Some of My Best Friends: Writings on Interracial Friendships by Emily Bernard

[14 September 2004]

By Bunmi Adeoye

Revolution, Imagination and the Legacy of Racism

Look at your friends? What do they think of you? Do you trust them? Do they trust you? If your friend is not the same race as you, then this might be a relationship may be based on assumptions, mistrust, and deception.

Some of my Best Friends: Writings on Interracial Friendships is a collection of essays edited by Emily Bernard that examines the nature and dynamics of mixed race friendships. Ideas and arguments presented in the essays will confirm many things that you have thought and felt but either haven’t dared to say or haven’t been able to articulate.

One of the most compelling essays is David Mura’s “Secret Colors.” Mura, a Japanese-American writer, begins his essay:

For many years I wanted to be white. I worshipped white heroes on television, chose . . . the Green Hornet over Kato; identified with John Wayne shooting the Japs, with Richard Widmark wiping out the Koreans.

It is an essay that teems with bitterness and suppressed rage. The anger that Mura feels is not only directed at those around him, but at himself. He had allowed himself to be duped into thinking that white America was the standard to which he had to aspire. Mura’s Japanese identity was eclipsed by his American media upbringing and as Mura gains cultural self-awareness through reading the works of writers and anthropologists of colour, he begins to relentlessly challenge his own assumptions about his identity:

I’d started to see how much I had over identified with white culture and the white canon, how much I had ignored and undervalued my own Japanese-American background and history.

This newfound self-awareness comes with sacrifice. Mura examines his friendships and begins to weed out friends—white friends—who cannot accept him as a man who is acutely aware of and connected to his roots.

The obvious question is: What’s the point of discussing race if you’re already friends? Surely, a deep, emotional connection transcends anything as abstract and as politically untidy as race? Luis Rodriguez surmises in “Battlefields:” “Friendship is greater than the colonial and dominating race ideologies of hundreds of years. We can forget this sometimes when we get trapped in the battlefields of race and gender politics….”

Acknowledging and discussing race in an interracial friendship makes the difference between being true friends and being acquaintances. If friends don’t know each other’s history, background or cultural perspective, one has to question what a friendship such as this is based on.

In “Repellent Afro,” Trey Ellis does not share his black experience with his white childhood friends. They avoid the subject of race and altogether. Ellis does not tell his friends about being tracked by white shop assistants when he goes into a store. Ellis does not tell his friends that he is reading the autobiography of Malcolm X or listening to Richard Pryor albums after school in the privacy of his home. For Ellis, his blackness was “a secret world, hidden and deliciously, transgressively pleasurable… (His) blackness was (his) pornography.”

While Mura and Ellis examine their racially split personalities, Sandra Guzmán is decidedly unsplit in her demeanor and her lack of dealings with whites. In “Gringo Reservations,” Guzmán is unable and unwilling to make friends with white people: “To put it bluntly, I don’t trust white people, and without trust, there can be no real friendship.” Growing up, Guzmán observed the racial boundaries in her neighbourhood:

The gringas and gringos never crossed the street to our side of the sidewalk, and we never crossed to theirs. As long as each respected the invisible border—determined by race, class, language barriers, and stereotypes—all was cool on the block.

It is overt racism that she experiences as a child and then more subtle racial slights and slurs she experiences as an adult that that bring out her sense of self-preservation. She will protect herself “from those who have hurt [her].” The people who have injured her repeatedly are white. However, Guzmán does not want to judge every white person based on those who have wronged her in the past. Doing so is based on fear and would forever make her a victim. She believes that “audacious candor” is in order to move beyond what she calls a “hellish legacy of racism.”

It is a pressure cooker situation. Many of the essays are filled with anger, resentment, confusion, misunderstanding, and contradictions. There is also a great deal of honesty and love. Race and racism are tough subjects to grapple and the writers struggle to express why and how they become friends with people outside of their racial group. Some cast their friends aside, some cherish these friendship, and some friendships are short in time but affect the subjects forever.

These essays are not only about challenging each other, but questioning ourselves—whether black, white, yellow, or brown. Guzmán suggests in her essay that something as drastic as a revolution is required to overcome the “legacy of racism.” Rodriguez believes that America’s progress is being impeded because of divisions between those of color and those who are white. In Michelle Cliff’s “In My Heart is a Darkness,“she describes interracial friendships as “an act of revolution” and “a triumph of imagination.”

Some of My Best Friends is a warning, a tribute and a manual to interracial friendships. These essays insist that we examine our personal assumptions about race and culture. The essays demand readers of all backgrounds to think, to challenge, and to talk. Only imagination and dialogue are required for this subtle revolution. It is then that true friendship will follow.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/some-of-my-best-friends/