I used my best friend’s white privilege to my advantage, and at the end of the day, it made me realize how both of us lived in entirely different worlds.
My best friend and I met at work. She had grown up in a white-only environment and hadn’t met many black people in her life. We hit it off immediately because we were similar: young, easy-going, vivacious, energetic, and kind-hearted.
We traveled often together, and I would ignore instances of racism because I didn’t want to make her uncomfortable. I did realize that she seemed oblivious to racism. Whenever someone would treat me poorly, she would attribute it to that person being stupid, being a sexist, or an upper-class snob.
It never crossed her mind that racism might be the cause. But in many instances, I knew it was. Trust me, folks, black people know when they are being discriminated against because of their skin color. There is a certain behavior that is so telling — and you can only feel the full intensity of it if you are black.
I lived in Switzerland and my best friend lived in France. Like many Swiss people, I did my grocery shopping in France because stuff was much cheaper there. But, there were customs’ restrictions on how much alcohol, meat, and dairy that one could import from France into Switzerland each day.
In the Summer when I organized scrumptious barbecues, I needed to purchase a lot more meat to satisfy the appetites of my ravenous guests. My only challenge was that my daily customs allowance in meat didn’t allow me to buy the quantity of meat I needed for all my guests. My best friend urged me to just go ahead and buy the meat I needed.
“They have better things to do than to stop you at the border”, she insisted.
I knew that because I was black, that same assumption wouldn’t apply to me. Besides, whenever I crossed the border, I was interrogated and my car was thoroughly searched by border guards to ensure I wasn’t trying to smuggle in extra quantities of alcohol, dairy, or meat.
She on the contrary had rarely been stopped. And so we developed a plan, whenever I needed extra meat or wine or whatever, she would smuggle them into Switzerland for me. As we later on laughed, she was white and had that angelic cherubim look, no one ever stopped her.
We were heading to Washington DC for an event on Capitol Hill, and a few friends asked us to bring some Swiss Gruyere cheese for them. I immediately declined because genuine Gruyere from Switzerland consisted of raw milk. US customs forbade any raw milk products from entering the country so for me, there was no way I have going to even attempt bringing it in.
Joanna didn’t care. She wrapped a couple of packets of cheese in a sweater and placed them at the center of her pink Hello Kitty suitcase. While I was stopped and interrogated at American customs, she slipped right into the country. She was again amused that she had managed to game the system yet again.
On her way back home, she bought several iPads for her friends and family — a lot more than what she was legally permitted to bring back into France. She didn’t care because she knew she would never be stopped.
We traveled the world — and from the US to Europe to Africa, I witnessed her smuggle all types of goods in and out of countries. I did promise myself that if ever she tried to do the same with illicit substances, that would spell the end of our friendship. I didn’t want to end up in jail because of a crime she committed that would somehow be blamed on me.
Whenever we traveled, I would always feel stress from the moment I booked my ticket to the minute I got home again. All through that process, there were multiple microaggressions that would put be me in various states of anxiety.
Whether it was the check-in agent asking why I didn’t have a visa to go to a particular country (when in fact I didn’t need one), to the airplane boarding agent who couldn’t or didn’t want to comprehend that I was traveling in business class, traveling while black has always represented some form of trauma for me.
Whenever I tried to approach the subject of racism or me being treated differently from her, Joanna told me she thought I was exaggerating things. I gave up trying to persuade her — I settled for a friendship where we didn’t talk about uncomfortable issues.
One day, we went grocery shopping at a store in France. As I approached the cashier, Joanna insisted we go to the self-checkout queue instead.
“It’s much faster, and there are much fewer people there”, she insisted.
I followed her — part amazed, part cautious. Amazed because I couldn’t imagine a grocery store would trust it’s buyers to not cheat. Cautious because I knew that as a black person, no store was ever going to trust me. I went along with her, we scanned our products, paid, and got out of the store a few minutes later. I was amazed.
“Wow, that’s so cool, I’m going to use self-checkout whenever I go shopping”, I said.
“You see, it’s great, isn’t it. You didn’t get stopped. You need to stop thinking of racism all the time”, she insisted.
I nodded, still not convinced that racism wouldn’t rear its ugly head at one point in my experience.
A few weeks later, I returned to the same store with my daughter. I was eager to show her how easy and expeditious the process was. When we finished scanning our products and attempted to pay, the system indicated that we should wait for a sales clerk. A burly, unfriendly, white man approached us:
“Have you scanned everything in your cart”, he asked suspiciously.
“Yes of course we did,” I responded politely.
“Well, you have been selected for a random check, let’s get on with it”.
He proceeded to selecting random items from the cart and checking to see if we had indeed scanned them. I watched him, determined not to lose my composure. As he proceeded, other shoppers in the queue started fidgeting impatiently, others wondered if we had stolen something. It was both an embarrassing and humiliating moment. And I couldn’t bear to be treated in such a way in front of my young daughter. He placed the last item in front of the scanner which confirmed that we had indeed captured its price, and then he grumpily pointed to the machine and asked us to pay. I hurriedly obliged and we were soon out of the store.
Later, upon reflection, I thought to myself that we had maybe just had a stroke of bad luck and that next time things would go more smoothly. However weeks, months, and years after that experience, I still get chosen for the random check no matter what store I go to. The only exception is when I am with my white husband or white best friend. Somehow the system just seems to be rigged against me. Go figure.
I have accepted that this is the way my life is. I don’t feel resentment for those who have it easier, all I want is for people to acknowledge that we are not all treated equally in the world. When someone tells you about their experience, whether it be with racism, sexism, ageism, or whatever ism it may be, don’t disqualify it or act as if it doesn’t exist. Try to put yourself in their shoes.
I think for me personally, more painful than the racism and sexism I encounter, is the betrayal I feel when those closest to me don’t believe me or minimize what I am going through. That hurts a lot more than you might think.
On this journey of anti-racism, I have lost many of the so-called friends I didn’t want to make uncomfortable in the past — including my best friend Joanna. I now have few friends in Switzerland where I live. Most of the support I get is from my readers from around the world. When I contemplate the situation, I sometimes find myself asking:
“Am I going too far in my fight against racism? Am I scaring away too many people in the process — especially those who don’t want to feel uncomfortable?”
And then I remind myself of the reality of what my life has been. Half a century of blatant and subtle discrimination, grotesque inequalities, and missed opportunities — all of this because I happen to be black. And I ask myself another question: What could I have achieved had I not been black?
Thanks for reading my perspective.