Calling All White People, Part 29: Connection is the way, not collection

Calling All White People, Part 29

(A periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm)

By An Average White Guy

TODAY’S EPISODE: Are you connecting with Black people or collecting them?  

[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

Fellow white people, we are really showing our asses lately, with everything from Michelle Williams’ fiancé Chad Johnson getting mad (and petty) when she brought up race in a discussion/argument to acting like intersectionality is some plot to screw over white women to calling police on a student (Paige Burgess) for putting her feet up in class to yet another fatal police shooting of a Black man (this time Jemel Roberson) that ought not have happened, especially since that man was one of those “good guys with a gun” that the NRA keeps saying we need more of.

And really, that’s probably less than half the white supremacy/racial ignorance nonsense I saw pass through my Twitter timeline over the course of a less than a week I think—and I really only skim my timeline.

I know to some degree it’s “just” a continuation of everything that’s bubbled to the surface of America once Trump gained the White House and many more white people than ever before decided to boldly and evilly declare that they run things and they get to dictate and if you’re a person of color, particularly a Black one, get the hell out of any spaces we occupy. But whether “only” a continuation or actually an escalation, this doesn’t make us look good. It’s going to be really hard to make any Black friends as a white person if more of us don’t rein our people in and put a stop to this white-induced racial chaos.

Of course, that brings me to another point, the real one I wanted to make in this post, which is to ask the (probably) mostly progressive readers of this piece—and maybe the non-progressive ones too—are you really ready to make any Black friends even if they’re willing to give you a chance? And yes, I mean Black, not just people of color, because the divide between white people and Black people thanks to racism is really the biggest, most gaping chasm of abysmal horror and despair I can think of right now.

And I’m serious about this “are you ready for Black friendship” thing: Even if you seek racial equity and social justice with a full and honest heart, you need to ask yourself if your connections with Black people should be anything more than as an ally or accomplice who is completely respectful but not necessarily emotionally close.

Because you see, there’s this problem a lot of us “well meaning” progressives have—and one that oddly enough even some racists like to pursue—and that is “collecting” Black friends.

Often, it’s that stereotypical “I have a Black friend” thing when anything racial comes up, which often really means “I sometimes say ‘hi’ to this Black person at work” or “Almost every morning, I smile at the Black barista who fills my coffee order.” Which is, of course, to say that many people who say they have Black friends really don’t. It’s not a point I need to belabor, because it really is such a tired, worn-out trope that won’t go away because so many damn white people actually do it.

But there is something more insidious and, while it may seem innocuous at first glance, kind of creepy: The urge that some white people have to actively and purposefully seek a Black friend. When, sadly, what they often really want is a human accessory. They want to have proximity to blackness but don’t really necessarily want to connect with Black people on an actual deep emotional level.

In other words, they want to “collect” Black people rather than really connect with them, which is pretty fetishistic and dehumanizing and already happens too much in romantic and sexual situations, which I’ve talked about before in various ways, like here and here.

For some, it’s a desire to feel accepted by the Black community through a single Black friend or small number of them, as if those people represent some kind of “all access” backstage pass to the Black world. For some, it’s a desire to be part of the group and, as too many white people want to do, use that as a justification for suddenly speaking Black vernacular English or appropriating Black cultural things or occasionally using the N-word. For others, it’s like attaining some kind of achievement badge. And there are a host of other reasons, but often (I’m not gonna say “most of the time” because I have no research on this…but still, “way too often”) those reasons for wanting Black friends aren’t pure ones.

That is to say, they aren’t truly organic reasons for seeking friendship. Y’know, like having mutual interests or making a natural connection.

Too often, the efforts of white people to befriend Black people feel almost desperate and needy, which isn’t good for either person in the equation.

So, first off, let me give you some advice, and the first thing would be to tell you to approach Black people the same way you do most white people. Unless you have a pathological need to be loved by everyone or have some other social awkwardness disorder, you probably don’t try to make friends with every white person you see, nor do you seek out a certain “type” of white person to befriend instantly. You most likely interact with most people on a generally polite level and if things click, you gradually test the boundaries of expanding the relationship to see if friendship is a viable or desirable goal.

I have myself made a few Black friends in my life (mostly workplace-based friendships but, honestly, almost all my post-college friendships have grown out of the workplace). And none of them started with me trying to “make a bestie.” They all started with light chit-chat, being respectful and all the usual jazz of basic human interactions. Black people are humans. It’s trite and dismissive to counter a racial argument with “but we’re all just humans” and pretend that the social construct that is race doesn’t have real impacts, but at the same time we really are all human and to treat Black people as exotic or otherworldly isn’t helpful.

But beyond all that, which shouldn’t need saying but based on my experiences and observations apparently does need saying, you need to ask yourself if you are really prepared to be friends with any Black people. For example:

  • Are you willing to not bring up that Black friend in interactions with other people as “proof” you aren’t racist or racially insensitive?
  • Are you willing to not  try to instantly gain credibility with other Black people by mentioning this Black friend completely out of context?
  • If this Black friend is confronted with racism in your presence, will you step up to protect or support them in that moment?
  • Are you willing to probably end up at some point having very real and possibly uncomfortable discussions about racism and white supremacy, including possibly that you yourself have just done something racist?
  • At the same time, are you willing not to automatically try to initiate racial discussions just because you want free education from a Black person or to appear “woke” to them (a term we progressive white people killed for Black people, by the way)
  • Are you willing to have your feelings hurt, such as when at some point your Black friend may very well point out that sometimes being around you is uncomfortable or triggering because you look like people who oppress them regularly in society ?

This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but I hope it gives you some context. There is inherent tension between  Black people and white people overall because of white supremacy in this country (and frankly much of the world). Making a true friendship across this particular color line requires some commitment that goes a bit beyond the basics. It requires some fortitude and openness and humility. It’s not to be taken lightly.

And, also, it doesn’t mean you will be invited to the cookouts. But if you are, please refrain from bringing potato salad with raisins in it or anything like that.


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4 thoughts on “Calling All White People, Part 29: Connection is the way, not collection

  1. Thanks for the clarification, my fellow color deficient observer. I sincerely thought that having “black friends” was having “black friends” and not merely passing acquaintances. Surprised —but maybe should not be – that our fellow white’s were not aware of the difference !

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