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.]
If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.
Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.