In the course of my reading for the Woke As Fuck Club this year, I’ve picked up a few titles that are not really in the wheelhouse of the club. Ben Passmore’s brief and poignant Your Black Friend is a single-issue comic which has the word count of a prose poem and the impact of a much longer essay.
Your Black Friend is addressed to the white friends of black Americans. It’s about a subject which is becoming increasingly urgent in modern discourse, which I would summarize as The Racism You Don’t See–the anti-blackness that is invisible to white people, whether it manifests in the world around us, in the white people we interact with, or in ourselves.
The framing device of the comic is a scene in a coffee shop. A white woman with “an Eat-Pray-Love vibe” is chatting with the barista, and talking about “this sketchy black guy” that she reported to the police recently, whose crime was “coming out of this backyard with a bike”. When the barista asks for a description, she describes a the bike better than the man. But her “sketchy black guy” turns out to be a perfectly innocent and ordinary person, a neighbor that the barista knows well. He lives in that house, he owns that bike, he’s a regular at the coffee shop.
Your Black Friend, the narrator of this comic, can clearly see that this white woman has been openly caught out in a moment of racist prejudice which could easily have endangered a black person’s life. The barista has revealed her racism–but he does not actually call her on it. And neither does the white friend sitting across the table from YBF, reading her “Yoga Cook Book” and oblivious to the conversation.
This experience of being thrown under the bus is a universal of being black in America, with or without white friends. As he puts it, “What white ppl fear most is ‘making things awkward’.” Even people who call themselves friends would rather be controlled by their fear of humiliation than stand up for black people. Even the minimal risk of using their privilege, their RIGHT to be vocal and labeled “angry” without serious repercussions–is too much to ask.
What follows is a haunting and lyrical monologue from the point of view of Your Black Friend, opening up with real vulnerability and expressing his deep discomfort with his position between the two colliding suns of blackness and whiteness.
I don’t want to spoil it, because buying and reading this comic is a pretty smart way to invest five bucks, especially if you happen to be white and have any interest whatsoever in being a better person. But I do think it is worthwhile to talk about the issues that he brought up which made me feel personally uncomfortable and guilty.
Ben Passmore took a significant risk and opened his heart to share his discomfort with me, and he deserves the courtesy of having his reviewers interrogate their own shame. I think I have some of these attributes of whiteness, at times. And I am ashamed to the degree that I am a bad friend.
The Fear of Making Things Awkward.
I’m not going to beat myself up endlessly over this, but it’s definitely a fear of mine that crops up when trying to speak up for black people. Especially when black people are present.
I can’t presently untangle the knot of motivations and emotions that make up this fear. Some of it is actually positive intention, and the desire not to cause negative impacts. I know from recent experience that black people can suffer unwanted and exhausting repercussions when their white friends and colleagues start running their mouths. This is why caution and a little extra thought is needed before you tag them on Facebook or link to them on Twitter. Every POC author, critic and game developer in my network is at risk of being harassed and having their energies drained by trolls. If I want to consider myself a friend, I need to battle those trolls myself, if anyone’s going to.
Some of it is probably just personal weakness. I have some issues with social anxiety. And it must be said, I have always had a tendency to Make Things Awkward since I was a small child. This does not make me a bad person in the moral or ethical sense–in fact, I get lots of pats on the head for being a person of integrity and courage. But there is a price to be paid for being The Girl Who Called Bullshit. Making people uncomfortable can be a curse as much as it a blessing. Some people will always love me for my ability to speak up–some will hate me.
What worries me, though, is that maybe at least PART of the reason I fear “awkwardness” is that I am afraid of losing some of my in-group privilege as a white person. If I’m “Awkard”, if I become known as Always-Angry Arinn, maybe I’ll have fewer white friends? Fewer career opportunities? Fewer invitations to conventions and anthologies which are run by white people? Fewer dates…?
It sounds stupid and petty, once I type the words. But maybe it’s a legitimate fear. I have no reason to think that I will suddenly be embraced by black people just because I’ve alienated white people. And hell, maybe there are people of every race and background who just wouldn’t care to be associated with an Angry Person regardless.
