The Problem With Being Earnest: The Great White Guilt


Artie was a fan of my writing before he became my friend, though “friend” isn’t really the right word. He seemed normal enough at the outset, “aspiring internet tastemaker” thing aside. He did it well enough to accumulate followers and bylines at over-hyped web publications. More importantly, he was getting paid for it — though who knows how much. Between whip-smart observations, he served up biting social commentary; I was so intrigued by his brevity and wit. I should’ve known things were going to get weird.

We Tweeted, corresponded by email, G-chatted and, after exchanging a fair number of texts, I agreed to meet up with him one night – I didn’t see any reason not to – I was bored and there wasn’t anything else going on.

He suggested I meet him for a drink in SoHo; a curious offer on his part, given he didn’t know what I looked like. To be fair, my impression of him was based on icon-sized photos attached to social networking profiles and strings of author bios: he came across as a physically-imposing black guy with a preference for fitted hats and sassy GIFs featuring rappers above all other musicians. That I included the color of his skin as a descriptor bothered me; does it smack of passive racism if you identify every person by the color of their skin — even the white ones? The thought stopped me cold: was that racist? Does that make me racist? Could I identify a person saying the color of their skin the same way I would their hair or eyes? There wasn’t enough time to tackle that line of thought, not when every guy standing alone in a ten-foot radius was a potential Artie, fingers flicking through contact lists and text messages, facial features unappealingly lit by the blue glow of LCD screens. I made sure to arrive early, and posted up a few feet from the door to wait.

A blue fitted cap floating a head and a half above the rest of the crowd caught my attention. I hesitated only a moment before calling out his name, hand up to alert him of my presence. Artie nodded and I let out the breath I didn’t know I’d been holding; how embarrassed would I have been had it not been him?

We were stuck outside, like the rest of the crowd that had been assured they’d be able to skip the line, but we didn’t wait long. Artie’s friend emerged just long enough to point us out to the leggy blonde standing guard over the guest list. She waved us inside without even looking up from the iPad she had tucked into the crook of her arm.

The bar was packed, and it was hard to talk over booming rap music and a clubful of half-yelled exchanges. Go-go girls leaned through cutouts in the walls overhead, appropriately glitzed-out in sparkling makeup and stretchy gold aerobic wear. For the sake of not sitting in dead silence, we persevered in our attempts at conversation.

I guess we weren’t drunk enough for anything but superficial bullshit; who grew up where and how. Artie was the product of a childhood in a safe white Chicago suburb, and all the perks that came along with it. It was, as he said, “an upbringing that made him an authority on white kids in polo shirts and how best to engage them.”

By default, he told me, white people assumed he knew more about rap culture than they did – and now he reaped the benefits, in paid columns and accolades. And in this manner, the topic of race was broached and my earlier anxieties quieted.

After two trips to the bar, it was clear the place was filled well past capacity, and the time it would take to migrate from where we sat, through the throng of revelers to the bar at the back would be better spent taking us to a second location.

Next stop: a party on the top floor of some boutique hotel on Rivington, a spot lauded for its glass walls and prime Lower East Side location. The fete was thrown by one of the websites Artie wrote for, featuring a rapper I’d never heard of. I wasn’t enthused about meeting Artie’s friends – though one was apparently enthused to meet me.

“I know you’re trying to keep it on the downlow,” Artie’s colleague said, “But Artie told me who you are. I love your stories, seriously.”

I accepted the compliment as graciously as I could while silently cursing Artie and his big mouth. How many other people knew Claire Mott was in attendance? Probably none, I rationalized. It’s not as if I had any degree of internet micro-fame to speak of.

The view of the city from such a vantage point was amazing, and I developed some appreciation for the unmemorable performer’s set after a couple trips to the open bar. Once the lights went back up, the crowd hung around tentatively, unsure if the party was going to continue or relocate.

“We could go somewhere else,” Artie offered. “Or head back to my spot and chill; smoke a bowl. I got some Xanax, if you want it.”

