A “friend” wants to visit you from the States. You haven’t spoken to or seen each other in a while, but you’ve known each other since you were teenagers. You were never particularly close, but you recall enjoying her company. Back in the day, the two of you used to gossip shamelessly and watch cheesy rom-coms during the weekends. You tell your friend that she should come to England to see you. Why not? You’re looking forward to catching up.
You meet her on High Street soon after her bus arrives. You plan to spend a week together, splitting your time between Oxford and London. Your friend marvels at Oxford’s imposing gothic architecture as you make your way down High Street towards Longwall. “What a dream. I bet living here is an absolute dream.” A dream? Not actually. A nightmare? Quite possibly. But the awe-inspired look on your friend’s face tells you she wouldn’t comprehend the weight of your answer, so you tilt your head to the side and ask her, “How was that twelve-hour flight?”
You arrive at your place and begin to stow your friend’s luggage into the closet. She stands next to your bulletin board and admires the photographs of your family that you’ve tacked onto the wall. The one of you and your goddaughter seems to have especially captured her attention. She points to it, and her smile widens. “This little girl is so beautiful!”
You smile as well as you think of your three-year-old goddaughter. You haven’t seen her since you were home during the winter holidays, but your mother sends photographs of her all the time. Lost in your own thoughts, you nearly miss your friend’s next words.
“Mixed babies are so beautiful, and this little girl! Just look at her pretty, soft hair. Her pretty skin. I want mixed babies.”
The smile melts right off of your face. No, no. You begin to explain that your Black goddaughter isn’t mixed. That she is also your first cousin, the daughter of your Black mother’s Black sister. That your goddaughter’s father is also Black. And you add that while you agree that your goddaughter is beautiful, her beauty is neither a fact of her light skin nor her curly hair. And since your friend–your Black friend–is (ostensibly) your friend, you feel comfortable asserting that her apparent obsession with mixed-race babies, due to the sole fact of their mixed-race heritage, is steeped with colorism and anti-Black racism. Once you finish speaking, your friend looks at you as though you’ve lost your mind. She repeats, “Mixed babies are beautiful.”
The two of you have dinner at that overpriced Thai place on George Street. You talk about some of the mutual friends you share and exchange updates on their lives. You mention that one of these mutual friends now lives in the Dominican Republic, and that shifts the topic of the conversation to travel. Your friend says that she wants to visit Africa in order to make a series of safari trips. But Africa is a giant continent, you remind her. You ask her to specify where on the continent she would like to go.
“Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda. I’d like to see animals in their natural habitat, you know? The gorillas, lions, zebras, rhinos, elephants…They all look so beautiful over there.”
You pause. There is something about someone traveling from the U.S. to East Africa for the sole purpose of viewing animals that unsettles you. But maybe that’s just you. At least that is what you tell yourself. “Would you make a trip to Nairobi?” you ask her. You’ve never been, but one of your uncles went once. He told you it’s a wonderful city.
“Well,” your friends starts, “I’ve been to Kenya before, and Nairobi is very urban, so you don’t really get to see animals in the wild. There are some game reserves, but it’s really not the same thing.”
You mention that Nairobi has many museums and parks. You can’t help but add, “A Kenyan peer of mine once told me that he had never seen a zebra until he visited the Bronx Zoo.” You suggest that maybe, just maybe, taking a trip to East Africa to exclusively see exotic animals–as though they are the only beings that exist on the land–is narrow-minded. Your friend looks up from her plate and speaks slowly as though she thinks you’ll miss the point she wants to make: “I told you that I’ve been to Africa before. I know what’s there, and the animals were the best part.”
But that isn’t the end of it.
She remembers that, yes, there is something else she would like to do. There is one person she would like to see during the trip. If she goes to Kenya, she will also visit a friend that she met in college. She gives you a little bit of the woman’s backstory: white, Ivy-League alumna, civil and environmental engineering major. The woman is working for an energy company in Nairobi where she makes a six figure salary, and she lives in a gated community. In spite of all this, she isn’t happy. You ask why.
“She just doesn’t feel comfortable, you know? It’s isolating for her, because there aren’t that many white people there. There are some actually, but to move from the U.S. to Kenya….She hasn’t really found a community that she vibes with. I feel terrible for her because that’s got to be a really alienating experience. She comes home every other month because it’s just lonely.”
