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Lessons I Learned from Loving Beyond the Color Line in My Interracial Friendship

By Perpetua Charles

Perpetua Charles and her friend Clara
Perpetua Charles and her friend Clara. Photo credit: Perpetua Charles

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Loving v. Virginia court decision that struck down anti-miscegenation laws across the United States. Thanks to this ruling, people across races could legally declare their love for each other through marriage. Sheryll Cashin’s new book, Loving: Interracial Intimacy in America and the Threat to White Supremacy, offers a history of interracial relationships in the United States and looks at how present interracial relationships will shape the future of the country. As I read Loving, I was struck by a short section near the end of the book. Cashin writes that one doesn’t have to marry, date, or adopt a person of another race to experience transformational love or to acquire what she calls cultural dexterity—an enhanced capacity for intimate connections with people outside one’s own tribe. An intimate friendship works just as well.

Cashin doesn’t use the word friend lightly, and neither do I.

My best friend Clara and I met at the start of our freshman year at Florida Southern College. We shared two classes together, and it was through the forced interaction that comes with being assigned to semester-long group projects that we became inseparable friends. Our interests were unendingly similar. We shared the same faith, had the same tastes in fashion, and crushed on the many of the same celebrities. It wasn’t long into that first year that we knew we wanted to be roommates for the next three years of college. Throughout those years, Clara, who hails from a small county in southern Florida, encountered a new culture, that of a black, Haitian-American woman. She developed a taste for my mom’s home cooking and an appreciation for the experiences of my immigrant family living in a country still divided by race.

Like the eighty percent of college freshmen Cashin said learn to see the perspective from of someone outside their race after socializing with them frequently, Clara also began to develop a unique perspective by spending time with me and my family. “I have her perspective now as well as mine,” she says. “I can’t truly empathize with how the black community feels or is treated, because I’ve never experienced it. But Perpetua has brought things to light for me that I wouldn’t normally have thought of, and that’s so important.”

Clara and I had shared many conversations about race over the years, about the conservative county where she grew up, about the stereotypes I was trying to break from even though I didn’t know how, and about how those experiences shaped the way we interacted with each other. One of the most important conversations about race we had occurred in the fall of 2014, just a couple of days before Thanksgiving, when the news that Darren Wilson had not been indicted for the killing of Michael Brown had broken. At the time, I was just beginning to uncover and understand for myself the extant power structures in the nation that allow things like this to occur and that had, and continue, to shape my life. Despite the discussions we’d had, they were nothing like this one, where we were forced to examine our place and our roles in a society more racist than we’d realized.

LovingHurt, confused, and lacking the full vocabulary required to discuss the nuances of the issue, we felt distant from each other. For the first time, we weren’t able to see life from the other’s perspective. In the early years of our friendship, even I had considered us to be a colorblind duo. Race and its many concerns didn’t seem apply to us. But when I allowed myself to open up to the truth of racial tensions in America and found that Clara for a time could not and would not follow, I was faced with the reality that her privilege as a white woman was what allowed her the power to refuse. Like the first time I recognized race as a preschooler holding hands with a white classmate, I was once again starkly reminded that I was black and Clara was white. What did that mean for us? I wasn’t sure how our friendship could continue if Clara didn’t have a willingness to listen and learn alongside me.

After a couple of days of separation and reflection, we talked through our hurt and committed firmly to taking the time to listen to each other’s feelings and concerns surrounding race and race relations. We knew the foundation of our friendship was solid and that none of the culture-swapping we’d done in years previous had been a front. What we didn’t know, and perhaps hadn’t been willing to accept before, was that our friendship couldn’t simply be about all the ways that we were similar. However unimportant it had once seemed that she was white and I was black, we couldn’t deny the significance of our dynamic in the context of our country’s history and of our current society. Our racial differences, our conversations about them, and our determinedness to make that an asset to our relationship rather than a drawback, are what makes our friendship so rich.

In the years since that tough discussion, Clara’s cultural dexterity and her ability and willingness to engage with race has increased. There is an honesty to our discussions now that’s allowed us to “transcend ancient color lines” as Cashin calls them, and become truly intimate in our interracial friendship. Clara says that our friendship and the current race relations in the country have opened her eyes a great deal. “They opened my eyes to what she sees and feels. I am a white woman, so I’ve never felt or been subjected to her experiences and fears…and it makes me sad. I want her to feel secure.” Clara may not be able to empathize with the fear I’ve felt being pulled over by the police, or known the sting that comes with being followed closely in a department store, but she listens and acknowledges my feelings. “I don’t want to be unapproachable when she needs to talk about race with me and I try to be sensitive to that. This friendship has been so wonderful to me, and there are special moments we’ve shared that I wouldn’t have been able to share with my white friends.”

I’ve always considered my friendship with Clara to be extraordinary. She is my sister and my confidante. She has supported me in ways few others could, and though the color line has tried to separate us, we celebrate our closeness today in the spirit of Mildred and Richard Loving—boldly and openly.

 

About the Author 

Perpetua Charles joined Beacon Press in June 2015. She is a graduate of Florida Southern College and earned her MA in Publishing and Writing from Emerson College 2015.

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