Mary Lou Sanelli
Mary Lou Sanelli

Well, well, well, my old friend is a racist.

The reason I believe this?

Well, say your old friend invites you over, and before you know it you are telling her all about the dance festival in Utah you just returned from, how you could barely take in the enormity of so much red rock and open space and how the local students each had three, four, five siblings, so you can definitely see that the population will grow.

And she says, “Well, at least they will all be white.”

Wait, excuse me? You had to hear it to believe it. Or at least I did.

I felt a lump in my throat.

I rarely use the word “offended.” It’s the 2000s, after all.

Even if we gloss over it, offense is like rust — it’s everywhere. Instead, I chose another word, one any good ex-New Yorker mutters under her breath at a time like this. A word that unconsciously always, or almost always, slips out when I’m under extreme pressure.

How I wish I could get a handle on that word.

Mentally, I crossed her off my list. There was no reason not to. Right?

No, wrong.

I would find it very hard to say goodbye. She has been a friend in many ways, for many years. And we — at least I — can tire of making new friends. I deserve to rely on friends who know me and who I know.

Or think I know.

If we must accept who our friends have become, or want to become, and who we’ve become in their eyes — accept the good, the bad and the cranky — does this also mean we need to accept a blatant racist streak?

With complicated questions, you should always expect complications.

And so, I reminded her that there was a time not terribly long ago when Italians were not considered white. Not white enough for how white was defined by certain New England circles in the 1900s, anyway. Or by Hitler.

“Oh, Italians are white,” she nodded.

I will never forget how much this seemed to matter to her.

I think now as I look back on that conversation, that part of the reason I stayed was because of a sound that occurred after we (briefly) discussed vaccines, another subject that can become as heated as religion or politics, depending on what household you find yourself in.

She has no tolerance for anti-vaxxers who I prefer to call vax-questioners. I got my Pfizer, yes, but the truth is, as long as I’m working so hard to tell it, I didn’t want to. And I defended my lack of total trust by saying, “Remember DuPont?”

“What about DuPont?” she said.

So, off I went into my best know-it-all voice, “They manufactured PTFE resin, better known as Teflon. Ring any bells?” She shook her head.

“$16.5 million settlement with EPA.”

I tell this story a lot, so the rest rolled out in one long sentence.

“The company knew all along that it was bad for you and it’s nearly a cliché by now: A publicly traded company holds the patent on a product that they know causes health problems, but they also know they stand to make millions, possibly billions, so they go ahead with it and bury the reports or hire their own scientists to write the reports.”

She walked right out of the room.

And what did she do next?

She walked right back in. “You always think things like that,” she said.

I had no idea what “that” she was talking about. But I took it as a compliment.

“It’s our job to question everything,” I said. “Like your crazy racist views. How will they ever make the world a better place?”

It was a blurt, sad to say.

Except it made me very happy. Brushing off my question with a wave of her hand, she stuck out her tongue and made that neighing noise, like a horse makes with its lips.

You can picture it between two old friends. That sound.

But I heard in it something else — love. Or whatever cliché-ridden thing you want to call it when you know someone appreciates all of you. Even in the face of shame.

It’s hard to know when we should argue a point with friends, which is difficult, or back off completely, which is even more difficult (for some of us). But Lord knows, change has never come quickly as a stream of protest images. It’s more about persistence and vigilance.

So, the way I will handle going forward is with vigilance as it’s always been: messy and plodding. Graceless as a trapped dog. Slow as a slug.

Every time I see my friend I will say one thing, drop one seed, to convince her how wrong she is. Even if she can never be convinced of anything at all.

 

Mary Lou Sanelli is a Seattle author, speaker and master dance teacher. Her newest collection of essays, “Every Little Thing,” will be published in the fall of 2021. For more information about her and her work, visit www.marylousanelli.com.