Some of My Best Friends Are White

My Thing Is: I’m well aware that racism exists in our society, but I think we’re all better off if we make connections instead of looking for bigotry in every interaction.

The author (right) with a friend
The author (right) with a friend Courtesy of Gregory E. Johnson

While reading the many news stories that appear in my in-box each morning, I eventually get to the articles that center on race and racism. I save this part for last because know I’m going to read about an attitude or injustice that will piss me off, and I prefer to let my anger build up right before I go to the gym to work it off. 

A recent story that I needed to let off steam about was when a jury failed to convict Jordan Davis’ killer of first-degree murder. I couldn’t help feeling that it sent a strong message to white Americans that they can kill our young black men for anything or nothing, and that the justice system is just how Richard Pryor described it years ago when he said, “If you’re looking for justice, that’s just what you’ll find—just us.” The verdict seemed to say that instead of lynching black people, white people should just shoot them outright and claim that they were standing their ground.

I was outraged.

As you can see, I fully understand being angry about racism in society, and I know as well as anyone that this anger is justified. But what I worry about is that we can be so attuned to that harsh reality, it can cast a shadow over our interactions with individual white people—the very situations where there’s room for race relations to be healed and racism dismantled one-on-one.

I’m a certified Spin instructor, and I conduct daily classes at a local YMCA. Because I’m so riled up after reading my morning news about racist tragedies, the attendees get a really good workout. However, it just so happens that all the people who attend my class are white. It also just so happens that I like them and, as far as I can tell, they like me. 

I’ve been teaching at this particular gym since 2002, and the fitness coordinator who hired me, who happens to be white, takes pride in saying that I was the first Spin instructor she hired. Whenever we have a group fitness meeting, she mentions it to the other instructors. I don’t assume that she says this because I’m black. I think she says this because I’ve been teaching at the facility the longest, I’m really good at what I do and it shows in my attendees’ overall fitness. 

In my opinion, black people sometimes get the wrong impression of the intentions of white people. When my coordinator compliments me, I could easily take it as a message that she’s surprised a black man has stayed on a job. Or I could choose to see a stereotype-inspired message between the lines (“Lookie here, a black guy teaching a Spin class! How unusual!”). However, I choose to see her comments in a positive light and a reflection of the fact that she’s happy with my results.

That’s a decision I make because I don’t believe that scrutinizing every interaction with a white person for minor slights and “micro-aggressions” is ultimately helpful.

After my morning class ends, I go to breakfast with three of the members, who happen to be middle-aged white women (the majority of the class consists of middle-aged white women). It was their idea, not mine, to form a breakfast club, since we’re usually hanging out laughing about something that happened during class anyway.

Of course, sometimes when we walk into the restaurant, we get stares. And my wife, who is black, tells me that the ladies in my Spin class just want to be seen with a beautifully built, handsome black man. That may be the case (one of them did eventually marry an African dude), but honestly, the conversations that we have are interesting and diverse, and my students are kind and funny.