Dealbreaker: I Was Her 'Black Friend'
Loving her from a distance meant never having to deal with how my feelings complicated my identity as a straight black woman.
In our Dealbreakers series, exes report on the habit, belief, or boxer brief that ended the affair.
When I met Sara, I had been in a long-term relationship with a man for 18 years, but I had never stopped flirting with women. I’ve always struck up friendships with other women that I sensed stretched beyond the platonic. But because I maintained a happy relationship with my boyfriend through it all, I managed to avoid confronting any questions about my sexuality. Then, Sara hit me with one of her brilliant smiles.
Sara had wild red hair, big brown eyes, and a live-in boyfriend. I worked with both of them, visited their home on several occasions, and even tolerated a three-hour flashlight tour of their garden, despite my serious disinterest in horticulture. God gave me black thumbs for a reason, but if it meant fumbling through the dark with Sara, I could stand discussing plants.
Even when her boyfriend James was around, I made ridiculous attempts to catch Sara's attention, never acknowledging to myself or others why I was doing it. I knew that Sara hated mac and cheese, so I arranged for 20 different people to remind her that it was being served in the work cafeteria that day. I hoped my harmless pranks would redirect her toward me throughout our early morning shifts, because my mind was constantly on her. Sometimes, I’d neglect my boyfriend on our only shared day off in favor of claiming a lawn chair at one of Sara’s garage parties. We’d blare Ani DiFranco and Melissa Etheridge and sip booze all afternoon. I told myself that what I was feeling was “girl power.” That’s one term for it.
I had been friends with Sara for about a year when I became aware that my feelings were more than friendly. But I reasoned that as long as we were just two friends with boyfriends, there was no point in mentally dissecting my attraction to her. Loving her from a distance meant never having to deal with how my feelings complicated my identity as a straight black woman. Being straight was simple. Confronting my potential bisexuality was not.
And so even while my mind investigated a deep inner life with Sara, I was content with a real-life friendship that at times only skimmed the surface. Unlike me, Sara had never attended university, and she wasn’t very well-read. An active union supporter, she was conscious of class dynamics, but she wasn't interested in the deep social criticism I tended to fall into with my other friends. Instead, our chats revolved around the people she disliked at work, her garden, and boyfriend troubles. I was more than willing to forgo mental stimulation in order to just listen to her talk.
Sara was not always as eager to hear what I had to say. When I’d tell her about an employee who had followed me in a store, or how disagreements with our office’s largely white managers were reduced to me being an “angry black woman,” her eyes glazed. My experiences of racism inevitably segued into Sara expressing our good fortune at living in multiracial Canada. Sara had discovered this in a textbook she read in high school, which had taught her just how equal we all are.
I knew that Sara had no idea what she was talking about—after all, she was white—but I always found a way to rationalize her views. Myself excluded, Sara didn’t regularly interact with people of color. Growing up, her father actually forbade her from doing so. Sara and I were both daughters of immigrants, but the details of our back stories couldn’t have been more different. My parents were black and from the Caribbean, and they struggled to secure educations and jobs that paid beyond subsistence. Even when my father completed his degree, he wasn’t paid a fair wage. Sara had never considered that her father may have assimilated to Canada so easily because he was a white man, a member of the most privileged group to walk the face of the Earth.
And despite my longstanding commitment to interrogating institutional racism, I never mentioned it, either—even when it became clear that Sara was beginning to use our relationship to excuse racism, not condemn it. Sara would freely discuss the racist views of her World War II veteran father, then conveniently distance herself from his attitudes because she claimed me as a friend. I labored to steer our conversations away from race, hoping to avoid the inevitable.
While Sara boasted about how her father landed two jobs his first day in Canada, I stayed silent on the struggles of my own immigrant parents. But my years of skirting the issue didn’t make it go away. On a work break one morning, Sara launched into a rant detailing how immigrants had snatched up all the jobs from the real Canadians. Affirmative action, she said, had made it "impossible" for a white man to become a police officer or fireman. She called this scenario “reverse racism.” For Sara, as long as “immigrants” was coded to mean people like her father—and not those like me or my family—their presence was acceptable. But if you were an immigrant of color, you were here to collect welfare, drink coffee all day long, and steal a white man’s job.
Sara didn’t seem to realize that she was talking about me. And I was embarrassed to admit to myself that in my confusion over my sexuality, I had failed to see Sara for who she really was, too.
After cooling off, I sat down with Sara and told her that if our friendship was going to survive, I would need her to recognize the experiences that I faced on a daily basis. For the first time in our relationship, I demanded that she listen to me. In response, she parroted that same high school textbook, which had told her everything she needed to know about multiracial, racially-tolerant Canada.
For Sara, our final talk was just a disagreement between friends. For me, it was the end of an affair that had lived and breathed largely in my own mind. Sara helped me learn that I was capable of loving a woman deeply. Now I know I don’t have to lose myself to do it.