Having always felt like everyone’s ‘one Black friend’, author Christine Pride suddenly started to question whether she wanted another white friend in her life.
Christine Pride lives in New York City and Jo Piazza lives in Philadelphia. Together they have written a new novel, We Are Not Like Them, a story told from the perspectives of two women (one Black and one white). Here, Christine writes about the process of working with Jo during a volatile time for race relations in the US.
There’s an old Chris Rock bit where he jokes, ”My Black friends have a bunch of white friends and all my white friends have one Black friend.”
Like most comedy, the humour in this comes from its recognisable truth. I know this first hand because it’s the story of my life. I should have business cards printed: Christine Pride, Everyone’s One Black Friend.
I laugh to think of all the group wedding photos and milestone birthday pics in which I’m so very easy to spot in the crowd – and not because of my eye-catching dresses or unique accessories. But to some degree this is a by-product of having so many friends in general, white, Black and everything else – I’m lucky that way.
And since I’ve been single most of my adult life, it is these friendships I’ve built over 40 years, wide and deep and diverse, that constitute my family and my tribe; they are my cornerstone and salvation. Which means, I was always on the prowl for additions to the circle – and was promiscuous in my search: white, Black, Latino, Asian, everyone was welcome in my friendship tent.
But then something changed. Somewhere along the line (er, perhaps in early 2016?), I became wary of making new friendships… with white people. Actually, truth be told, I became wary of white people in general. That eager, easy, colour-blind approach I’d had to new connections was gone, replaced by a brittle cautiousness and scepticism. I am not sure I even consciously realised how much this was the case, until I met Jo.
We met in a business capacity – I worked at a major publishing house and was her editor for a novel she wrote. But our professional relationship very quickly tipped over into a friendship. Jo is a force – she’s the hardest working person I know, she’s funny and intense, she has very strong opinions, and is always up for a good time; she’s the kind of person you could ironically suggest, “Hey, let’s drive to Atlantic City tonight and gamble,” and she would ask, “What time?” I was sold. There it was – that giddy rush of new friendship, the first boozy friend date, the breathless texting, the discovery of common connections (you love Zadie Smith, home renovation TV shows and truffle fries? I love Zadie Smith, home renovation TV shows and truffle fries!), the endless things yet to learn about the other person, the promise of new adventures and inside jokes to come.
All of that made for an exciting spark, but would this be a more superficial relationship – the friend you caught up with over the occasional dinner or pedicure, a person with whom to exchange funny memes and book recommendations? Or would it grow into something deeper – true bestie territory? If Jo had been a Black woman there would have been no question in my mind. We would have had our connection and chemistry and ALSO the ability to bond over the challenges of race, instead of in spite of them – it’s a crucial difference. But Jo was white and it was 2017, a bubbling cauldron of racial resentments, more police shootings in America and the eve of the birth of the Karen era. Did I really even need or want a white friend? Maybe I had enough. Maybe it wasn’t worth the trouble.
Jo was not my first white friend, obviously. The two white women with whom I’m closest are childhood friends. One I met in school when I was six years old, the other when I was 14. Meeting in these formative years matters. For one, we didn’t have the baggage of race to deal with at such a young age. I realise now that I grew up in something of a suburban utopia – unlike most (if not all of my Black friends) I was never called a [racial slur] once as a kid, a horrifyingly common rite of passage I was spared. But also, I knew my white best friends Julie and Becky fully and deeply. I spent enormous amounts of time with their families and vice versa, over weekday dinners, travels and holidays. I saw and shared every inch of their lives and every milestone, from our beginnings. Over long decades, these relationships have been tested and proven over and over again – through moves, job changes and hours-long late night phone calls, through births, deaths and everything in between. These white women are firmly in that inner circle, alongside my Black best friends and there’s no difference in how I view them or how close we are. I would give each of these women a kidney, an egg or my last dollar, and I would bet my life they would do the same. And we got to this point – becoming family – in part because I trusted them completely with every aspect of my life – including being a Black woman.
With Jo it was different. I was just getting to know Jo herself; I didn’t know her family, I didn’t know her (white) husband, I didn’t know any of her other friends, except for one mutual friend we had. I didn’t have a sense of if she even knew any other Black people or spent time with them – I was suspicious she hadn’t. Which is to say I didn’t know the world in which she was forged. Did her beloved Uncle hate Black people, did her in-laws use slurs? Any of those things were possibilities, and the revelation of any of them would cause our fledgling friendship to crash and burn. Treading any deeper into our relationship would require a serious leap of faith.
In my experience, there’s a certain type of liberal white person who believe themselves to be deserving of the benefit of the doubt of their virtuous racial views by way of all the proper signalling that reading the right books, donating to the right causes and living in the right places ostensibly communicates: “I’m one of the good ones. I’m not like those other white people.” But buying into these superficial markers is too dangerous a proposition for a Black person, not to mention naïve. It is this steadfast confidence (hubris) that allows a lot of white people to underestimate the degree that race is a factor in their relationships with Black people and thus presume a closeness to a Black person that may not actually be there because it just doesn’t occur to them that race is as big a factor as it is.
