Some of My Best Friends Are White

Gregory E. Johnson
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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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I like them, they like me, we have interesting and thought-provoking conversations and then we leave and go about our personal business. The relationship that I have with my Spin class has made me aware that it’s possible to know there’s a lot of racism in our society and institutions but to realize that I don’t have to project that onto all of my daily interactions. It has occurred to me that a lot of white people have good intentions but sometimes may not know how to express them in the face of the racism that exists in the U.S.—and that affects all of us.

I worry that too many black people fail to make a distinction between good intentions gone wrong and subtle racism. Sometimes white people simply don’t know they’re being offensive because, unless they were raised in black neighborhoods, the only image they have of black people is what they see on television. That’s ignorance and cluelessness, but it’s not hate.

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Not all black people enjoy Tyler Perry movies, rap music or BET. I know I certainly don’t (although I am a big fan of Being Mary Jane). And white people are as diverse, flawed and complicated as we are. But that doesn’t mean their every action should be scrutinized through the lens of “the r-word” and that we should feel personally offended and cut them off as friends if they make a misstep.

This isn’t just about being nice to white people. There’s a practical side to it, too. As a photographer, I sell most of my work to the white community, so I benefit from having strong relationships across cultures. If I had a negative attitude, assumed that white folks were all out to get me or became deeply offended and shut down at every perceived slight, I certainly wouldn’t have a market for my work (or, at least, I’d have a limited one). I also wouldn’t have a chance to develop the kinds of relationships that can make my white friends more aware of the black experience (versus just afraid to say anything that will get them in trouble).

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In the face of media exploitation of the black experience, perhaps we should consider not being defensive about every unintended awkward statement made by white people and try to see the good that is possibly intended. Perhaps we should focus on the long game and build the type of relationships that might ultimately dismantle the stereotypes and unconscious biases that we all harbor. Eventually, I believe, this could lead to more friendships, less ignorance and fewer headlines about racist tragedies. Until then, you can find me and some of my best white friends at Spin class every morning.

Gregory E. Johnson is a native of Ohio who now resides in Nashville, Tenn. He is a photographer and a certified Spin instructor. His writing has been featured in the New York Times as well as various health and wine publications.

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