It doesn’t really matter why I’m afraid of “awkwardness”, though. What matters is that my fear of awkwardness should never overshadow my fear for the lives, safety and dignity of black people in general, and my black friends in particular. And whatever loneliness or disadvantages I might suffer as a consequence of speaking up are staggeringly trivial compared to the consequences for black people if I don’t.
Putting On “Black Voice”
Ben Passmore mentions the white mimicry of black speech patterns on page 2 of this comic–it’s one of the first things to come up on his list of uncomfortable things that he doesn’t really know how to bring up. He describes his white friends “putting on linguistic ‘black face’ (he calls it ‘black voice’) with unfamiliar black people and especially black kids.”
Speaking of awkward? Yeah. This one is very awkward for me. African-American Vernacular English is recognized in academic circles as an official dialect of the English language. It has internally consistent rules and like most dialects, it serves a specific population of people as an in-group marker. It is at least partially designed and intended to mark those who cannot speak/understand it, or who cannot perform fluently, as outsiders.
I do not speak AAVE, and I would not ever try to use it to appropriate an unearned insider status with a black person I’ve never met. But I do consume books, music and art which are created by AAVE native speakers. And these artists have influenced me, sometimes in ways that I haven’t explicitly acknowledged.
I have been a fan of black blues musicians since my teens. Since the mid-1980’s I’ve been listening to John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, Koko Taylor, Bessie Smith, Big Mama Thornton, Aretha Franklin…and their white imitators and proteges, like Janis Joplin, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin. The imagery, emotions and lyrics of the blues are now a part of me, and it’s a part I value. I still count it as one of the high points of my life that I got to see John Lee Hooker live before he passed. And if it wasn’t for the blues, I’d have nothing to sing on karaoke night.
I could say similar things about my early reading of black authors like Iceberg Slim, who hit me like a train when I was in my late 20’s. I would still count him as one of the most original voices in the English language, and I can’t really calculate how powerfully he shaped my ideas of what racism is, or what the 20th century felt like for black Americans.
This being said, when I saw the blonde girl on page 8 say, “Can I be ‘woke’?” it gave me a pang of guilt and sadness. Because despite the fact that I run a study group called The Woke As Fuck Book Club, the truth is…
I can’t be ‘woke’.
I can use the word, but it isn’t mine. It will never mean to me what it does to a black person.
“Woke”, to a white person, is a state of compassionate, honest and active awareness about the world around me. It’s my willingness to recognize how privilege works and how people without it are marginalized and harmed. Being “woke” for me, as a person with a lot of privilege, is always going to be about listening, learning, and taking action whenever and however I can.
“Woke” for a person without privilege, particularly the black community that originated the term…means something entirely different.
For them, “Woke” is not just awareness and activism, it’s threat management. It’s a state of hyper-vigilance, the soldier’s edge, the boxer’s dance. Looking for the next blow before it lands, moving to block or dodge it. Keeping your eyes open and your phone battery charged so that you can record your interactions with the police. Staying alert and being ready to respond in a heartbeat to preserve your life, your job, your family, your community, your people as a whole. Listening to the daily barrage of micro-aggressions and making strategic choices about whether to respond. Being unwilling to take promises and statements at face value, because you’ve been lied to a thousand times.
Woke is a lot of things that are all about blackness…an existential state that excludes me from its Venn diagram.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to change the name of my study group. No one has asked me to, and the fact that Ben Passmore points out that white ignorance and entitlement make him uncomfortable is just part of the benefit I’ve received from pursuing this path.
Forming the Woke As Fuck Book Club was one of the better decisions I made in 2016, and I’m becoming a better and stronger person every day because of it.
That said…I’ll always be a white woman. “Woke As Fuck” is a goalpost that will shift eternally out of my reach, and I need to make peace with that reality. I cannot fix the world so easily. I cannot unmake my privilege or dismantle systematic racism by reading a few good books or writing even the most thoughtful review.
I do hope it will make me a better friend, though.