Jacob spent the night with my parents last night, so I took the opportunity to head over to South Street to reconnect with an old friend from high school, Mike D. I bumped into him a few weeks ago at the roller derby bout, and we arranged to meet at Tattooed Mom around 9 last night.

I haven’t seen Mike in about ten years. The last time I saw him, he was a skinny, kind of nerdy kid (like me) struggling to place himself in this crazy old world (also like me). Well, he’s no longer that skinny, nerdy kid. This is Mike now:

Really, this is one bad-ass dude. He has a septum piercing, more tattoos than I can count, and he is seriously ripped. Meanwhile, I’m still dorky. I felt cool by association last night, though.

So we sat at the bar for awhile, catching each other up on the last ten years. I’m fascinated with this idea of reconnection with someone after a long absence; so many things I remember about Mike are the same, and none of the changes seem incongruous. I think we transitioned pretty easily from interacting on the basis of what we knew about each other as kids to how we are now, and we had a good conversation.

Over the course of the evening, several of Mike’s friends drifted in from the street, and eventually we found ourselves upstairs in the backroom, lounging on comfortable couches and chairs. His friends Jason and Mike R., like him, are way into anime, CGI, gaming and comic books, so for a large portion of the evening I sat listening in awe as they talked about classic games and comics, new developments in the industry, and a whole shitload of other stuff I didn’t understand. It really was a foreign language to me, but they were so animated and excited about it. They tried several times to explain different concepts to me, which was helpful and fairly generous. Their passion for the genres was contagious, and now I’ve promised Mike D. that before I go out to start reading comics and graphic novels, I will give him a call so he can help me find the best ones.

What I found most interesting, though, was the comfort level these three (in particular; there were other guys there that I didn’t talk with as much) had with each other. Mike R. and Jason are black, and the three guys were tossing racial references and jokes around to each other like it was nothing. Considering that I’ve been reading lately some academic essays, memoirs and poetry on race and how it affects poetry, our relationships and our perceptions, I was really intrigued by this interaction – and I said as much. Jason, Mike D. and Mike R. indulged my curiosity and we had a pretty lengthy conversation about race and how they view their relationships.

These guys all know each other, apparently, through a comic book shop (some of them worked there, some of them were just frequent customers, I guess). Mike was quick to point out that he was the only white guy working there (and Jason backed him up, saying he’s now black by association), but that pretty much everyone who worked there was in an interracial relationship – including him (he’s dating an Asian woman).

Jason in particular talked about his views on race – which, he says, he hardly ever considers in earnest. The only time it becomes an issue for him is in his romantic relationships. He was quite candid about what kind of experiences he’s had with both black women and women outside of his race – black women, he said, are generally less accepting of him because of where his interests lie, namely in the world of anime, etc. He said he also gets a lot of flak for speaking “proper English,” as he called it – he often hears, “You think you white” (which is something that Toi Derricotte talks about in her memoir The Black Notebooks). He said he finds women who are not black are generally more accepting of his image and interest, so he often chooses to date outside his race. Probably his most candid quote of the night, though, came when comparing black women to white women:

You can say to a white woman, ‘Let’s go to the museum,’ and she says, ‘Ok.’ You can say to a black women, ‘Let’s go to a museum,’ and she says, ‘I ain’t go no homework!’

Jason pointed out to me that among their circle of friends, race is a constant presence in their conversations, but not in a conscious way – they refer to each other’s skin color and throw slang terms at each other in a spirit of friendship and mutual admiration, not as topics of heavy discussion. It’s a constant, comfortable acknowledgement, I think, of their differences and similarities. He agreed with me when I observed that a lot of white people are afraid to acknowledge race openly in conversation because they’re afraid of appearing racist (when they are, in fact, quite convinced that they’re not). He pointed out (at the same time I started to say it) that everyone is racist – and everyone is sexist, homophobic, ageist – at least a little bit. He also agreed that in order to really get past the issue of racism (or any other –ism), one has to be prepared to make mistakes and hurt people, ask for forgiveness, and really be prepared to be forgiven. I think part of what scares people, too, is that being forgiven often means continually acknowledging their blunders after they’ve been resolved – and after all, no one wants to relive their embarrassing moments, right?

For example: my friend Megan is biracial, and for years, we didn’t talk about this. I think partly we didn’t talk about it because it wasn’t important, but I would be foolish to acknowledge that I also didn’t know how to talk about it. Only once before this summer, really, did I comment on it: one day when we were considerably younger than we are now, Megan expressed that she was worried about coming into my house because of her appearance (I think she had braids in or something) – I told her, “It’s ok, because you’re ethnic.” I’m still not sure how Megan felt hearing that – maybe she thought it was funny, maybe it stung a little; I didn’t know then, and I don’t know now. But it’s a recurring joke with us – we remind each other of my stumble there, my inability to understand that there are more tactful and loving ways of acknowledging differences. Everytime we joke about it, I flush a little, still embarrassed at my clumsy attempt to dismiss her worry.

Last night’s conversation enlightening for me, because I know I was falling into the group of people afraid to acknowledge race. In this world where deliberate attempts to be color-blind for the sake of political correctness often mean talking awkwardly around obvious cues, I’m finding it increasingly comfortable to ask the questions I want to ask and say the things I want to say – and I’m prepared, as I mentioned above, to make mistakes and ask for forgiveness. I’m also prepared to be forgiven – even knowing that it means Megan and I will always talk about the fact that she’s “ethnic.”