- Category: Commentaries
- Written by Laina Dawes
It all started with Memoirs of a Geisha.
I have a copy, hidden away in one of the three overstuffed bookcases in my apartment. A friend gave it to me as a present, proclaiming: “this is one of the best books I have ever read!”
“Isn’t the writer white? And he takes on the persona of an Asian woman?” I asked.
"Yeah, what about it?”
I decided to keep my opinions on the novel to myself in order to avoid looking like an inconsiderate gift-receiver.
Years later, filled with more self-confidence and the growing tendency to be blunt that comes with getting older and wiser, I didn’t hesitate when Samantha, a new co-worker asked me if I had read the book.
"I don’t really want to read a book written by a white guy when there are so many marginalized writers of colour who have a hard time getting published. Sorry, it’s just my personal thing,” I said.
She rolled her eyes, shaking her long mane of frosted blond hair and said, “you people are just so sensitive.”
Now, I could have cursed her out, called her a racist, something that maybe I would have done when I was younger. But maybe I shouldn’t have said that. Maybe I was being prejudiced in my thinking. The quick temper I used to have is still there, but now I save it for special occasions. Plus, I didn’t feel like getting into an argument with someone who I lunched with on a daily basis. So I remained silent.
A couple of months later, Samantha confided in me that she had always wanted to sleep with a black guy “because they have big dicks.” I frowned. “You shouldn’t believe the hype,” I said shaking my head in dismay. Not particularly because of what she said, but because I knew that most likely she would have an easier time investigating that stereotype than myself.
While the majority of my family members are white, and I grew up in a predominately white neighborhood, I thought that now I would be emotionally immune to such nonsense. All the times strangers had asked to touch my hair, or asked my white mother who I was (as though she had pulled me out of a ditch in the middle of nowhere) I remained silent. Burning inside was hurt and anger, but I always felt outnumbered and a bit jealous of the little white girls in my class, who could just roll out of bed in the morning, brush their hair and be done with it. Whenever my mother brought out the Afro-Pick, I would scream and hide.
I was also jealous because my little white girlfriends never had a problem getting a boyfriend. Remember in grade school when kids would pass each other notes, asking whether so-and-so wanted to ‘go out’ with them? A terrifying memory of mine consists of being back in 5th grade, when my girlfriends would all receive the scraps of lined paper and without hesitation, scribble back, ‘Yes.’ One day, being frustrated that I never received a scrap of paper, I passed a note to a little boy that I had always had a crush on, only to receive the note back in record time, with an emphatic, “NO”. And I never, ever received a scrap of paper filled with the possibility of feeling like everyone else.
Maybe that’s why Samantha bothered me. She was the archetype of all things good in a modern woman: She was tall, blond and filled with self-confidence bordering on arrogance. She knew how to use her feminine wiles to get the attention of every man’s eye. But as I observed early on, men weren’t stupid to the point of chasing a woman who would arch her back and pout like a B-List porn star whenever they walked by.
But at lunchtime, she would regale us with her experiences of the night before. They usually consisted of bar-hopping and getting home in just enough time to change her clothes to go to work. I always thought that at 28 that was a tad pathetic, but I listened on in amusement. She boasted about having three lovers because they gave her money whenever she needed it, or the one-nighter who promised to send her tickets to stay with him in England. She admonished me for saying that I always buy my own drinks at a club, then boasting that she never would never, ever pay for a drink herself, “after all, that’s what men are for, right?” She winked. I only wish I could have winked back.
When Samantha openly announced that she was ‘going after’ a senior partner at the firm, a man whose wife had just recently given birth to their first child, I decided I couldn’t take it anymore. I felt morally opposed to this woman’s selfish behavior. I felt like a hypocrite, listening to her stories in silence, all the while trying to suppress the desire to throttle her.
After denouncing feminism, claiming that Bush was the ‘greatest leader alive’, and scoffing every time I talked about an anti-racism article I was working on, I realized that in order to retain my own sanity, I’d better start avoiding Samantha at lunch. But was I avoiding her because we didn’t really have anything in common, or because she was white? And if it was because she was white, wasn’t I being prejudiced?
Like many adults, there have been people in my life that I have had to let go as friends. There have been people that I have inadvertently hurt and those who have hurt me. And sometimes, there has been a situation where one of my girlfriends has said or done something that not only insulted me as an individual, but also insulted my ethnicity. Most people of colour have had to socially interact with someone who has said something along the lines of, “I really hate those (insert minority group here), but you are okay, you are not like the rest of them.” Some can just laugh it off, but I never could, because if I didn’t know that person, would they lump me into a stereotype? What makes me different?
I know that on a rational level you cannot wipe out relationships with an entire group of people because of a couple of unfortunate incidences- I just wish everyone had the same sentiment. But when reality mirrors those nagging doubts about the feminine wiles between black and white women, it is hard to remain pragmatic. Just turn on the television and look at what the aesthetic of what the media’s perception of what black beauty is: long hair, light skin and European features. And men have bought into it. There also seems to be this unbalanced philosophy that despite how physically unattractive a man may look, he can still demand the ‘best.’ So the competition begins.
And Samantha is not the only white woman that I have come into conflict with. I used to be friends with a lovely person who preferred to only date black men. Out of my posse of five black women and a couple of black male friends, she was the only white girl in our tight-knit clan. My friend’s preference never really bothered us: we got very used to having black guys physically push us out of the way to get to her. With her beautiful red hair, green eyes and bubbling personality, she was a genuine friend – a bit materialistic and transparent – but really cool.
But after a couple of years of watching black men crawl over her, the game got tired very fast. Especially when one of her ex-boyfriends who had cleaned out her bank account and lived rent-free in her apartment, decided to date a black woman. Vexed, she angrily exclaimed during a girlfriend get-together (very Sex in the City-ish), “How dare he pick a black girl over me?” I think that was the last time I saw her. I just couldn’t justify that statement or anything about her anymore. How can you be friends with someone who thinks that they are better than you?
The feminist moment of the 60’s just doesn’t hold up anymore. While women share the same genitalia, heath and sometimes-political issues, the racial divide is always haunting in the background. I used to have my back up, clenching my teeth, editing my true thoughts in order to have a wealth of female friends from all cultural backgrounds to commiserate with. But as I get older, that yearning becomes more and more distant. After blaming these previous incidents on my own insecurities, I realized that I have to do what is good for me and most importantly that my concerns were and continued to be justified. Call me ‘too sensitive’ but I’d rather be too sensitive than insensitive.
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