The curse of loving white people

| Senior Editor

The rot that ends a friendship begins long before the friendship itself collapses into a pile of festering memories. Retracing those memories, the end starts to seem inevitable. Corruption as deep as the root, amity raced against time to reach the greatest heights possible before gravity and corroded foundations brought it crashing back to the ground.

Late at night, I think about one pile of rotted wood I found myself standing amongst years ago. One of my closest friends in high school became a white nationalist.

Looking back at my relationship with Nick (a pseudonym), the blight that would end our friendship was present at the outset. I was always angry, loud and honest. He was always a conservative and deeply appreciative of tradition. In freshman year, he was proud of his European heritage, but I interpreted his sentiments as ironic. He would regularly shout “Deus Vult” in AP Euro, which reads like a red flag now but, at the time, I dismissed it as a joke. By sophomore year, his conservatism and cultural values were starting to form a rift in our relationship. Junior year we tried to go on, not talking about politics and trying to enjoy each other’s presence, but by senior year, I was deriding him as a bigot and he was dismissing me as a Social Justice Warrior. What little civility we shared was pushed to the brink by the election of Donald Trump. Over the 2016 election cycle, I watched Nick shift from a fan of Marco Rubio—fiercely conservative but not supportive of the violent rhetoric that Trump was spewing—to a full-throated supporter of Trump’s most heinous promises.

I cried the day Donald Trump was inaugurated. Meanwhile, Nick was joyous, chanting “build that wall,” and laughing as if the “good times”—times where Nick’s people were thriving, often at the expense of mine—were back. The rot that formed at the base of friendship had finally—fatally—spread.

We’ve spoken twice since high school. First, a belated birthday wish. Second, a brief Facebook message. And with that, the last living strands of our relationship decayed into memory.

What’s remarkable is that we built a friendship at all. Our fissure was so foundational, that we managed to create anything together is surprising in retrospect. Sifting through the pile of memories, my blood boils as I recall Nick’s shift from conservative to nationalist. I’m disappointed that I tolerated that shift. I don’t think I could have stopped his change, but I should have respected myself enough to stop associating with someone who didn’t respect my humanity.

I was content to be loved in spite of my Blackness. Growing up in the suburbs of Kansas City, it seemed greedy to ask for anything more than that. But my Blackness is—and always has been—inseparable from me. I was born a Black boy. I walk the world as a Black man. I was raised by a Black woman, cared for by Black people. When someone tells me “You’re different” or “You’re one of the good ones,” they imply that I am an anomaly. What they’re missing is that I am who I am because of the incredible Black people who raised me. There are no “good ones.” We are people, complex and varied. We are shaped by our loved ones, our religion, our personalities and our race. Being Black is foundational to me. To be loved in spite of my Blackness is to not be loved at all.

But the truth is that Nick chose to end our friendship, not me. The truth is that I was content to live with his racism, but he wasn’t content to live with my derision. The truth is our friendship ended in high school because I was an a–hole. I mocked his hardline religious stances and belittled his beliefs even though I knew that the foundations of his politics were as deep and personal as mine. But even if I had been respectful, our friendship was still doomed before it blossomed. The death would have been slower, more normal. After a year or so, we would stop checking in on each other because we’d be too busy dealing with the stresses of adulthood. Soon enough, one of us would miss a birthday call or a holiday check-in. Even special occasions would cease to bind us together. Eventually, we would have ended up here, two people once thick as thieves living miles apart in space and oceans apart in spirit. I condemned us to end with a bang, but the best-case scenario was that we’d end on a whimper. The rot ensured it would end.

Yet despite the bitter end, what keeps me up at night isn’t disgust. It’s concern. I lay awake and wonder how he’s doing. I hope his family’s business has survived the coronavirus. I hope his often-ill little brother has grown into a healthy young man. I still hope he’s happy.

We grew up together. I struggle to put aside having watched Nick blossom from a scrawny freshman getting pushed around on the football field into a confident and funny young man. He watched me grow from a loud and boisterous 14-year-old into a louder, but more judicious adult. We were brothers, held together by bonds forged under the broiler of the Kansas sun and strengthened over 20-sided die and Catan cards. The rift between us and barbs we exchanged could sever our friendship, but they can’t sever that feeling of kinship.

For a while, I tried to convince myself that I didn’t care about Nick. When I’d recall the time we spent together, I tried to convince myself that I shouldn’t care about him and I shouldn’t waste my mental energy worrying about him. If only it were that simple. If I could will myself not to love him and to stop losing sleep over him, I absolutely would. But try as I might, I can’t stop loving my brother, long after I’ve stopped liking him.

I still find myself smiling when I hear about his accomplishments and milestones. I still find myself reminiscing about our campaigns and practices, running through our inside jokes and wishing we could start new ones. But right now, in the midst of unrest connected to the value of my life and my ilk, it crushes me to imagine what Nick would say. In the wake of the murder of Michael Brown, we had these exact conversations about racial injustice and riots and he uttered lines that would not be out of place if they were uttered today. “All Lives Matter,” “Looters are the problem”; if we were still friends, we’d be fated to do this same song and dance, violent and emotional, exacerbating the rot.

Over the last week, as protests have taken place around the country, I’ve watched white people I trust remain silent on social media. I’ve seen white people with Black friends and family take to Twitter to clutch their pearls about looting or express solidarity with the police, even though those pearls remained remarkably unclutched about the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and the wave of brutality directed by the police towards protestors. For me, the response has been simple: stop listening to anyone who doesn’t value Black lives. Block anyone who wants to be vocal about it. But if it were Nick responding to me, would I have the heart to block him? The nerve to tangibly distance myself from him even further? Or would I suffer his ignorance in memoriam of our late friendship?

Loving someone is a curse. Even once the tree is gone, you are sentenced to tend to its wood, pulling phantom memories from the mess and yearning, in spite of yourself, to create new ones, splinters and all.

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