A couple of years ago I decided to make some friends who weren't white. Why? The same reasons most progressive white people would like to have some friends who aren't white. My world was sweet and safe; easy to move through, but monocultural, like a forest full of one kind of tree. My politics situated me on the 'solution' side of the racial divide, but my segregated social life made me feel like part of the problem.
Thanks to my ten years of living and raising children in Oakland, and my activist network, my mission was fairly easily accomplished. It wasn't so much a matter of meeting new people as selectively cultivating relationships with folks I already knew. Instead of calling only the (white) people I was closest to when I wanted a date for a movie or a demonstration, I made a point of calling someone I wanted to be close to instead. When I threw a party I expanded the guest list beyond the usual (mostly white) suspects. When I went to a party I sought out conversations with people (of color) I didn't yet know.
I was running my own little affirmative action campaign, and I was learning the same lesson law schools and corporations have learned: no sacrifice, no lowering of standards was required. Quite the contrary. As my life became populated with people who were culturally different from me, it became much richer, much more interesting.
And much less comfortable.
I'd expected that growing close to people of color would bring me face-to-face with the prejudices and intolerance that arose along the way: mine toward them, and possibly, theirs toward me. What I wasn't prepared for was the profound intolerance I discovered in myself-toward myself.
With my white friends I never questioned the language I used; the amount of money I made or how I spent it; my Sixties-style, loosey-goosey child-rearing practices. I was only mildly embarrassed about the Mexican woman who cleaned my house; the $300 a month I spent on therapy; my funky but fabulous country cabin. But when I was talking to my new friend Michael, an East Oakland basketball coach; or Leticia, a junior college jobs counselor; or Brenda, an African-American writer, everything I was saying suddenly seemed horribly middle-class. Horribly privileged. Horribly...white. I found myself-normally the world's biggest talker-afraid to speak. Afraid to reveal myself as the boring, bourgeois, black wanna-be, (and oh yes, did I mention?) bisexual I am.
In the early days of my new friendships I disclosed fragments of my life and my self bit by bit. If the cabin seemed acceptable, I'd mention the therapy. If the big fat book contract didn't end the friendship, I'd risk an encounter with my (undisciplined, big-mouthed) kids. …