I’d been Tweeting about those little white bars a lot lately, though mostly in jest. I think sometimes people get caught up in perceived personality traits via internet, when really it’s a lot of arm-waving embellishment in the interest of building a brand. Regardless, the Laws of Contraband teach us that the best drugs are free drugs, so I followed Artie into a cab.

Having never been further north than the far end of Central Park, I was stunned on our ride above 100th Street, the change in the city more evident with each passing block—storefronts became smaller yet more strongly lit, trash spilling from overflowing bins onto street corners, the plethora of NYU students tumbling out of the bars and into the street gave way to only the occasional shuffling someone, trekking to or from places unknown.

Inside Artie’s apartment I took in the hodge-podge of secondhand furniture before slowly trailing between rooms, in awe of the square footage at his disposal.

“Your place is huge,” I said.

“Yeah – best thing about living up here.”

Artie was hardly flush with Xan-bars – he split a single milligram tablet on his dining room table. We each popped half and settled onto opposite ends of the couch, passing a heavy glass pipe back and forth while Artie extolled the virtues of Spotify. All it did was make me hesitant to invite yet another social application into my life. Another hour of uneventful chatter passed before Artie straightened up and reseated himself next to me, leg inches from mine. In that fragment of a second I knew his intentions and mine could not be any more mismatched. The silence would have been palpable had it not been for the music eking out of his laptop’s tinny speakers.

Spidey sense tingling, I barely got my hand up before Artie was able to swoop in for the kill. The exchange that followed was artless; a bumbling attempt to spare his feelings without backing down from my insistence that we should not exchange fluids or caresses. My refusal was initially met with disbelief, then debate.

I wasn’t having it.

“Listen,” I said, “I don’t want shit to get weird… I think you’re cool. I just don’t want to make out.”

My eye contact was met with silence. I looked away first.

“So… I think I’m going to head out.”

Artie looked annoyed, but insisted on accompanying me outside to hail a cab. Despite his earlier assurances that the neighborhood was safe, the word is elastic; there’s “six-foot-five-two-hundred-thirty-pound-black-dude safe” and there’s “wobbly-young-white-chick-alone-at-three-AM-safe”; and in his heart, Artie knew just where his block stood on the safety scale.
The sway of the cab as it rolled over potholes and gently stopped for what seemed like every red light lulled me to sleep over the course of a hundred city blocks. I came to with the cabbie reaching through the security glass, shaking me.

“Miss! Miss!“ His voice was frantic, certain I lay prostrate and overdosed in the back of his car. “Wake up!”

It took a moment to become clearheaded enough to understand where we were and why we’d come to a stop: Union Square, the closest stop for the L-train I planned on taking the rest of the way home. I mumbled a thousand unintelligible apologies as I swiped my credit card and overtipped the poor guy.

On the ride home, I wisely heeded critical advice given to me by an ex-boyfriend: never sit down on public transportation if you’re fucked up. You’ll most-assuredly fall asleep and stay that way until a growling transit employee kicks your feet at the end of the line. Being stuck swaying on a platform for an undetermined length of time, waiting for a train to take me back in the opposite direction, was the last thing I needed.

Several nights later, an unsolicited text from Artie arrived: I feel bad about the other night. Let me just buy you mad drinks then let’s fuck it’s not that serious.

I took a screenshot, for posterity’s sake. He’d packed so many mixed messages into a single sentence that I couldn’t be sure if I should be offended, confused or simply amused. If it wasn’t that serious, why was he so dead-set on it happening? What about ‘not interested’ was so hard for this dude to understand?

If it’s not that serious then you’ll understand why I keep telling you I think you’re cool but I don’t wanna hook up, I replied.

Artie was quick to respond: All I’m saying is I know I’m not your white boy Ryan Gosling type of whatever, but I have mad money and I’ll spend that shit on you because you’re pretty and it’s fun.

