I was still ardently working on the idea that I can be an upstanding person and take the high road if I simply choose to ignore intolerant remarks. I was certainly assimilated, in that I talked, acted, and dressed like people in my White Crew (Feagin and Sikes, 94). Never would I admit it at the time, but I had high hopes of being just a “person”. Not a “Black Person”, not a “Black-Person-Trying-to-be-White”, but just a person.
Every year, my Crew and I rent a beach house over New Year’s weekend. This particular year, 2010, Bobby, his wife Lindsey, and his little brother Jimmy came. In the car, on the way down to Lincoln City, I remarked to my friend Bethany that I was concerned that something “ridiculous” would happen because of either Bobby or Jimmy, or both. In saying “ridiculous” rather than “racist”, which is what I truly meant, was a way I minimized how much impact one of their comments would have (Allen, 111). “Ridiculous” is much more pleasing to the ear, as the word does not conjure the same images that “bigot” or “racist” would, similar to how an involuntary extension of a military tour is passed to a soldier by identifying it as a “Stop Loss”. My worst idea came to pass later that weekend in a drinking game, wherein we went down the alphabet and took turns naming animals corresponding to whatever letter we had gotten to. When we reached “N”, Jimmy shouted, “no, Nigger is not an animal!” I hit the same emotional wall that I did the last time the word came from his older brother’s lips. I also was faced with the same reality as last incident; nobody said anything. At that point, I fully understood Rachel Carson’s fears of a Silent Spring, but for a different reason. The deafening silence of my friends standing back as spectators, while this grossly anti-social behavior brought me to my knees as a Black Man, again.
I talked to Adam about it the next weekend. Both he and Bobby threw the proverbial Social Book at Jimmy. In context of the Unified Model, Jimmy certainly faced negative sanctions for his comment, as such a word is inappropriate within our group of friends (Wolf, ch. 2). How is it, I thought to myself, Bobby was able to say the same word without consequence or effect, but Jimmy was given a life sentence of being a social outcast for his Fine Phrasing? Bobby’s place in the group certainly had an influence over who was penalized, and it was not him. It seems as though Bobby’s privilege has given him an inclusion that apparently cannot be trumped by shouting the same word that his shunned brother did (Allen, 55). Bobby’s place is very well established in our Crew; proof of this is seen evidently when Bobby’s and Jimmy’s scenarios are stacked side by side. Also, everyone seemed unanimously satisfied with this arrangement of Bobby in the group and Jimmy out, except for me. Keep Jimmy in if Bobby’s kept in; the corollary is that Bobby needs to leave if Jimmy does. This concept is so crystal clear that I had to bite my tongue and shine the whole thing on as though everything was made Kosher. At this point, I’m still holding strong to the idea that there is some salvageable lesson to be learned, and that we can all move forward knowing that these comments were dehumanizing.
About three weekends ago, Adam had a get together at his and his wife’s house. The same story, but a different day, is played out; Bobby and Adam were playing with Adam’s new iPad, then Bobby shouted “NIGGER!” I, along with four others, including Adam and Bobby, were in the room when he yelled it. Immediately, our friend Scott raised his voice to object to what he said, but in a playful way. He actually had a smile on his face until he remembered I was there. So many things were going through my head at this point that I just went to the restroom and stayed there for a good ten to fifteen minutes to clear my mind. I learned something about myself that night. I had so thoroughly stripped all racial markers from my character that Bobby shouted Nigger, then another friend almost laughed it up as a joke. The only thing that stopped Scott in mid sentence was when he remembered that I was there and that I am Black.
Discussion number three with Adam resulted in him concluding, “I’m done cleaning up other people’s messes.” The most insensitive thing he could have possibly said at that moment, he decided to say. In that succinct comment, he told me that even though the “mess” was me being systematically degraded, he wanted nothing more to do with it. I had, for the third time, been reduced to a dog. Only a dog is talked about in front of it with no regard for what that dog thinks. That is a lesson I learned loud and clear from Bobby, Jimmy, Bobby again, and then Scott.
I have concluded, now, that I can no longer associate with Adam as a friend, and I can no longer associate with anyone in that group. This is to save my sanity. I cannot keep hearing Nigger from within my circle of friends, while everybody remains idle, without it having some cumulative effect on me. I have heard it from strangers, but they are strangers. They do not show me love, nor do I expect it from them. My friends show me love, except when a more established person in the group cuts it off. Adam’s plan, however, is to hang out with me and Bobby at different times. After three weeks of constant thought, plus a massive amount of knowledge gained in just the few weeks that I have been in this course, I believe that Adam’s plan does not work. If his logic is enacted, the status quo of the group would be maintained, and I would have to pick and choose which gatherings I want to be a part of based on whether or not Bobby will be there. I also asked Adam if he feels that the reason I do not want to hang out with Bobby again, but he does, has to do with our difference in skin color and how Nigger affects us accordingly. His reply was, “yes.” It is incredible to me that, by his own admission, I am the only one offended to the point of taking action, and that it is specifically because I am Black and Adam is white. We share the same values, but because of our racial differences, I am now actively handling this situation and he is figuring out how our group can segment itself based on whether I am or Bobby is involved.
I am tearing down the individualistic model of accountability (Allen, 77). I have identified myself as a perpetrator in all three of these scenarios as well by consciously being as least reactive as possible, with hopes that it would help move the group closer to a resolve of not mentioning race as an item for discussion. This is not a problem just for Bobby, Jimmy, Adam or myself. We all have involvement. With regards to sexism, Allen states, “If well-intentioned men don’t include themselves in the problem, they are unlikely to feel compelled to include themselves in the solution.” (Allen, 77). Adam’s statement of no longer cleaning up “messes” implies, perhaps, that he does not see himself as a part of this problem of racism in our group. To my knowledge, no “mess” has been cleaned. We all ignored, ignored again, then ignored for a third time. If anyone else in our group feels that they share in the responsibility of helping to propagate this racism through their own silence, they certainly have kept it a secret.
I never would have imagined being in this mindset, with regards to my circle of friends, when I moved here almost six years ago. I thought that I was fully support by those who always have stuck up one another. In these three cases, I was left frighteningly alone to deal with each of them.
As I move forward with these “divorce” proceedings, I thought I had stars in my eyes when I first moved out here, that I was looking out into the night sky filled with bright spots of opportunity. To be clear, it is star dust. I got the residual grit of other people’s happiness and coexistence, as I was pushed into a state of discontent and segregation.
Feagin, Joe R. and Sikes, Melvin P. 2003. Living with Racism: The Black Middle Class Experience. Beacon Press:Boston.
Johnson, Allen G. 2006. Privilege, Power, and Difference. McGraw-Hill, Inc.:New York.
Neubeck, Kenneth J. And Glasberg, Davita Silfen. 1996. Sociology: A Critical Approach. McGraw-Hill, Inc.:New York.
Wolf, S. Rowan. The Dialect of Social Inequality: Understanding Race, Class and Sex in the United States. 2007. Print.