The Young and Disenchanted

“I’m so self conscious” – My Boys, Part II

Posted on: 6 April, 2009

This entry title is a bit of a misnomer because it’s actually only about one of my boys. We lived on the same floor freshman year and bonded over our “third world-ness” (he’s South American, I’m African) and our love of food. Nearly three years on, I’d say he’s probably one of the people here who knows me best. It’s weird because on the surface we don’t really have that much in common: he’s a conservative white man and I’m a borderline socialist black woman. I listen to hip hop on my mp3 player while he pumps The Beatles and obscure Latin American artists out of his ridiculous speaker system. He drinks whiskey; I’m a rum-and-coke girl. I’m an English and Political Science major; he’s an engineer. Yet somehow over the past few years we’ve gotten to the point where our differences don’t really matter to either of us. We have our own little dynamic – he buys me dinner, I help him do his laundry. I tease him about how long he takes to get dressed to go out, and he lets me know when what I’m wearing isn’t what’s hot on the boulevard. Basically, our friendship is unconventional, awesome and uncomplicated. 

Or so I thought. Something he said during a recent phone conversation has made me question what it means for me, an African woman, to be friends with a white man. A few weeks ago we happened to be talking about STI testing: he’s never been tested, and I suggested that just to be safe, he should go. A couple days ago he was complaining about being unable to sleep properly, and so I suggested that he go to the doctor for a check-up. Remembering the STI testing, I asked him if had gone yet. He said no, and then asked me when last I had gone for an STI test. I told him I had one when I last saw the ob/gyn a couple months ago. He asked how it had turned out, and I replied that there were no problems. Maybe he thought I was being cocky or pushy, because he then said, “Yeah well, you know you’re black so you’re probably going to get AIDS at some point anyway.”

I need to explain something here: one important part of my dynamic with my male friends is our semi-insulting banter. We’re a pretty diverse group – white, black, Asian, Mexican, Jewish – so at some point or another, someone is bound to be blasted on account of their race. Everyone gives as good as they get – if the Mexican kid makes a comment about me being fresh off the boat, I ask him how heavy the border patrol is nowadays. There’s no room for political correctness with these dudes – after all, we’re socially aware students in New York City living the post-racial American dream. I’m saying this to make it clear that my friend’s comment about AIDS was not meant to be malicious on his part – it’s something that would, on the surface, fit in with our usual conversation style. But this comment felt entirely different to me. For once, my slick mouth failed me and I didn’t know how to respond. I felt as though two key parts of my identity – my colour and my gender – had been struck at with a force I wasn’t able to return. I felt totally exposed and extremly self conscious. Why? Because AIDS disproportionally affects black women and is a subject that is particularly close to my heart. Because there isn’t an equivalent statement that I could throw back at him, a white heterosexual male, that would carry the same meaning as his statement did for me, a black woman. Because I felt like my friend was stereotyping me, judging me, suggesting that my destiny was tied up solely in my sexuality and my race. The inequality of our positions in society, for the first time in our friendship, was glaringly obvious to me. And my position as the weaker one made me silent.

At the time we had the conversation, I was tired out of my mind (all-nighter the night before finishing two papers) and so I didn’t really think too much about it. A couple days ago, I decided to tell two friends (Rational Chaos and a Colombian/Puerto Rican chick) about the conversation and see what they thought. They both understood why the comment had hurt me, and recognised the need for me to react to being told something like that. It was interesting to me though that Rational Chaos, as a dude, thought that the comment had far more to do with race than the fact that I’m a woman. My female friend, however, agreed with me that those two aspects of my identity can’t really be separated, especially not in a situation where I’m dealing with someone who is my opposite on both grounds. Even more frustrating for me is the fact that I don’t think that I can make my friend see why his comment was problematic for me. He hasn’t ever been sexually harassed while out at night or had degrading comments made about him based on the colour of his skin. Every time I try to bring up the topic of gender or race, he gets impatient and accuses me of bringing up “hippy stuff.” How is possible that someone who understands how I feel about my family, another important part of my identity, starts to push me away when I want to discuss what it’s like being a black woman? Rational Chaos said to me that sometimes I have to let things slide – partly because of the fact that our conversations don’t tend to be PC in the first place, but also because in his opinion, there are bigger battles to be fought. While I accept that our banter will always have some pointed teasing, am I not allowed to draw boundaries over what I will and will not accept being said to me? If I were a black man and he had said the same thing to me, I could have responded, “Yeah, well your little dick isn’t big enough to contract that shit to begin with.” But I don’t have a dick. In this context he holds all the power. Is that something I should just accept as a fact of society, or shouldn’t he be sensitive to his privileged position in comparison to mine? At what point is my silence simply me compromising myself?