I blinked. Was he trying to lubricate his way into my drawers with liquor and promises of material goods? Only one response seemed suitable:

But you’re tryna fuck and I’m not.

‘Can’t get any clearer than that,’ I thought. Nonetheless, I declined the next few invitations he extended for work-related events. It seemed best to skip on any further misunderstanding about what “I don’t wanna fuck” actually meant.

Summer was upon us by the next time I hear from Artie; this time with an invitation to get drunk for free at another work event in my neighborhood and the promise that things wouldn’t get weird.

Do you have anything to drink at your place? Artie asked.

Nah, my liquor cabinet’s empty. I replied.

You down with tequila?

Fuck no. Bring gin. And a mixer.

My roommates and their friends were pre-gaming in the living room when Artie showed up, several J.Crew and Ralph Lauren branded bags in one hand and a black plastic sack containing a bottle of gin and can of soda water in the other. The six of us found ourselves in close quarters on the battered L-shaped couch, alternating the passing and packing a heavy glass pipe with acquaintance-only conversation topics like where we worked and how we landed such positions.

Artie mixed two cocktails with the Beefeater he’d brought over. I love gin but hate Beefeater – the flavor serves as a biting reminder of getting wasted and riding in cars with boys at 19. As the host, I feel obligated to continue drinking, but slow my pace drastically. The contents of my cup could strip paint from a boat-deck. As my roommates prepare to start making moves, Artie looks down at my mostly-full glass, condemnation quite plain in his face.

“I think we should kill these drinks and head to that thing I was telling you about.”

The sheer eagerness of his suggestion seemed off, though I couldn’t put my finger on why. I feigned taking large gulps as I snagged his empty cup off the coffee table, heading into the kitchen to pour the rest of my drink into the sink without Artie seeing.

“Do you care if I leave my bags here?”

Artie doesn’t waiting for my approval, sidling down the hallway and dropping them just inside my room.

“Yeah sure… that’s fine,” I mutter; trying to melt the ice cubes in the sink surreptitiously.

Whatever it was Artie had told me we were going to turns out to be a bust – the bar’s lights are off, and the patrons still out front hardly look like Complex magazine devotees. Either the party had blown up and moved elsewhere, or there wasn’t one to begin with. I suppressed these suspicions and we backtracked to my favorite dive around the corner.

Lucy’s proved an excellent choice; nearly empty with a quiet Eastern European girl tending bar – the bar’s elderly Polish namesake nowhere to be seen. Artie seemed putout when I ordered a beer instead of liquor, but insisted on paying for the first round anyway.

At a table by the door, we pick up the job-talk where we’d left off at my place. Artie is filled with enthusiasm about my writing, about prospects for me to write something other than SlutLit, should I be so inclined. He encourages me to strike out and look for a new daily gig, offering to send my résumé and writing samples to his so-called “connects”.

Since it’s a weeknight, I tap out early.

“Gotta be at the office early tomorrow,” I explain.

Artie nods knowingly. “I’ll just grab those bags I left at your place and be on my way.”

It’s not late by any stretch of the imagination when we get back to my place. I’m tired and it’s time for him to go, but Artie doesn’t look like he’s readying himself to leave. When I return from my room, shopping bags in hand, Artie takes several steps closer than necessary to retrieve them before leaning in to kiss me.

I turn my head, narrowly avoiding the unwelcome endearment. “Listen Artie – you’re really cool, but I’m not into you like that.”

“Just because I’m not your usual white Ryan-Gosling-type doesn’t mean we can’t fuck around.”

I might be drunk and stoned, but the minute these words leave his mouth it clicks: This is Artie’s move. This is what he does – get a girl drunk and then drop this line about Gosling, try to work that reverse psychology angle that ends with the girl proving she’s “not a racist” by spreading her legs. Is he trying to exploit what he perceives to be White Guilt? Whatever it is, I’m not falling prey to it.