Of course being away from home is lonely, but did your friend just…? How could she not realize that…? You sigh. You look at your friend for a brief moment before searching the room for the waiter. You signal for the bill.
The next day, the two of you make your way to London. Since you’re both from Los Angeles and you both live in predominantly Black neighborhoods, you ask your friend if she’s ever been to Dulan’s, a soul food restaurant on Crenshaw. You’re not a fan of Dulan’s–you never were–but you know that it’s just reopened, and you want to know if the food is any better. Your friend tells you she’s never heard of it and asks where it’s located. You can’t remember the exact cross street, but you say, “If you’re headed south on Crenshaw towards Inglewood, you’ll pass it. It’s south of Church’s Chicken but north of Margarita’s, the Mexican restaurant. If you get to 54th Street, you’ve gone too far.” You add that the same family that owns (or owned–you’re unsure) Dulan’s had another restaurant, one in the Marina that catered to upper middle-class white clientele. The food wasn’t good at all.
Your friend laughs. “I don’t drive in that direction on Crenshaw. I only drive in the opposite direction, towards Mid-City. I never go to Inglewood. Well, no. I went for a funeral once, for this distant relative. But my immediate family isn’t really close to that side of the family, so we don’t go down there. Inglewood’s not really a place I want to be.”
She adds, “But I’ve been to Aunt Kizzy’s Backporch, the restaurant in the Marina. My family and I loved the food. It’s closed now, and I really miss it.”
You’re confused. Not because your friend liked the whack-ass “soul food” (lies–that crap isn’t worthy of the title) at Aunt Kizzy’s Backporch. To each their own. No, what confuses you is the fact that your friend, who lives in Baldwin Hills, tells you that she’s only been to Inglewood once. You know she’s gone to The Forum to see a Justin Timberlake concert. You know she has an uncle who lives in Briarwood, a housing development in Inglewood. She’s told you this before. You know she visits this uncle quite often. Another mutual friend of yours lives in Ladera, but on the Inglewood side of Ladera. She’s been to that friend’s home many times. Nothing adds up.
“You’ve only been to Inglewood once,” you repeat. “There must be more intricate ways of counting nowadays.”
“What do you mean?”
Should you call her out on it? You decide to give her the benefit of the doubt. Maybe you’ve imagined it all. Maybe you’re the one who can’t count correctly.
“Nothing,” you say. “Nothing at all.”
You’ve checked into a London hotel, unpacked, and freshened up. Your friend wants to do something fun and interesting, but none of the super touristy things since she’s done that before. You ask another friend of yours, a Londoner, if he can recommend places to go in some of the city’s historically Black neighborhoods. He does you one better and offers to show the two of you around town himself. You excitedly suggest this to your visiting friend, but she laughs as though you’ve just told an awkward joke. “You can’t be serious, Sarah. If I wanted to see Black people, why would I travel all the way to Europe?”
Didn’t she come to see you? You thought she came to see you. You’re Black. And you live in Europe. Didn’t she come to see you?
Now you’re walking down Buckingham Palace Road to see, well, Buckingham Palace. It’s the most touristy thing that you can do in London, but your friend wasn’t a fan of your other suggestions. So here you are. Once you’ve reached your destination, you stand in front of the Queen Victoria Memorial to get the best view of the palace’s façade. Surrounded by other tourists, you notice that there’s a small group of people to the left in which all of the members are wearing shirts with the Panamanian flag. Years ago, your friend told you that she was Panamanian. Seeing the flag triggers this memory, so you ask your friend which one of her parents is (or if both are) from Panama. Your friend explains that her father is Panamanian, but he isn’t from Panama. He’s from the Bronx. She breaks it down: “My mom is just Black, and she’s from upstate New York. My father’s grandfather was from Panama, though. His dad’s dad. He wasn’t Black. He was indigenous. True Panamanian.”
You cringe. All her language seems to do is make you cringe. “Just Black…” “True Panamanian…” Hoping to hide your discomfort, you ask about her father’s grandmother.
“Well, she was just Black. From South Carolina.”
There it is again. “Just Black…” Instead of focusing on it, you inquire, “Was your great-grandma Geechee?” Your friend doesn’t know what that means. Or she acts like she doesn’t know what it means. You continue, “What about your grandmother, your father’s mother?
