If you are one of the estimated 25% of white Americans who have at least one non-white friend, you might feel like you are doing your part to heal the racial divide in America. I have some bad news: You are probably hurting those non-white friends. Yes. You — all of us.
Let’s talk about how this is happening, and what each of us can do about it.
Color-blind friendship? Only for the white friend.
For decades of my life, I didn’t think much about how race might be influencing my interracial relationships. I thought of these relationships as being somehow separate from their larger context. They were a tiny haven of perfect equality, where broader social forces evaporated, and where all that mattered was our personal connection as two individual people.
Perhaps this is why we white people like to say, “But I have a black friend!” as evidence that we are not racist. To us, these friendships prove that we do not see race because we think race does not exist within them. We view them as microcosms that reveal our true, ideal selves, which are free of bias.
The problem is that — as I’ve learned recently — our friends may not experience those relationships the same way. No matter how deep our connection may be, they never forget that we’re white, and they’re not. And that we can betray and hurt them, as all white people can betray and hurt all people of color. Maybe even worse because we’re friends.
“But not in my relationships!” you cry. “If my friends felt that way about me, I would know!”
Maybe. Maybe not.
Let’s say you did something hurtful. You made a joke about your friend’s accent. You said something irritating, like perhaps, “I don’t even see you as Asian. You’re just my friend!” or “I do think black lives matter, but being so angry isn’t doing anyone any favors, you know?”
Would your friend tell you how they felt? Consider that they might not. They have had enough experiences with white fragility to know how that conversation might go. They know how badly you want to believe that race isn’t an issue in your relationship.
And if eventually they had enough and decided it was time to end the friendship, do you really think they’d tell you why? They would be distancing themselves from you, and you would just be thinking, “I haven’t seen Maya in a while. She must have gotten busy with work.”
The truth is, people of color can’t trust us. Even their friends. Even their partners, and the parents of their children. We may be able to pretend we “don’t see race” within our relationships, but they can’t enjoy the same luxury.
Within each of us lives Becky. We each have the capacity to hurt our friends without even meaning to. We don’t even see the ways we wield our own white privilege. But our friends feel the sting of our missteps. They feel the exhaustion of constantly having to pick their battles.
So what should we do?
Should we give up on having interracial relationships? Of course not.
We can’t be perfect. But we can be better — more careful, more thoughtful. Like allyship in general, interracial friendship requires ongoing self-discipline and growth, without shame.
The first step is accepting these dynamics, which are invisible to us. We can accept how dangerous we are to our friends, how easily we can wound them. We can recognize that, just because we can’t see how race plays out in our friendship, that doesn’t mean it’s not there.
We can understand that our friends don’t want us to “not see their race.” Their experience is shaped by the fact that they’re not white. For many, it is an important part of their identities — something they want us to appreciate, not erase.
We can begin earning our friends’ trust by truly listening if they confide in us about their racialized experiences. If they tell us about something we did that hurt them, we can acknowledge what a risk they took in coming to us, and we can understand their comments as a gesture of trust and as a signal of how much the relationship means to them.
We can also resist feeling entitled to our friends’ trust because that is not how trust works. Trust is given freely. No matter how “good” we are, our friends may never invite us to the cookout, and that’s their prerogative. Indeed, if we are approaching the friendship as an act of charity, or as a way of proving to ourselves that we are “woke,” then we do not deserve our friends’ trust. We can avoid being the Nice Guys of interracial friendships.
We can have empathy for our friends’ exhaustion, and for their need for friends of the same race. We can understand why we cannot be everything to our friends, and not take it personally. If we feel rejected, we can avoid asking our friends to soothe us.
If this all sounds like a lot of work… it is.
I feel angry sometimes that I have lost that innocent fantasy of colorblind friendship. My relationships felt easier to me, and I felt better about myself, when I could believe that friendship magically made racial dynamics disappear.
It is infuriating, indeed, that white people and people of color can’t simply be friends without all of this nonsense getting in the way. But you know whose fault that is? Not the fault of people of color. If you want to talk about what is racially “divisive,” point your finger at white supremacy.
These challenges have been there all along, even if you or I haven’t always noticed them. And that means that our friends have been doing all of the heavy lifting in our relationships. Now that I see that burden, I wouldn’t feel right if I didn’t try to shoulder as much of it as I can.
After all, isn’t that what a friend would do?
This is the collective product of women of color and allies. This piece specifically comes from the voice of an ally.