My female friend suggested that I think carefully about whether or not this was a turning point in our friendship – if we could continue on as we were, or not. I’m not planning on ending our friendship. He’s still my boy, no matter what. I realise now though that I have to challenge him to see things from my perspective more often. I know the white heterosexual male’s perspective inside out – it wrote the books I study from and the history of the world I live in. But this isn’t Hegel’s time any more – that shit has got to come to an end. If my friend can make the effort to understand Nigerian politics, then he can damn sure try to understand why his making a remark about me getting AIDS is a problem. I can’t end racism and sexism for the whole world – that’s a project that’s a little out of my reach. But I’m going to do my best to confront them when they come up in my personal life and out of the mouths of my friends.  

P.S. The first verse of Kanye’s “All Falls Down” makes me think about the complexities of the black female existence. Plus Stacey Dash is a bad chick, and Common’s sexy cameo as the airline employee in the video always makes me smile. 

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5 Responses to "“I’m so self conscious” – My Boys, Part II"

“this isn’t Hegel time’s any more – that shit has come to an end” – and Hegel is how white ppl think, at the same time you’re a self declared “almost socialist”. I would wonder what Marx was? didn’t Hegel influence Marx, actually Hegel became popular in France and other countries that weren’t Germany because of Marx. Further, the great socialist Soviet Union (and mind you, Russians are very white and blonde) sponsored the appartheid in south africa and had its own Red Holocaust. And it’s good to know how “white males” think the same. be they from Germany, US, Russia and Latin America. the fact that much of Eastern Europe (the Balkans) was under semi-colonial rule under the turks for hundreds of years and then under soviet occupation also might mean something. great fighting against stereotyping. “I know how white males think”. oh, and the fact that the European Union would be considered socialist by most American standards is something most people in the US forget. have you wondered why Europe loved Obama so much? I will end my rant here.

“I know how White people think but they should stop stereotyping me”. Double standards. Enuff said.

I’m with you on this one – we have to challenge people who are higher up on the social ladder than we are to look at things from our perspective. had one of “my boys” said that to me, i would have definitely said, “that’s not cool, man. at all. you crossed the line with that one.” and then explained to him why it was a problem. he may not have gotten it, but at least he’ll know that this is something i deal with and he doesn’t and never will, and he shouldn’t mess with it. it’s different talking about corruption and border patrols – this comment was a lot more personal. i think that because you guys are friends, though, it’ll be easier for you to get that message across.

p.s. bump on the Kanye comment. that first verse of All Falls Down describes my life freshman year to a T (at least, the first half of it does). Kanye has a way of talking about things that can really resonate with me sometimes – i think that’s why i’m still a fan even after the autotune, lol

@Alex: It isn’t really a double standard to say that we know how White people think.

We know how White people think BECAUSE White people have spent the last three hundred years forcing their collective thought down the throats of every non-White person on the planet. And I swear if there was life on Mars, it’d “know how White people think” too. The truth is that until very recently, every prominent perspective has been a WHITE perspective, because until very recently White people have prevented other perspectives from asserting themselves, or dismissed the few non-White perspectives that managed to escape whitewashing or total annihilation as inaccurate, incredible, or unintelligent.
White people do occupy a privileged position in global society, and this affects the dynamics of every relationship that non-White people have with them, knowingly or unknowingly, and this is why I totally understand how she feels. Having already ensured that their ideas and their thoughts are the most prominent and usually the only ones that we will ever hear, the majority of White people are so uninterested in non-White people that we non-White people run the very real risk of being stereotyped by White people with every interaction.

I know this is not true for ALL White people, but collectively, it pretty much is.

” Even more frustrating for me is the fact that I don’t think that I can make my friend see why his comment was problematic for me. He hasn’t ever been sexually harassed while out at night or had degrading comments made about him based on the colour of his skin. Every time I try to bring up the topic of gender or race, he gets impatient and accuses me of bringing up “hippy stuff.” ”

If he hasn’t experienced it, he won’t be able to, or care to, see things from your perspective. It isn’t “hippy stuff”. Furthermore, I believe most jokes are derived from some sort of truth or general observation. I understand the dynamic of your friendship, though a line was crossed and if you don’t make that blatantly clear, then you ARE compromising yourself. I also imagine you might be hesitant to bring it up as it may cause problems in your friendship – I’d be questioning how much of “your boy” he was if you couldn’t even talk about this.

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