“She was just Black, but light-skinned. I think she was from Texas, but I don’t really know.”
You understand that identities are complex, that Blackness is dynamic and diasporic. You study this, and you’ve written about this. As you turn and walk towards Green Park, you contemplate what your friend has just told you. One Panamanian great-grandfather. Seven Black American great-grandparents. Your friend doesn’t speak Spanish, has never been to Panama, and has admitted that she doesn’t know very much about Panamanian culture(s). But she describes herself as Panamanian and has actively rejected the identity of Black American on a few occasions.
One Panamanian great-grandfather. Seven Black American great-grandparents. But she’s Panamanian, not Black American. You can’t shake off the feeling that this sounds more like multigenerational Black American shame than Panamanian pride.
In Green Park, you and your friend stop and sit on a bench. Flowers are blooming, and the sun is shining. London is rarely ever this warm. Keeping with conversations about family histories, your friend tells you more about her paternal grandfather, the man with the “true Panamanian” indigenous heritage and the “just Black” South Carolinian roots. He was a jazz musician, a good friend of Dizzy Gillespie. When she says his name, you don’t recognize it, but when she lists some of his most successful singles, you realize that you’ve seen the titles in your grandfather’s music collection. Now you remember the man. He was so proudly and unapologetically Black. How strange it is that your friend is a descendant of his.
You think of jazz, a quintessentially Black sound that seems unrecognizable in Black America today. Every time you attend a jazz performance, you’re struck by how much the musicians look more like the Upper West Side than Harlem. Jazz has been devoured by whiteness.
Suddenly everything makes sense. Your friend with the jazz musician grandfather has been devoured by whiteness too.
The following morning you walk to a café in Soho because your friend says she’s always thought that having coffee in Soho is a trendy thing to do. As the two of you weave your way in and out of the heavy pedestrian traffic, your friend points out an ad for a luxury fashion house that features a popular Brazilian model.
“You know,” your friend begins, “people always tell me that I look Brazilian.”
She slows her pace and turns to regard you pensively. “You don’t really look Brazilian, but you could definitely pass for Kenyan.”
You roll your eyes because you know exactly what undergirds these ridiculous proclamations. Your friend has never been to Latin America, but you have. Many times. You’ve lived in Brazil, so you know that Brazilians have wide and varied complexions. In true fact, any Black person on the planet from those who favor Mariah Carey to those who favor Alek Wek could be Brazilian. But Latin American media has sold a very narrow conception of what a Brazilian woman “really” looks like: white like Gisele Bündchen or slightly brown like Adriana Lima. Sônia Braga might be as mestiça or mulata as it gets. And you, with your deep brown skin, in no way fit into this truncated spectrum of a imagem da mulher brasileira. And so, of course, anyone who meets you and hears your clear and distinct American accent will automatically assume you are from the African continent. Because all darker skinned Black people must be from the continent. Kenya to be exact. The ignorance…
Throughout the day, you hear Portuguese spoken often because there’s a sizeable comunidade lusófona in London. And when you run into these Portuguese and Brazilian immigrants and switch from English to Portuguese, seu sotaque brasileiro com o chiado carioca slips past your lips with ease. Lusófonos ask what part of Rio you’re from. You look at your English-only speaking but ostensibly Brazilian-looking friend and consider telling her that you’ve been mistaken for a Brazilian woman. But instead you turn to the lusófonos and say, “Sou de Los Angeles. Americana. Negra.”
During dinner that night, you tell your friend that a recent trip to Ireland has convinced you to add Dublin to a list of Black tourist-friendly locations.
“What do you mean?” she questions.
You explain that some countries are known for being incredibly hostile to Black tourists. Parts of Italy and Russia immediately come to mind. You say that you wouldn’t advise Black tourists to wholly avoid visiting those places (we should be able to go wherever we please, of course), but you do think that Black tourists should know about the magnitude of racism in these locations so they can prepare themselves for travel. You refer to an article you read that discusses the antagonism specifically encountered by some black tourists, and you talk about the Green Book, an old travel guide produced for Black Americans from 1936 to 1964. The book listed hotels, restaurants, and gas stations across U.S. that were relatively safe for Blacks in addition to establishments that were dangerous.
Your friend says that destinations that are hostile to Black tourists are probably hostile to all tourists.
