(The Root) — When the Lena Dunham-created show Girls became a hit for HBO, one of the complaints was the show's lack of diversity despite being set in ethnically diverse New York City.
Well, as it turned out, Dunham admitted (in a more eloquent way than I'm about to put it) that she didn't write in black characters because she wrote about herself, and she essentially lives in a white world.
Apparently, statistics bear out that she's not alone. But at least she was honest.
According to a new Reuters/Ipsos poll, 40 percent of white Americans have no nonwhite friends. For nonwhites, 25 percent only hung out with members of their own race. This means that when that old chestnut "but some of my best friends are black" gets trotted out, about 40 percent of those folks are producing imaginary black friends.
Whom do we have to thank for this disappointing lack of diversity? It's the apparent mixed bag that was integration. Sure, things have changed a lot. I can totally use the same toilet as everyone else. Yet many black kids go to mostly black schools, thanks to "white flight." Sunday remains one of the most segregated days of the week, since most whites go to church with other whites, and the same goes for people of other races. Entire cities are still known for being segregated despite efforts at integration.
Girls still isn't very diverse. In fact, a lot of TV shows aren't. And New York City, for all its ethnic diversity, is one of the most segregated cities in the United States. So who's surprised that 40 percent of white people are living in a monochrome world?
For all the chatter about how America is running out of white people, white people remain 77.9 percent of the population. That's more than 240 million people out of a country of a little over 313 million. It's only mathematics that some of them would stay safely tucked away in the many, many mostly white enclaves of the U.S. and nary a brown face would be met — unless I moved there to take a small-town newspaper job.
Hi. Have we met? I'm Danielle Belton, a professional token. I was the person most likely to meet that 40 percent, since I was the only black person at my first three office jobs. After a brief stint as the only black person in an office in St. Louis, Mo., I went off to be the only black person in a newsroom in Midland, Texas, and Bakersfield, Calif. For some with whom I worked, I was a friendly curiosity, so I had to endure my fair share of dumb questions about hair and whether or not black people could tan.
Thanks to the glaring 40 percent, being a token is a burden that you can survive only if you go through all the stages of token grief. First there's denial. ("I can't be the first black person they've hired in three years here. Oh, wait, that person only lasted three months?") Then anger. ("The next time someone asks me if I'm mixed with something, I'm going to answer, 'Yeah, with slave master.' ") Bargaining. ("I guess the Beatles weren't necessarily thieves of black music for their entire oeuvre, so it's OK for me to like 'Rocky Raccoon.' ") Depression. ("I actually tried to explain a Dave Chappelle joke to my co-worker. I've turned into the damned 'Blackness Ambassador.' ") And finally acceptance.
That's when you decide you can either lament being the lonely only or go out there and make friends.
Part of the burden of blackness is that you have to be painfully aware of race at all times. Part of the privilege of being white is that you don't. For some of my co-workers, I was their first real, substantial friend who happened to be black. And some of those friendships became the most valued and amazing friendships of my life. I got to be myself (but not bitter), and they became more curious, and at times angry, about how little they knew about black history or black people. Then for some, there was that awkward conversation with their parents about what they were doing 50 years ago during the civil rights movement, and not always particularly caring for the response.
It's a challenging thing, at times, if you're not open-minded about making friends outside your racial comfort zone. And you have to be thick-skinned and open-minded to traverse those waters, set aside your own prejudices and get to that place of comfort where you can talk about race and privilege and culture and history, but also still talk about dating and family and work and all those other things that come with friendship.
Maybe now that she's become self-aware, Dunham is out collecting black friends like bottle caps. But ultimately, the burden of curing the 40 percent of their lack-of-black-friend problem isn't a black problem. It's not even necessarily a white problem. It's a problem of self-awareness that every individual must tackle on his or her own.
You can stay in your comfort zone or you can learn that your dad once screamed obscenities at black kids trying to go to school in the 1960s. You can stay in your comfort zone and last only three months as the only black person in the office.
You can stay in your comfort zone, but where's the fun in that?