Julien’s hand was outstretched towards the cashier, holding the currency for two takeaway coffees; his and mine. His face appeared as flint, oddly serious, given his recent offer to pay for my coffee. My face was frozen in a mixture of surprise and perplexion.
Now, I’m not sure I would have been right to call Julien a friend in that moment. I dearly would have liked to, as it would affirm one of my preferred self-narratives; namely that I’m woke, inclusive, unprejudiced, and outwardly-focused. But I don’t think it would’ve been accurate. Yet.
In that moment, had you been sitting at a nearby table, you may have looked up at the two of us and observed a few details:
You may have observed that I was a white, male, affluent, and in need of haircut. You will, no doubt, have seen that Julien was black, male, in his late thirties; more stylish than Kravitz in the 90s. His shoes alone (limited edition dazzling white Yeezy Boost High Tops) cost more than my entire wardrobe. You might also have let your eyes wander a little to take in his spectacular distressed stretch-denim Versace harem pants. A worthy sight.
But shoes and pants don’t tell the full story. And so you look a little closer. You see that the tote bag over his shoulder bears the coffee emblem of the cafe where he worked as a barista for eight years. The back of his neck carries the distress of a previous five-year stint as a car guard. You might even conjecture that the particularly furrowed brow was the result of his recent years as a stress-wearied father trying to float a small business. Had you done all that, you’d possess rare levels of insight indeed. But enough about you. More about me.
“You’re not paying for my coffee, Julien.” I chuckled nervously. “I’m buying. I was getting coffee anyway. And you’ve got a long day ahead of you. Let me get it.”
I was aware of how unconvincing it all sounded, but my unspoken motivations felt unacceptably patronising to say out loud. Acceptable to think, maybe. But, for Heaven’s sake, man, don’t say them:
(I give. You receive. That’s how it works.)
(I’m white and privileged. One of those privileges is to pay for stuff. That’s how it works.)
(My sense of well-being comes from how much I can give you. That’s how it works.)
(Christ’s love shines when I buy you things.)
“No,” he replied stubbornly. “I… am buying you coffee.” His tone, like his face, had hardened a little. He was painfully insistent. But as his tone hardened, something in me began to soften. It is more dignified to give than to receive.
“Done deal. Flat white. Thanks, Julien.”
if it’s truly better to give, then that privilege too, needs to be shared.
Eye-contact was essential; receiving the opportunity to receive is a delicate process. Sipping on my coffee, I enjoyed the slow soak realisation that, if it’s truly better to give, then that privilege too, needs to be shared. Perhaps one of the most invisible of all my many white privileges is that of perpetually hogging the seat of the alms giver.
Whether or not, he realised it, in the moment that Julien chose the position of the giver, he deftly balanced what previously could only have ever served as a wonky, lop-sided basis for connection. A one-way flow of generosity. But with the flow reversed and balance achieved, this new relational foundation could…finally…support something as precious as friendship.