“I’m just saying that if a city or country isn’t a safe place for black travelers, then it doesn’t have to be about racism. It could be that that city or country isn’t safe for any traveler. The people who live there probably don’t like any kind of tourist.”
You think to yourself, this is #AllLivesMatter in the form of complete sentences.
When was the last time you heard about a white person getting beat down in Moscow and called the N word? You can’t recall a single instance. In fact, your downstairs neighbor, a nice white man from San Francisco, returned to England from Moscow only a week ago. “I absolutely loved it,” he told you. “People say Russians are cold, but they are some of the warmest folks I’ve ever met.”
Everything comes to a head two days later. You and your friend are traveling on the Overground from Euston to Watford. She wants to tour the Harry Potter movie sets at Warner Brothers Studio. You wish you were curled up in a chair with a thick blanket and a copy of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. But you decide to go because this entire vacation is about bonding and reconnecting, right? You’ve also paid the non-refundable £35 admission fee in advance.
At the second stop on the route, two dark-skinned Black men enter the carriage. The men are dressed from head to toe in black: black jackets, black shirts, black baseball caps, black pants, black backpacks, and black shoes. One thing, however, stands out. All of their outerwear–accessories included–has the Transport for London logo with the word “OVERGROUND” clearly marked in red. One of the men says, “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.”
You friend is sitting directly across from you. You see her tense and grab the arm of the woman next to her.
The man continues, “I’m going to have to ask to verify your tickets.” He pulls out a ticket reader.
Your friend visibly relaxes and releases her hold on the other woman’s arm.
Did she just…? But how did that…? You’re in disbelief. But given the arc of this visit, you shouldn’t be.
You start to text one of your British friends. The same one who offered to lead a tour of historically Black London. You explain what’s just happened. He sends you three separate replies.
2: “Are you joking?”
3: “Are you making this up?”
“I wish,” you respond. “It all happened so quickly.”
You resolve to bring this up with her. You MUST discuss it with her. You wait until the dreadful, money-guzzling lot tour is finished, and you’re on the Overground once again.
You tell her that you saw her grab another woman’s arm, that you were shocked and saddened by her response. You tell her that you, unfortunately, would expect that of a white person, or a non-Black person of color, but never from a Black person. What she did was irrational. Offensive. Hurtful. Shameful.
She says that she didn’t do it. She doesn’t know what you’re talking about.
Did you imagine it? Are you losing your mind? You’re positive you saw it…
But then she admits that the men were very tall. She says that she was confused when they got on the train and started yelling.
You remind her that they didn’t yell. They greeted the passengers and announced that they were doing a ticket check.
It’s an awful conversation. “I don’t know what you want me to say,” she tells you. “I didn’t grab that woman’s arm, but even if I did, seeing two men randomly jump on the train and start speaking loudly would make anyone uneasy.”
And that’s the last time you have a conversation with her. You contemplate leaving the hotel and returning to Oxford that same night, but the two of you have split the cost. Since you’ve already paid for it, you’ll stay until you’re due to check out the next morning.
When you arrive at Euston, the two of you catch the same train on the Victoria line, but you don’t sit near each other. You don’t even leave the station together upon your arrival. She’s about ten people ahead of you on the escalator, and she walks swiftly towards the exit. You arrive at the hotel at separate times. Upon your arrival to your shared hotel room, she leaves and goes down to the lobby. She’s still gone when you fall asleep, but when you awaken the following morning, she’s lying in the bed across from yours.
The two of you prepare for your separate journeys. She’s catching a bus to Heathrow so she can return to Los Angeles, and you’re catching a bus back to Oxford. As you leave, she says, “Thanks for letting me stay with you those first few days.” You respond, “Have a safe flight back.” Neither of you says, “It was great to see you,” or “I’ll miss you.”
Walking from the hotel to your bus stop, you replay everything in your head. You’re tired. You’re exhausted. It’s only been a week, but you feel totally and completely drained. This friendship is not a friendship. You wonder if it ever was. Since you were seven, your mother has told you to stop using the title “friend” so loosely. You finally realize that you must follow her advice. You will follow her advice.
You wonder if you’ll ever speak to your acquaintance (see how you’ve already redesignated her?) again. You try to rationalize everything, and only one possible explanation makes sense.
You are Black, and your friend is black.
And now, you know the difference.