Jo and I had talked about a lot as we got to know each other – our past relationships, losing our virginities, our career anxieties – but we didn’t talk about race, and if there’s a hallmark of true interracial intimacy that’s it. That’s the invisible realm to traverse in an interracial friendship. And so my wariness lingered along with an existential question that would determine our future. One that will be familiar to any Black person assessing any interaction or relationship with a white person: can I trust you?
But what really made things complicated was just as I was making these calculations, Jo and I decided, somewhat impulsively, to write a novel together about an interracial friendship and how it’s tested by race and racism. We saw an opportunity to do something unique and creative together, and we cooked up an enticing (and important, we felt) premise ripped from the headlines. But talk about art mirroring life. And trial by fire. In writing our book, we were forced into conversations and confrontations over the course of six months, that people might delicately tackle over the course of years, if they ever choose to do it at all.
Writing a book together is hard enough – there’s the garden variety tensions of creative differences and bruised egos. (I thought that paragraph was brilliant, why did she hate it?) But add to that the fact that we had two characters who themselves became proxy for our racial tensions and blind spots.
As both a friend and creative partner, I found myself frustrated at various points early on, like when she wanted to have our Black character deal with a teen pregnancy or broken home – all too common tropes about the “Black experience”. Or when it felt as if I was having to explain a lot of things to Jo or when I had to carry the burden of mining and conveying difficult racial moments from my own life. It felt like an extra tax on top of the challenge of writing itself. I remember at one point, I was interviewing my dad to get some stories of prejudice and violence he experienced as a Black man in 40s/50s Alabama and Ohio for some backstory we wanted to add. Just a little research into intergenerational racial trauma!
There came a particular tense moment when I made a comment about Jo not having any close Black friends. It wasn’t an indictment, I saw it as a fact (and she wasn’t unique in this at all: most white people – 75% actually! – don’t). I was trying to make a point that because I had deep long-term interracial friendships of the kind we were trying to wrangle onto the page, I had experience to draw from to justify the scene change I was suggesting. But she got offended – and defensive. I know she was hurt too, because she considered me her close black friend – and I just wasn’t there yet. Partly because our conversations about race had been so fraught. There was that invisible traverse and we hadn’t crossed it. I couldn’t fully let my guard down until we did.
Slowly but surely, however, we got better at talking about hard things. We had no choice. I started feeling more comfortable being honest and blunt (not my strong suit) if I felt like she made a misstep. And she started to get better and braver about asking questions without feeling like I was judging her for doing so. In turn, I appreciated her asking questions, and felt less resentful that there were things she didn’t know or understand because she was at least admitting that. We could even joke. For example, about how I couldn’t name a single song by American folk music legend John Denver or how she’d never seen a single episode of Girlfriends, an iconic American sitcom for Black women. We fell into an ease in writing our story and had a renewed sense of its power and potential based on our personal journey creating it. We united around a belief that our novel could help people, like it had helped us. Our professional relationship was strong.
And then just as we were in the twilight of our own personal racial reckoning, the entire nation joined us. George Floyd was murdered. As it was for most Black people, that summer was a true emotional crucible. I’d always been an optimistic person about race and progress, but even as people we’re suddenly awakening to the fact that racism was a real thing and that it was everywhere (say what?! We should do something about this?), it had the counterintuitive effect of making me more angry and despondent than ever. I was uncharacteristically resentful at the white people in my life who had had it so easy, who didn’t have to think about their skin and identity every single day, who had the freedom to just be. Mainly, I was exhausted by the feeling that despite the marches and hashtags nothing would ever change. There’s nothing more depleting than cynicism. And, on top of all that, that summer was marred by some significant professional experiences where I felt maligned and dismissed as a Black woman. Oh, and there was a raging pandemic – that too.
It all left me feeling as stressed and low as I may have ever felt, which for a preternaturally upbeat person was unfamiliar and scary. I was more grateful than ever for the inner circle of girlfriends, both white and Black, who I leaned on heavily and who, as always, were there for me in a big way. And so was Jo. As I confided in her, I could tell she “got” it: she could recognise the patronising undertones, she bore witness to various microaggressions and challenges of being a Black person in all-white spaces, she was appropriately outraged to see how racial friction can spur white people to make you feel gaslighted, and she expressed sensitivity and awareness of the burden that’s baked into my experience as a Black person that comes with knowing that your skin colour is always set up to cost you, and those who look like you, something – a professional opportunity, peace of mind, your life itself.
I don’t know that she thought about these things as deeply before, so I like to think her perspective about race in America was enriched by our friendship and from being so intimately aware of my experiences and feelings that she could proverbially walk in my shoes a little bit – that’s the very basis of empathy. And what difference it makes. I cried in front of Jo more than once as my racial despair and frustration took a toll. Snot sobbing with a friend over romantic drama or a professional disappointment is a bonding exercises for most women, par for the course. But when you, as a Black person, can lay bare racial pain for a white person, well that’s a whole other level of vulnerability. And that’s when I knew. That was the moment where I definitively realised I had the answer to that question I’d been circling around for the entirety of our friendship. And that answer was yes.
We Are Not Like Them by Christine Pride and Jo Piazza, published by HQ in Hardback, eBook and Audio, is out 14 October 2021.
Images: Author portrait by Julia Discenza, book cover via Harper Collins, main image: Getty.