How to be a white person who is friends with Black people

Even though I’m a 51-year-old adult, my experience of friendship feels new. Or, rather, it changes and grows as I change and grow. Because I don’t feel like I’m very skilled at friendship, I must admit that writing about it—and adding the dimensions of race and class into the topic—feels presumptuous at best. However, I’ve talked to many people (mostly white, but not all) about cross-racial and cross-class friendships and some things keep coming up that I want to try to share as I’m learning.

I’m going to talk about friendships we white people might have with Black people, though much of what I say might be applied to friendships with Indigenous people or other people of color, too.

As most readers of this blog know, white people tend to mostly only know other white people. Most of us white people only know a handful of Black people. And, of those people we do know, usually we don’t know them well. Or, perhaps we think we’re “friends” but if the Black person were asked they’d give a different answer.

Because so many white people want to be anti-racist and want to “fix” the problem of living in “silos” a lot of us really wish we had Black friends. Even as we know this is a gross way of looking at friendship (the statement alone dehumanizes Black people, as if they are a commodity, just an object to attain and display). At first, though, as our racial identity begins developing, I’ve found this is a common response. I talk with white people who have become even less comfortable talking to Black people they already know because there’s now a worry that it’ll seem like we’re just looking for “a Black friend.” Whether or not there are shared interests, common values, or other interpersonal groove-points that might make a friendship develop aren’t even a part of the picture because we white people are so hung up.

So, before you even think about trying to be a better friend to Black people in your life, or, god forbid, go out looking for Black people to befriend (DO NOT DO THIS), take a step back.

Realize that it’s quite possible to be an anti-racist and a good person while not having any friends who are Black. In fact, trying to expand your social circles in your antiracism work shouldn’t be one of the first steps you take.

Know yourself. Have you really and truly dug into your own racism, your own implicit biases, and your own racial identity?

I take an “if I built it, they will come” attitude about friendships in general. What I mean is, I work on becoming someone who deserves trust before I ask someone to trust me. Friendships aren’t necessarily linear, of course, but when I was still mired in the shame of white guilt and hadn’t learned how to even be in the same physical space with Black people, there was just no way I was going to deserve people’s trust if they were Black. I would have flung microaggressions their way without realizing it, for example. I might’ve asked them to explain racism, or only talked about race and racism, or… there are so many things I’ve done in the past that I (mostly and hopefully) wouldn’t do now.

Don’t assume you are entitled to friendship with Black people. This is a phrasing I got from a friend (who is Black woman) who gave me feedback about this post. Part of whiteness is the assumption that we deserve all the good things in life, including assumptions about friendships. Broad strokes here, of course, but lots of us have insecurities and low self worth, etc. For white people, though, no matter our complicated emotional or psychological makeups, we often move in the world assuming we should get what we want. And for reasons that may have well-meaning and good-hearted aspects but also—at the same time—racist and self-centered aspects we want to “win” at being antiracist. We want to show ourselves and the world that we aren’t racist and “having Black friends” can feel like the ultimate prize.

Again, I’m calling on feedback from my editor friend (who is a Black woman), here, in framing anti-racism work as something we white people so often think we can or should win or complete. No. Being human with other humans isn’t something we can win.

My best advice about being a white person who is friends with Black people is to start out by not trying to make it happen. Work on yourself, on your own racism, and your own sense of entitlement. Understand that this is okay. It doesn’t inherently make you a bad person. Practice being a friend to your current friends in deeper ways. Include anti-racism in friendships you have with white people. Get involved in anti-racism work wherever you are now instead of seeking out multiracial groups if that would be just for the chance to build friendships with Black people. Recognize that the urge to “have Black friends” likely has a lot of racism inside it. Unpack that, understand it, and practice doing it differently. Antiracism isn’t something we can win or graduate from. It’s got to be a part of our life as we are living it now.

[An evergreen reminder: I am a white woman writing about racism so I might share with other white people what I learn—mostly what I learn from Black, Indigenous, and other people of color—so we can all work toward societal transformation; our collective liberation.]

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2 thoughts on “How to be a white person who is friends with Black people”

  1. Dear Heather, I am an acquaintance of yours, from your church. I’m a white man, and I hope it is appropriate for me to reply on this website. If not, I give permission for my reply to be deleted.

    We whites carry quite a bit of ignorance and guilt as a legacy of the shameful slavery that flourished hundreds of years ago around the world. I freely admit to my automatic prejudicial feelings, knowing that awareness of them helps me to be a better person even if society has created habit patterns that are hard to change.

    I accept who I am, and how society has warped me. I overcome my bad habits consciously, rather than enter into a battle with myself.

    Anyway, I write about the fact that I fell in love with a black neighbor, a Jamaican rather than an Afro-American, after the death of my significant other in 1996 and a long period of companionable friendship. Her skin was the beautiful color of dark chocolate, her hair was in lovely small tight curls, and her appearance was a part of who she was, both in terms of her heritage and in terms of my love for her. Although she died of ovarian cancer in 2000, I still feel a small surge of love whenever I see a woman who looks even a bit like her.

    The only experience of racism that I have ever had happened one day when we decided to enjoy a restaurant meal in a shopping mall. The glances we got from several other diners were quite uncomfortable, and I found myself getting angry, ready stand up and defend my girl friend should it be necessary.

    But I remember her not for that one episode, but for all the time we spent together, alone, enjoying each other and learning about each other, and finally providing joyful care and support during a period of dying.

    I wish that every white person had that wonderful opportunity to fall in love with someone who looks different from themselves.

    David Spector

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