Real Friends Need To Talk About Race

by Sa'iyda Shabazz
Originally Published: 

Talking about race — including racial differences and the struggle of people of color — isn’t an easy conversation to have. I don’t go out of my way to bring race up in a conversation. But I will not shy away from it should it come up either. It’s been said that if a person of color doesn’t talk about race with their white friends, it’s because they don’t feel comfort about the friendship — and this is 100% true.

As uncomfortable as it may be, real friends, especially those of different racial backgrounds, can and should talk about race.

Good friends are the people you can be the most honest with. For me, as a black woman, being vulnerable about my experiences (both past and present) with my white friends means I’m giving them insight on my life. Doing something like explaining microaggressions I experienced as a kid and how they made me feel can be the jumping off point to an important conversation. But if I wasn’t being 100% honest, we couldn’t get to a place where my friends could learn something — not just about me, but maybe even about themselves.

Sometimes you have to be the one to hold up a mirror to a person’s behavior to make them realize it’s not right. Because we’re a society so conditioned to accept whiteness as the norm, there are things that white people may not even realize are harmful, because they’ve never had a black person say to them, “Hey, you know that’s not cool, right?” That being said, there has to be trust and comfort in the relationship for them to be honest.

As with any friendship, there is a certain level of comfort I need to have with a friend before I’ll engage in a frank conversation around race. Because I know that if we’re not that close, it may be turned around and used against me. White women have no problem weaponizing their fragility when they feel threatened. It takes time to find a level of comfort where I will let my guard down and begin to bring up those tough moments in our regular conversations.

And that level of comfort isn’t just for difficult or serious conversations either. I’m an incredibly sarcastic person, and I tend to tease my close friends about personal stuff. Recently, my best friend tweeted that she wanted to get tickets to see the Zac Brown Band in concert and sit on the lawn drinking a beer, and I replied with, “That is the whitest thing I’ve ever heard you say.” This is my best friend, so I know she won’t get all uptight about it, but I know that someone I’m not as close with may not take it the same way.

Even when you’re talking about something like race, which can definitely get serious, being able to joke about racial differences is the real telltale sign of comfort. If we can take the piss out of each other like that, then it’s obvious that having those more difficult conversations will be easy. Because I know that if I say something that hits home, we can actually talk about it, instead of me having to tiptoe around it.

For example, if I were to make a blanket statement like, “White people [insert offense here],” my real friends don’t get offended by it. Because they know that when I say “white people,” I’m not talking about them. Chances are, they agree with the generalization themselves, and we can have a valuable conversation surrounding the type of people who would take offense to my statement.

But I have to admit, even I have my limit. I’m happy to talk about race with my white friends, but sometimes it’s exhausting and I don’t really want to do it. I’ve had white friends come to me like I’m the black “Dear Abby,” asking for advice on how to deal with their racist ass relatives or the like. Or I become the friend they only want to talk about race with. If our conversations revolve around racial injustice all the time, that’s not a friendship. I’m not the spokesperson for all black people.

When I become someone’s go-to so they can talk about race, it makes me wonder whether or not I bring any other kind of value to the relationship. Because even though I am very proudly black, I do bring a lot of other great things to the table as a friend. And it becomes clear to me pretty quickly that you don’t necessarily care about me for those other things. Just that I can be your reference stop for all things black. That’s not fair to me, and it’s certainly not a balanced friendship.

I understand that sometimes it’s easy to just go to your black friend and ask their opinion or start a conversation about race. But you have to take a lot of things into consideration. Just existing as a black person is a lot. But to then have to constantly hold our white friend’s hands and talk about race all the time is too damn much. The occasional question is fine, but constant questions is absolutely not.

Being able to talk about race with my white friends isn’t something I take for granted. It also isn’t something I take lightly. Because I know they’re opportunities to have some real learning and growth happen on both sides. That being said, I can almost guarantee it, it’s a lot more draining for me.

For white folks out there who have friends who are black (or other people of color), you should be able to talk about race. And if you consider that person to be a good friend, and you haven’t ever had a real, frank conversation where you talk about race, you need to examine that. Because if you consider that person to be a good friend, they should be able to be 100% honest with you about their life experiences. Let them know that you’re receptive to hearing about the challenges they face as a person of color.

But, if they don’t seem to want to, allow them space and think about why. Maybe they tried to talk about race with another white friend and it didn’t go so well. That is reason enough to not want to open that door again. Because the hurt is real if you’re sharing something raw about your truth and your friend isn’t open to receiving that honesty.

Race isn’t an easy thing to talk about, but it’s a necessary thing to talk about — especially with those people who we consider friends.

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