A month before Obama was elected president, Devin Friedman, a writer for GQ, went looking for a black friend. On Craigslist.
I listed my ad in the “activities” section of the Web site. I avoided the “casual encounters” section. I had the ad vetted to make sure I wasn’t using some unintended shorthand that means I’m looking for someone to beat me up while I vacuum his living room. I labeled my post “Looking for African-American Friend.” I thought about saying “black.” There’s a difference between the terms black and African-American, and, constitutionally, I’m in the “black” camp. White people who say “African-American” are the same people who keep bottles of Purell hand sanitizer in their knapsacks. But I still wrote “African-American.” It’s a delicate thing, taking out an advertisement for a black friend.
My Craigslist post said, among other things, “I’m a 36-year-old white guy. I grew up in a diverse neighborhood and have always gone to diverse schools. I’ve always had a decent number of black friends. That’s changed over time. I work in the publishing industry, which is super white, and I’ve realized that my group of friends is getting whiter and whiter.… It’s amazing to me that almost everyone I know has either black friends or white friends, but not both. We could have a black president, and still not have a very mixed country.” Then I added a few more lines about don’t let me show up at the bar and you’ve got a horse tranquilizer for my drink. I guess you could say the post ran a little long. I guess you could say I was worried about the possibility of a misunderstanding.
After much trial and error (and ultimately giving up on Craigslist as the black friend-finder of choice), Devin made a couple of black friends. The experience he writes about could be seen as a politically-incorrect sociological experiment, but his insights compliment some of the ones we’ve been discovering in our own series on race.
I’ve always been a little too aware of the race of my friends. One of the most embarrassing memories I have is when I was 8 years old and I made my uncle guess whether my best friend was black or white, and he just started laughing at me. “He’s black!” I said, already feeling like there was something wrong with my question. I didn’t know one of the basic unspoken rules in America, which my question (and this essay) is a violation of: It’s okay to be proud of having black friends.
And as for one of the reasons it’s hard to even talk about race:
Studies have been conducted in which a black person and a white person who didn’t know each other were placed in a room together. The white person would usually start exhibiting all kinds of nonverbal cues about his state of anxiety: blink more, breathe heavier, arrange his chair farther away—the kinds of things I was probably doing to the man with the dreads working the grill. When they are interviewed, the white subjects say the anxiety comes from being worried the black person’s going to think they’re racist. That’s why it’s the more racially aware people who seem the most racist. For them the little voice that says “I’M TALKING TO A BLACK PERSON!” is deafening.
Despite the difficulties, Devin is ultimately an optimist. He conclues that “blackness and whiteness still matter” and “there is a tremendous amount of goodwill out there.”
Read the original article from GQ here: “Will You Be My Black Friend?”
More Good Men Project articles on race: