My best friend is black. Her name is Nicole, and we have been friends for 20 years. She and I have been friends through deaths, births, marriages, divorces and a myriad of other experiences. Her dad was a surrogate to me after my father died in 1991, and her house was my home when my mom was absent for whatever reason. Nicole is probably the better friend between the two of us, but she would never hold that against me. She is my family, and I love her. We would talk on the phone for hours when we were in high school. My father could never understand what we had to say to each other since we had spent most of the day together. When it was time to get off, he would gruffly say, "Write her a letter, Lina. Get off the phone now." (BTW you pronounce "Lina" with a long I like in Carolina...it was my dad's nickname for me since in Spanish my named is spelled this way). And whenever Nicole would call, she was unphased by his snarky remarks, "Hello, Nicole. Whatever do you want?" "Good evening, Mr. Bradley, may I speak with Caroline?" Somehow she was always able to engage him in some small talk before I finally got the phone. She liked my dad, and I think he begrudgingly like her, too.
Sometime towards the end of my sophomore year, right before school let out for the summer, Nicole was over at my house while my dad was out of town and decided she wanted to meet him in person. "I like your dad even if you think he is mean. I want to meet him," Nicole said matter-of-factly. I froze and searched for a reason why this was not a good idea. After listening to her keep bugging me about it, I blurted out, "He is prejudiced. He doesn't like Black people, and I can't let him meet you. He doesn't know you are black, and he will flip out to know you were ever here." And her response is why I am still her friend. "We can just tell him I am Puerto Rican. They aren't really black. We can tell him I am just really tan." I told her she was crazy and that I didn't even know what Puerto Ricans looked like and that my dad was really smart and would see through that in a second and I didn't want her to get hurt. However, the discussion became a moot point. My dad died that summer after my sophomore year. He never got to meet Nicole, and despite knowing what he thought about Black people, she showed up at the funeral, as did her dad.
Nicole reminds me of the mythical Maniac Magee. Her ability to empathize with people is boundless. Though she recognizes with much ease that there are differences between people and is never afraid to have an honest conversation about race (The first thing she asked me when she introduced herself to me is whether I was Italian; no joke!), Nicole doesn't let those differences get in the way of seeing where that person is coming from and letting that person see where she is coming from as well. I love the bell hooks quote that opens the Enciso article, "Talking back meant speaking as an equal to an authority figure. It meant daring to disagree and sometimes it just meant having an opinion" (p. 13). There are times I think Nicole is color blind and there are other times when she isn't afraid to call people on their beliefs about race and culture. Because of her friendship, I am challenged to "talk back" and have those conversations that aren't always comfortable. I wish my dad would have met her. He would have loved her just as I do.