“It has nothing to do with you not being white – or Gosling-like, for that matter. I just want to be your friend. That’s it.”

I brought my chin down and hands up, displeased with the liberties Artie had already taken with my personal space. “Back up,” I said, voice harsh. “Like, now.”

Artie doesn’t retreat, the protests continue: “It’s really not that big of a deal.” His hands rest on my shoulders, palms heavy with potential but fingers limp.

“You can’t like, convince me to make out with you. It doesn’t work like that.” The moment is so surreal – it belongs in a poorly scripted cable show, not my Wednesday night. From look on his face, he isn’t taking me seriously. This would be funny if it weren’t so uncomfortable.

“You’re making this mad personal and it’s not. Like, I think you’re cool and I like hanging out with you – but I’m not attracted to you. You’re fun to hang out with – but that’s all it’s gonna be. Why are you trying to push the issue?”

Instead of answering my question, Artie switches gears. “I’d love to help you get into a dream gig like we were talking about earlier. Like I know the people to make that happen… but…” he clears his throat. “Well, I can’t fux with you unless you fux with me,” he says.

My face knits together with confusion. “What does that even mean?”

“It’s not like I’m gonna put you in touch with my connections for nothing… you know?”

I’m shocked by the boldness of the statement – is that what this is about? Does he really expect me to trade pussy for the possibility that someone he knows will see my work and offer me something resembling a writing career? Now I’m furious.

“Fine,” I say icily. “You really need to go.”

He looks so angry, shopping bags in hand as he walks out. Out of habit, I tell him to have a good night but he doesn’t reply, just glowers at me as I shut the apartment door. I watched him descend the staircase through the peephole, suddenly sick to my stomach and shaking, just a little.

The next time I heard from Artie was at the end of the summer – no mention of what had occurred in my apartment: Hitting up a rooftop party with free Don Julio later, if you’re free.
The text was deleted upon receipt following an exasperated shaking of my head.

Some months later, I found myself out for drinks with Stephanie, a girl with a keen appreciation for my winding anecdotes. As I related the tale of Artie’s repeated attempts at “courtship” without using his name, she looked increasingly amused. By the time I reached the end of the story, she was chuckling heartily.

“So you know Artie too, then?” she asked.

Dumbfounded, I nodded. “Uh… yeah. How did you know?”

As it turned out, I was not the first (or last) white girl Artie had tried this series of moves on – especially the line about not being a “white ‘Ryan Gosling type’.”

“He pulled the same thing on me, and after I quit hanging out with him, he pulled that same shit on my friend.” Her eyes flickered. “She bought it, though.” A cruel smile crept in. “Never heard a girl regret something so immediately in my life.”

“So—what… is he some kind of crusader for sex contingent on White Guilt?” I needed it to make some kind of sense.

She laughed. “Maybe.”

Maybe, indeed.

Come Christmastime, my persistent Tweeting betrayed that I was one of the few that chose to stay in the city instead of flying home for the holidays. Imagine my surprise when a text from Artie arrived: Are you the only person left in the city?

The inquiry seemed harmless enough, so I replied: About to go find out. Why didn’t you go home?

Artie replied: I leave tomorrow, followed by another message: I need someone to do drugs with, basically.

I wasn’t sure what to say, but I felt something with bite was warranted. Interesting bait you just put out there.

There was a long wait as Artie started and then stopped typing repeatedly. iMessage makes it too easy to know how hard someone is working to craft the perfect response. Eventually, he hit ‘send’: There’s a good chance you’re bored, and I’m getting laid enough to not hit on you, so come do some molly later if you’re not totally over that.

There was nothing tempting about that situation. I screencapped the conversation and sent the image to Stephanie. If nothing else, we’d both get a giggle out of it.

Funny!!! He sent me the same thing… she replied.

I wanted to be shocked, but I wasn’t all that surprised; Artie was just like an old dog with no new tricks.

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image – sarahstierch