by Hilary L. Neroni
by Emily Bernard
On August 7, 1994, a man who was severely mentally ill stabbed seven people
in a coffee shop in New Haven. I was one of the seven. On August 8, 1994,
I woke up in a hospital bed, and Helena, who is white, was somehow just
there, managing doctors, nurses, visitors, everything. From somewhere
deep in my morphine-induced haze, I felt something much more than gratitude.
How can I ever thank you for this? I asked, woozily racking
my brain for ways to do that. She looked at me sternly and said, Im
not here for you. Im here for me. She stayed for a week, got
everything in order, and left. This is one of the greatest gifts anyone
has ever given me.
What I love about Helena, who I have known now for almost twenty years,
has nothing to do with race, but with the nearly primal space of comfort
and acceptance that her friendship provides for me always, without hesitation
or exception. At the same time, what I love about Helena has everything
to do with race. Her racial identity must necessarily be as central to
her as mine is to me, after all, so that loving Helena means loving her
whiteness, too. In particular, I often take great private pleasure in
the fact that she is Jewish, and proudly imagine that our alliance is
blessed by the tradition of the grand historical connection between blacks
and Jews. If Helena feels a similar pleasure about my blackness, she does
not describe it in the careful, anxious grammar of the dogmatic antiracist.
Some of these dogmatic types I admire greatly. Some of them I find extremely
tedious, particularly when they exhibit symptoms of the illness I call
Racial Tourettes, identifiable when the host is unable
to speak about anything other than race when in the presence of a nonwhite
person. Some of these people, even the ones who suffer from Racial Tourettes,
are my friends.
Heres a story about the dangers of dogmatic antiracism: I am at
a dinner party sitting across the table from two white people, a man and
a woman, who are talking about racism. Theres racism and then
theres racism, the man says and begins a story about a writer
friend of his, a recent transplant to New York from an all-white Midwestern
city. Hes not a racist but hes sometimes very clumsy,
the man explains as he ends a story about his friends most recent
awkward interracial encounter, which involved his approaching a black
woman from Louisiana at a social event and asking her which of the black
revival churches in New York she attended. The woman was a
The man rolls his eyes and laughs. He says, My friends got
a good heart, and hes eager to learn. He looks at the woman,
who frowns and sighs. For long, uncomfortable seconds, they are both silent.
Finally, the woman says coolly, Well, its not my job to educate
people like that, and turns away.
The man is my husband, John, and the woman is Margaret, a civil rights
lawyer, a committed antiracist, and an acquaintance of ours. In some ways,
I respect the rigid lines Margaret draws between herself and other white
people. She doesnt tolerate slippage, and polices the exact boundaries
around her ideological commitments with a formidable vigilance. Lets
be honest: The kind of fuzziness that decorates my own attitudes about
race would never have gotten any important movement off the ground. But
there is something missing from Margarets racial repertoire, and
its the same thing that accounts for my friendship with the awkward
writer in the first place: compassion. The writer sometimes sticks his
foot in his mouth, but he is unfailingly compassionate. Where is the compassion
in the rigid march of the sentry around and around her intractable borders
between right and wrong? Ultimately, I believe that the boundaries serve
the sentry, and no one else.
In general, I dont care if the white people I meet call themselves
antiracists, or even have the right politics, which is a hard
and fast friendship criterion for some who are dear to me. Right politics
or not, some of my best friends, much like my mother, would never reveal
their truest selves to a white person under any circumstances. Myself,
I prefer to be knocked senseless by love, the fabled, blind kind of love
that makes you want to give everything away. But then, I was thusly besotted
with a woman named Susan, until the day she asked me what the black
community really thought about names like Sheniqua and Tyronda,
because the white community thought they were just bizarre.
As she asked me this question, I watched myself turn, in Susans
eyes, from Emily into the black community. And I watched her
transform herself from Susan into someone who forgot, for a moment, that
we had spent hours talking on the phone about our uncanny similarities,
down to the cadence of our speech. Completely alike, we said. Completely
understood, I felt. It was just a moment, but it changed everything. By
the time I got up the nerve to bring it up, it was too late, mostly because
I waited for two years, trying to forget it.
Blind love has its drawbacks.
When I told my friend Antonia, who is white and a committed antiracist,
about Susan, I could feel her shudder all the way from California. When
I send her a draft of this essay, she finds the part about antiracists
insulting and simplistic, and I wonder if I didnt write it, in part,
to irritate her. When I describe to her my discomfort with Margaret, she
asks me to elaborate. I do so by quoting something Toni Morrison told
Ed Bradley on 60 Minutes in 1998. Describing her dominant feelings about
white people, Morrison said, If the trucks pass and they have to
make a choice, theyll put me on that truck.
Margaret would never put you on the truck, Antonia says. Maybe
not, I fire back, but she would put the first white person
on it, just to say she did. We howl with laughter, and then we are
back to business. Antonia insists that it is Margarets personality
and not her politics, that I find obnoxious. In addition, she thinks the
head/heart dichotomy I have created with my competing stories about Margaret
and Helena is facile. I tell her that while her politics may not be as
righteous as Margarets (here Antonia interrupts to voice her objections
to the word righteousshe interrupts a lot), I know in
my heart that Helena would never, under any circumstances, put me, or
anyone else, on one of those trucks. I tell her these distinctions may
be facile, but its what I experience, and thank you very much for
calling my experience facile. We argue about this for days, for weeks.
It is not lost on me that I enjoy arguing with Antonia; it is one of the
reasons that I love her so dearly. As she talks, I remember a discussion
we had years ago about whether the phrase white-knuckle it
was racially exclusionary. Our discussion spooled out into a ridiculous
argument that ended with her hanging up on me. When she called back in
the middle of the night, she said quietly, I think the problem is
that I expect a great deal of myself when it comes to these kinds of issues.
I was moved and disarmed by her honesty, the deep level of comfort and
acceptance between us she must have felt to make such an admission to
me. I said, I think it must be hard to be the kind of white person
you are, because the kind of black person I am expects a great deal from
Since that night, I have used the phrase white-knuckle it
every chance I get, and always think of Antonia when I do.
Excerpted from the Introduction to Some of My Best Friends: Writings
on Interracial Friendships, edited by Emily Bernard, published by HarperCollins