At one school with a 94% free and reduced lunch population deep in Coffee Country, a brave 5th grade boy raised his hand during the after-workshop question-and-answer talk story. He blurted out, "My dad works with an African-American guy."
Summer, 1991: A Freshman at Oregon State University in the almost-all Caucasian city of Corvallis, my African-American dorm mate changed my life. She was literally the first non-White friend I ever had and I was super stoked on all the mind-blowing experiences she introduced me to. The summer after my first year in college, I traveled to Texas to visit a friend that had also lived in our dorm. She was a fire-redheaded, White girl who also had an African-American roommate at OSU. Me and my roommate and her and her roommate had spent Fridays in their dorm room beer-bonging Keystone Light and dancing around to Tony!Tony!Tony! or The Devil Went Down To Georgia.
During my July visit to Texas, my friend and I ratted-up our bangs as high as they would go and went to a rodeo the size of a Pac-10 football game (yes, it was Pac-10 back then). Wearing iron-creased Wranglers so tight I had to lay down on a bed and zip them with needle nose plyers and under the influence of a couple bottles of Boone's Strawberry Hill, we went to my first and last Texas rodeo. At the rodeo after-party, there were hundreds of folks getting their 2-step on and continuing to throw back the cheapest alcohol in Texas.
I remember seeing exactly one small group of African-American men there. They were full-on decked out in cowboy regalia - belt buckles, boots, Stetsons, 20 oz. Budweiser can in hand - you name it.
I was tripping hard as I had never seen a real Black cowboy. Before I knew to stop my stupid slurring, I buzzed across the round dance floor straight to them. I didn't ask for a dance. I didn't offer a smoke. Instead, I dove into a deep conversation about them being the only Black people at the rodeo. "So I don't see any other Black People here. Is it always like that?" I asked them if they ever experienced racism. I told them I had a Black Roommate in college. Literally, "My roommate last year was Black." I told them I was liberated and had nothing against Black people. "But we partied all the time and I treated her just like I do anyone."
I was definitely not a racist.
Uh hello. Let me repeat: I asked Black men in Texas if they had ever experienced racism.
In my effort to treat these guys like I would anyone else, I singled them out. I exercised my racial privilege by assuming these African-American gentlemen gave a shit about my random thoughts and that I had the God-given right to express them at any time. I singled out some nice guys who were enjoying a lovely after-rodeo shin-dig in my desire to seem open-minded and cool. They were even too polite to tell me to shut up. I revealed my ignorance of the diversity among African-American people and my own bigoted belief that Black folks must be just like my roommate. I closed my mind off and lost the opportunity to listen to, or dance with, some true Texan cowboys.
I still cringe when I think of my Caucasian flailing at that rodeo. The kid at the workshop expressed the same basic privilege. When White folks make a cultural connection, we think we have the right to say it to the folks providing the connection. Like the first and second graders I work with. I say "bee" and they all raise their hands to tell me their "bee" story. By making an interaction with an African-American person a personal a-ha moment, we express our narrow privileged perspective; as if one person gives us insight into the wealth of differences among Black and Brown folks.
Hey White people - just because we have a Black friend or dad's co-worker doesn't mean anything to another Black person. It is up to White folks to educate ourselves about diverse American racial experiences by doing actual research, reading, reflection; we can't make our single Black Friend/Roommate/Co-worker be a personal bridge to racial awareness.
If you are a Caucasian person finding yourself explaining your "Black Friend" to another Black or Brown person, STOP. Buy that person a Budweiser, or ask that person to dance instead. We can listen. And learn.