When we started working together–a Latina heteroflexible/queer woman (Luz) from low-socioeconomic status and a white lesbian upper middle class woman (Judy) of similar ages in similar jobs–we weren’t quite sure whether we were going to be friends or not.
Race is never neutral, and it’s not neutral in professional relationships or friendships.
From Luz’s perspective: I was becoming close with one black queer women and one Afro-Latina heteroflexible woman, both professionals on campus. As a women of color, these two individuals represented an opportunity to potentially be my full authentic self, as much as possible given the other social factors at play.
From Judy’s perspective: I was becoming close with two white queer women professionals on campus. It felt easy to connect with these women who shared so many of my identities, and our friendships accelerated faster than with any of my colleagues of color or straight colleagues. I absolutely think the combination of whiteness and queerness in particular meant that I assumed we had more in common than colleagues of other identities.
Even as we developed other campus connections, we tried to suss each other out.
From Judy’s perspective: We had a lengthy one-on-one dinner and it seemed to go well, we talked about our families, compulsive heterosexuality, how we used to dress when we were younger, and so on. I thought, yay! We are going to be friends! What I didn’t think about at the time was that we had not explicitly talked about race or class at all, though both implicitly came up in some of the stories we shared. In retrospect now, two years later, I think I probably came off as friendly but naive, unaware and/or uncaring about the realities of racism and classism Luz has faced on a regular basis.
From Luz’s perspective: At previous institutions, the majority of my interactions with white folks who called themselves social justice educators often consisted of individuals dismissing me or trying to silence me. This ultimately lead to many of them labeling me as a “threat” because I was firm in my social justice values and the importance of this work in higher education. Therefore, I did not have any expectations for my first dinner with Judy and nothing particularly stood out to me in terms of a friendship outside of work, but there was hope for a good working relationship. Although, I don’t remember too many details I do remember sharing stories about our experiences in college, mostly focusing on gender expectations, gender expression, and sexuality. This was Judy’s area so I knew we would be able connect on these terms without getting into the realities of racism and white supremacy. Most importantly I was assessing Judy’s potential to be an accomplice, someone that I could reach out during the difficult times to come. An accomplice is someone who can “fight back or forward, together, becoming complicit in a struggle towards liberation versus allyship which is often performative and temporary with very little to no risk” (from “Accomplices Not Allies: Abolishing the Ally Industrial Complex: An Indigenous Perspective). Overall, it was a good first dinner with a colleague that wasn’t awkward, and with no racist remarks. I walked home thinking she was cool and that was pretty much it. Unlike Judy, I was not surprised that we didn’t discuss race and class overtly nor did I expect this “meeting” to be different.
We then did quite a lot of work together in that first semester, and again the question seemed to come up: were we just colleagues? Or would we also be friends?
From Luz’s perspective: As time went on, Judy kept inviting me to more social gatherings and more often than not I was emotionally and psychologically drained from the politics and racial battle fatigue. I also knew that there would be very few people of color at the gatherings, because there weren’t many young professional of color at our institution. In my work I am constantly engaging with the realities of institutional racism, my racial and ethnic identity, and my vulnerabilities as point of access and often times “educational opportunities” for others. I was not interested in volunteering myself to be in a social setting with white folks that had not earned my trust. The risk seemed too high. I also learned very early on that folks can’t separate their professional lives/selves from the personal, particularly when it comes to women and women of color. The scrutiny is real and often can make existing within systems even more difficult to navigate and add an additional load to the emotional and psychological cost of doing this work as a women of color at a predominately white institution.
From Judy’s perspective: I had been inviting Luz to a couple of young professional happy hours and she never came. I wasn’t sure why not, but thought maybe I wasn’t interesting enough and I was feeling hurt. I also knew that she worked really hard and worried that she was feeling lonely. I realized it was stupid for me to wallow and assume I could know what Luz was thinking, so I decided to ask her about it directly at the end of a phone check-in we were having. I said something like, “I’ve noticed that you don’t seem interested in coming to group hang-outs, so I wasn’t sure if it’s because you just couldn’t come or if you’d rather not be asked because of professional/personal boundaries…” Luz shared that often in professional social gatherings, it still felt like work, and she didn’t want to expend the energy, especially when she wasn’t sure whether she wanted to invest the time in getting to know folks, especially because of how often white people microaggress her in professionals and social situations.
I remember thinking, “Woah, I never thought about that at all.” She was really frank with me in that phone conversation and it helped me think more critically about the race dynamics of social situations with work people, and about how lily-white my friend group really was. It also made me realize that if I wanted to show Luz I was someone worthy of her friendship, we would have to build trust in one-on-one conversations and get-togethers, that just inviting her to the mostly white gatherings I was hosting and assuming she would just become part of the group was flawed and racist, because it assumed she should assimilate to my way of socializing and my pre-existing friends.
That conversation was critical. It helped us both realize that maybe there was the possibility of connection beyond our work selves.
To be continued in Part II…