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The year is 2018. Guy is interested in girl. Girl is interested in guy. The two have known eachother for a while, and were now hanging out regularly enough in the preceding month that the relationship between them is seemingly leading toward a potential romantic situation.
Given the energy in the air, they discuss all the normal things that are part of that courtship process – work, passions, family and of course, friends.
SK: “My friend Jess is so funny. She’s actually about to start working at Soho House so that’ll be fun.”
SK: “Oh I was just in France a few months ago with my friend Andrea! Benefit Cosmetics took her on a brand trip and I was her plus-one. She was basically my sugar…mama. A friend with benefit? Haha.”
SK: “I might be going to Asia with my friend Tova, soon. She’s an expert traveler. You think I’m points and miles obsessed? Tova is like next level. She has status on like every airline.”
(Okay, I know I sound like a cliché millennial right now and in some ways I am. But we all try to sound impressive and cooler than we actually are while in the courtship phase, right?!)
HIM: “You have a friend named Tova?! Is she Jewish?”
ME: “No, she’s Black.”
HIM: “Oh” [taken aback]
ME: “Yeah haha everyone thinks that because her name is Tova, you know, ‘Shana Tova.’”
HIM: “Oh, how do you know her? Did she go to USC?”
ME: “No, Stanford. She’s one of my closest friends – she’s super close with Jess and Andrea, too.”
HIM: “Oh, what are Jess and Andrea?”
ME: “They’re also Black. Well, mixed. But yeah. Similar.”
For someone who had only known me from afar for years, this new information – the revelation that I had close Black friends – seemed to startle him.
(According to my natal chart, I’m highly intuitive. And yes, I’m fully aware that referencing my astrologically-influenced personality traits makes me once again sound like a cliché millennial. Oh well.)
Whether warranted or not, I had always gotten the impression that this guy looked at me as one of those, um, “cool” brown girls – a social butterfly always doing something interesting, not super eager to settle down.
He was intrigued by my creative endeavors and had an idea of who I was and the life he thought I lived. He himself was of a similar ethnic background and in a similar industry – on the surface, we appeared quite like-minded.
If his energy shift wasn’t noticeable after the mention of one Black friend, it was certainly noticeable after the mention of three. Three friends I had periodically talked about over the course of this courtship, three friends whose names, well…sounded White.
After recognizing the shift – from flirty to now more reserved – I immediately started thinking about his West LA life. Sure, he had a diverse group of friends, but his version of diversity was white and other non-Black races. Was that intentional, or just coincidence? Was he judging me for my choice of friends? And worse, was there something culturally wrong with that choice? Were we similar at all?
Following that hang, the situationship fizzled. I had told Andrea about it, and mentioned to her that he felt weird after the race discussion. Even though I could sense something was off, my people-pleasing desire and reluctance to ever rock the boat (my moon is in Libra, after all) prevented me from directly questioning him as to why he felt different.
Courtship or not, we were friends and I didn’t want to make the friendship awkward, right?
Not challenging him is something I deeply regret. (And something I didn’t think about, honestly, until this past month.)
Fast-forward to June 2020: race is at the forefront of the national conversation after the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Eljiah McClain and so many other Black Americans. Protest coverage has dominated the once-COVID obsessed news channels. Twitter is filled with outrage and difficult to watch clips that show use of force by those in authority.
As for my Facebook newsfeed? My South Asian and Arab peers use their platform to address the prevalence of anti-Black racism in those minority communities.
Some pointed out that the shop owner that called police on George Floyd was Arab and Muslim. Indian friends spoke about the biases that their own family members had. TV writer Sameer Gardezi continued to passionately speak out about anti-Black issues in the community – a cause he’s cared about for years, far before it became the national trend to so.
After scrolling through my Facebook feed, reading post after post, that’s when this epiphany struck: was I friendzoned by this guy back in 2018 because I had Black friends? Was he guilty of this unspoken anti-Black bias? He never appeared outwardly racist, but…was he unconsciously biased?
I couldn’t help but think back to that moment when his shift in body language immediately made me feel like I was being judged. But – was I jumping to conclusions? My inner voice jumped in.
INNER VOICE: Are you sure he acted differently after learning your friends were Black?
INNER VOICE: What did he say next?
SK: I can’t remember. I think nothing? Sorry, it was a while ago.
INNER VOICE: Then how can you know?
SK: I just…I dunno. I have a feeling.
INNER VOICE: What does that mean?
SK: I have a feeling. Just…trust me. [PAUSE] You know, Maya Angelou — my birthday soulmate who was also born on April 4 – once famously said: People will forget what you said, forget what you did, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel.
So… as much as I wanted to believe that I was misremembering the situation, unfortunately, that feeling is one I’d encountered a few times in my three decades of life as a not-your-average brown girl. The disappointed feeling a guy gives off when you suddenly fail to meet their traditional expectations of you.
A feeling which implies that you’re doing something…wrong.
Even when you really aren’t.
(A guy once told his friend he shouldn’t pursue me because I was too “modern” – he had drawn that conclusion because I had highlights. Yeah. Highlighted hair. Maybe he was just upset my hair was visible to begin with?)
That being said…I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that this epiphany got me thinking about future potential courtship scenarios. Was I going to have to give a disclaimer every time I was intrigued by someone who happened to be from a South Asian or Arab background? Was this bias against a minority community really that commonplace in these other minority communities? If it wasn’t them judging, would their parents or grandparents be?
