I just sat down and cracked a fake a smile with a little chuckle. Quite honestly, I was in shock and in a state of confusion thinking, “Did she just say that?”
In that moment, I flashed back to sixth grade when the geography teacher was trying to pronounce the country “Niger” and all of my white classmates turned and stared at me. Of course, that was 1980.
This was June 2, 2017. The day my friend introduced me to her parents as her “black friend” at a graduation party.
No one flinched at the “black friend” introduction, except me!
For me, it screamed in my mind, “You are nice, Diana, and I really like and accept you, but you have black skin.” Then, there came that subtle, yet often, “back of my mind” reminder: “Look around, Diana. Yup, you are the only ‘black’ person here,” in my subdivision of Maumee, OH.
I walked away from that graduation party trying to dismiss my feelings, begging my mind not to take it personally. However, the more I thought of it, the more I felt inner turmoil, thinking: “This is my friend.”
In my ball of confusion, I spoke to another friend about this issue. I asked her to pray or do whatever she does to send good vibes my way so that I could talk to my friend who made the “black friend” introduction. I was shocked to hear that she was dumbfounded as to why I would be upset. She said, “I am sure she didn’t know that you would be sensitive to this. After all, you are a black woman. What’s wrong with that?” And, “We don’t know how we should refer to [you].” Of course, I almost spit out my coffee.
Sensitive to this? And who are the “we” that you are referring to? White people?
Where am I? Am I being pranked? Is this the twilight zone? Okay, seriously, what is going on? Is there a camera somewhere and I am unknowingly being auditioned for the next Get Out movie?
In my shock and amazement, I replied with various comments such as, “Did you read my book? Are you aware of the many issues I have experienced in my lifetime dealing with the topic of race? Do you know that I stand for civil rights and inclusion?”
I also asked, “Do you introduce your friends by their race? Do you say this is my gay friend, or my white friend, or my disabled friend, or do you simply say, ‘THIS IS MY FRIEND’?” She went on to say, “Well, I will be certain not to make the mistake of introducing you like this since I know you are sensitive in this area.”
Honestly, I got off the phone with her even more frustrated than before. I picked myself up, splashed myself with some makeup, and headed to the next six graduation parties.
After a weekend of thinking things through, praying about things, and all of the graduation parties, I decided I needed to say something to the friend who introduced me as her “black friend.” When we sat down to have a conversation and I told her that I was shocked by the “black friend” introduction, she responded with, “I thought you welcomed the idea of me calling you my ‘black friend.’” She said she called me her “black sister.” She thought it was a term of endearment.
I sat there… with a blank stare on my face. Mortified, yet again, I replied, “When did you get the idea I was okay with that?” I then asked if she had any black friends and that is when she said, “Perhaps, in my mind, I thought it was okay because that’s how my high school track/athlete teammate friends and I spoke to one another.” I believe that was in the mid-to-late eighties.
I then replied with, “Uh, NO. Not ever would I welcome you introducing me as your ‘black friend,’ especially to your parents.” I then asked, “Did you read my book? You do know that I have a white father and am of mixed race. I am married to a white man and I have mixed race children.” Regardless, I do not even introduce my black friends as “black friends,” nor do I introduce to my white friends as “white friends.” I simply introduce them as FRIENDS!
Then, it suddenly hit me. This is part of the reason why I was stuck so many years ago and almost missed out on marrying the love of my life, who is a white man. You see, I look black, and although I identify as an African-American, I am of mixed race. I often denied the white side of my heritage for far too long. I feared having to explain my difference. I hated being different. I just wanted to fit in as either black or white, not both. As a result, I did not want to marry a white man because that would make me stick out even more.
How small-minded of me—trying to fit in and not be seen. Once I raised my level of emotional intelligence and consciousness, and deepened my relationship with Christ, I realized I was trying to live small and not be seen. In reality, I wanted to be seen for me—my personality, my values, my hard work, and my passion. I am proud to be of both the African-American and Caucasian race (Russian/Polish background). I love my heritage and my ethnicity; I just do not want to be introduced to other people by my racial difference.
Thankfully, I ended up having a very productive conversation with the friend who made the introduction. We clarified some misunderstandings and we walked away with a deeper understanding of one another, about cultural competency and awareness. She said, “not a lot of people know about this.” I agreed, which sparked my writing this article.
Though I cannot sum this topic up for everyone or every circumstance, allow me to offer this advice: Introduce your friends as your friends. That is it. Simple, right? Maybe you could share a few other lovely personality or value-driven adjectives, but keep race out of your introductions. We all can benefit from Martin Luther King’s dream: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
That’s my dream for my children, CJ and CC. Perhaps I’ll see more of this in action in my lifetime.
Diana Patton is a Speaker, Social Justice and Integrative Health Advocacy Coach, Author and Attorney. Learn more about her by visiting her website, clicking here to read a free chapter of her book, Inspiration in My Shoes or read more of her articles, here.