Ronan Carroll did not understand the concept of race. He watched these old movies—or movies about olden times—and he thought Wow, people really were so stupid back then, treating black characters as less than human or segregation as normal. It was an atrocity.
Ronan Carroll was, of course, white.
It was a while before Ronan actually encountered what he could undeniably classify as racist behavior in his own time and place. He was growing up in a part of the United States with less than two percent African American population. Growing up he didn’t really have any close friends who were black and frankly, he was embarrassed about that. When he did meet black people, he would try to be friends with them—he would even go out of his way to. But to no avail. Personality clash, presumably. He just hadn’t met the right black person.
Come to think of it, it eventually occurred to him, I have kind of similar problems when it comes to women. Not that he didn’t have friends who were women—actually most of the people he considered friends were women—but none of those women wanted to be any more than friends. Which is fine, he tried to tell himself, but secretly he resented their absence from that part of his life.
“I’ve actually been thinking of going gay,” he once said to the one gay friend that he managed to have, a guy named Brodie. “Doing you think I could pull that off? I mean, I know that it’s not a choice and all that, can’t choose who you love, right? But I mean, I don’t know, sometimes I wonder…” Sometimes, actually, he wondered if his gay friend Brodie might not actually have a crush on him, which would be flattering, he thought. But he didn’t want to ask in case it got awkward.
The problem was, he didn’t really have any friends who were straight white men, either. Straight white men scared him, to be perfectly honest. Actually, black men scared him, too, but for the same reason: they were men. And men like to play games. Hungry, angry little power games using testosterone playing cards where the loser ends up looking like a loser and he always ended up losing because he never even knew he was playing until it was too late. This was why most of his friends were women. Women probably play games, too, he thought in moments of honesty, but with them, I can’t even tell if I do lose. Aside, of course, from maintaining his chastity.
This was actually why he was relieved when he found out about Brodie. He had been nervous around Brodie, he realized, because of the way he looked, like a big, burly, hairy bouncer who eats raw chicken whole and chicken-liver’d wusses’ livers by the pound before heading off to the steel-mill in the morning. But then at a cast party, Brodie brought along his boyfriend (who was black, as it turned out, but not quite as friendly with Ronan) and suddenly, Ronan’s entire image of him changed. This wasn’t the kind of guy who would crack his knuckles, beat his brow and shame you—well, that part maybe, but only if he deserved it. This was the kind of guy Ronan could go out and have a drink with and have a good, not-antagonizing time.
But that was all over now. They hadn’t talked in months. Brodie told his friends Ronan had just gotten too clingy, too needy. “Straight guys,” he said, shaking his head. “They just don’t know when to stop!”
Which was why Ronan was sitting here in the food court at the mall. He needed more friends—a more diverse set of friends—so he had put an ad out on craigslist and a few other places asking people who were off the Straight, White, American, Able-Bodied Male-beaten path to hang out for some speed-friending. It was so stupid. He even knew it was stupid, but he liked doing stupid things. And, being a Straight White American Able-Bodied Male himself, he had the luxury of doing so with impunity whenever his Straight White American Able-Bodied Male heart desired.
He didn’t actually expect anyone to show up. Actually, he was actively hoping no one would show up, if only to prove to him just how stupid he actually was for doing this. More Straight, White, American, Able-Bodied Males needed to be proven stupid like that—for him it was a matter of pride.
But someone did show up.
Tabby Williams was pretty much exactly what he was hoping for. She was so different from him, it was crazy. She was a fifty-year-old black lesbian who worked at a dry-cleaning service—not doing the dry-cleaning, just the customer service part—and then it turns out her son who she had when she was sixteen is in jail, which is a cliché, if you think about it, but statistically maybe isn’t it also pretty much on the nose?
Secretly, Ronan had to admit he was a little disappointed this black woman wasn’t also secretly trans, but then before he could even stop and count his chickens, another new friend stopped by with a smile. This was a young woman who looked Asian and also looked like she was possibly new to being a woman. “Hi,” she said (Careful you don’t misgender her, Ronan thought.) “Sorry I’m late, I just came straight from Temple.”
Temple? As in Synagogue? This was a Jewish Asian Trans-woman?
She introduced herself with a name that sounded hard to pronounce and impossible to remember, or vice versa, “But you can just call me Kimmy, everybody else does.”
Kim? So she was Korean? Nice. “Well, welcome,” said Ronan, and introduced Tabby and himself, whereupon he gave a brief run-down of Tabby’s background.
“Now hold on,” Tabby interrupted him before he got to the part about the son in prison, “I just gotta ask, what’s your gimmick, boy?”
Ronan remembered something about black people and the word “boy”… Oh, that’s right, you’re not allowed to call them that, That’s okay, then. “Well,” he answered, “like I said in the ad, I’m just trying to get to know more people who are different from me.”
Ronan took a deep breath. How far into this should he go? How quickly? He decided to dive in: “I don’t like straight white American men. Cis-men,” he caught himself, for Kimmy’s benefit. “I’m trying to diversify.”
“So that’s all I am to you?” said Tabby. “Just a token black lesbian?”
“You’re not a token,” he assured her, “I’m just trying to figure out how other people think.”
Ronan sensed a trap. He had said something wrong—although he wasn’t sure of any other way to phrase it.
“Listen up, white boy,” said Tabby, “if the only reason you want to be friends with me is ‘cause I’m black, then, what’s the difference ‘tween that and hating me for being who I am? It’s still reducing my black ass to a buncha damn lables.”
Ronan felt confident there was a flaw in this logic somewhere, but was too flabbergasted just now to figure out just exactly what it was. He began, “I’m just trying to—“ Open a door, is what he’d wanted to say, but his target audience was already getting up out of her rickety-cheap mall-food chair.
“You know what,” she said, “I don’t need this shit. Read some damn Crenshaw and get back to me, you know what? White boy!”
Ronan wasn’t sure why the woman was upset. What had he done wrong? As she walked away, he turned to Kimmy, who seemed equally dumbfounded.
This, at least, proved to be a fairly promising budding friendship. They talked until the food-court runners kicked them out, covering topics from K-pop (about which Ronan knew nothing) to classical mythology (about which Kimmy knew very little) before settling on the old standard of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
“We should do this again sometime,” Ronan said on their way out to the parking lot.
“Well, why do we have to stop?” asked Kimmy. “I live just five minutes down the road.” She pointed off towards the general direction of the university.
Ronan started to get the distinct impression she was hitting on him, and this brought on an avalanche of questions on propriety. It honestly hadn’t occurred to him before that a trans-woman interested in men might some day take a liking to him, and he wasn’t sure how he felt about the prospect. He knew—or thought he knew—how he should feel, that it didn’t matter, that she was still a woman regardless of what she’d been assigned at birth, and yet he couldn’t stop his thoughts from drifting to the perhaps-suddenly-relevant question of anatomy, which he knew was not an appropriate question, but if the person was making advances, did the rules change? Until finally, he realized Kimmy had never actually introduced herself as trans, so now he was wondering if he was, in the end, misgendering, or something.
“It’s okay to say no,” said Kimmy, as thought she’d been half-expecting it.
“Oh, of course,” said Ronan. “Um… But, like, no, we should definitely, um, we should definitely do this again. Soon, I’ll, uh, do I have your…”
They exchanged numbers and he did eventually text her, he just realized he had some soul-searching and some research to do first, if he really wanted to make his life different.