SK: Hey, before this goes any further, you should know that half my bridal party will probably be Black girls (well, I mean unless we have drama and a falling out) and that they’ll be in our wedding photos.
HIM: Oh. I was just wondering if you wanted to start with an appetizer. Fried cauliflower, maybe?Hypothetical future first date (even though I don’t “date” and instead prefer group hangs)
That seems awkward.
Anyway. I decided not to think about it anymore, because well, I knew there was no inner conflict to debate. If someone was going to have an issue with who my friends were, it says more about them than it does about me, right?
But…on a deeper level, I couldn’t help but keep thinking about it (sorry it’s what my brain does, it thinks. A lot. It’s a fun place to be, except when you have other things to do. Anyway.) I began to wonder why my social life was different from your average Pakistani-American girl; I wasn’t just a brown girl with a bunch of brown friends, or the token brown girl in sea of white faces at brunch (though I do love brunch. And I do have brown and white friends, too.)
I was lucky in that I wasn’t raised in a household that preached negative stereotypes when it came to the Black community. But even with that, wouldn’t that just make me neutral?
Why was I so…comfortable? I didn’t just have “that one Black friend” – I had several. And some were part of my inner circle.
I reflected on my formative years, attending a predominantly white elementary school in Fresno, CA. My 2nd grade teacher was Black – could she be why?
While I really liked Mrs. Williams (being able to announce the weather forecast in class was my first attempt at my future career as a news anchor), I still didn’t really know her like that. My 2nd grade teacher couldn’t be the reason why, 15 years later, I easily befriended these girls, could it?
As I continued to reflect, it hit me. I’ve joked that “I was raised by a Pakistani mother and an American television” – maybe there was more truth to that than I thought?
Every day after school, I spent hours in front of the TV. Oprah and syndicated sitcoms, including Family Matters and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, were my daily source of entertainment in the 90s. The image of a powerful and relatable Black woman speaking about issues of importance to a diverse audience, of a middle-class family man who works as a cop and of an Los Angeles family with a judge as the head of the household – those were my earliest memories of Black Americans.
Immersing myself in the lives of the Winslows and the Banks’ was what I did. They were the friends whose homes I “visited” every day after school.
Oprah was my 90s TV mom. Laura Winslow and Ashley Banks were characters I related to simply because they were daughters – I didn’t see them as different because of our skin tone. Instead, I found them to be just like me; found common ground in that identity of “daughter.” They were my virtual friends.
The Winslow household. Pictured in yellow? My “friend” Laura
Maybe Jess, Tova and Andrea were just the real life version of the pseudo-relationships with Laura and Ashley that I had formed as a child? But instead of that shared identity of “daughter”, it was the shared identities of “world traveler” and “food lover” and “ambitious” and “creative” and “entrepreneurial” that bonded us instead.
And those bonds were deeper than just superficial friendships. Jess was the sofa I crashed on when I needed a place to stay; Andrea was the one I called to creatively brainstorm with for hours on end; Tova was the emotional rock during pivotal life moments in recent years (from confronting exes to conversing with me while hospitalized in a foreign country… a hospitalization I avoided telling my mom about because I didn’t want to worry her. Though Tova is a Capricorn just like my mother so in a way, it was kind of like talking to my mom? Same energy.)
And of course there are differences between us. But – aren’t there differences with everyone? I had just as much in common (if not more) with these girls as I did with those whose parents were simply also from Pakistan or India. At the end of the day, we were all just human – isn’t that the most important identity?
I guess that’s why I’ve always valued the power of storytelling and why I went into it professionally in the first place. I was never trying to tell stories for “my” people — I just wanted to tell stories so that any person – my ethnic background or not – could find some commonality.
Thinking back to the guy who (allegedly) friendzoned me, maybe he didn’t have the same positive experiences I had growing up. Maybe he had people around him who subscribed to a prejudiced way of thinking? Maybe he’s aware of his unconscious bias, but is now trying to change?
Did his discomfort that day come from having an actual negative racial bias or was it just a…white-sounding-name bias? Was he not anti-Black, but rather, just guilty of something a lot of minorities are susceptible to – overvaluing proximity to whiteness?
I’m not quite sure. And I’m still not a confrontational person (the most I can do at this stage in my self-development and exploration process is Taylor Swift him– and by that I mean write about it in my art i.e. this blog post, and hope he gets the message.)
Interestingly enough, he did reappear in my life a few months ago (any single female can attest to the early days of the COVID era bringing many ghosts of situationships past back into the mix.) As he prodded and curiously inquired as to where I was at as far as dating and availability, I was cordial, but knew in the back of my mind that we could never work.
Jess, Andrea and Tova were my friends in 2018, and they were still my friends in 2020.
Recommended Listening: Spice Girls Wannabe
I won’t be hasty, I’ll give you a try…
If you really bug me then I’ll say goodbye.
(Sorry, this song selection was just too easy and obvious, guys. Enjoy. I’ll see you next week — 💜 SK)
Brittany, Tova, Me and Andrea as bridesmaids at our friend Mari’s wedding (Nov. 2019 – Scottsdale, AZ)
START THE JOURNEY FROM BLOG #1: Am I Too Scared To Start Things?
Questions? Comments? Suggestions? Email Samia Khan directly!