I am a suburban black woman. I didn’t attend an HBCU, so my peers in college were mostly white. From college I entered directly into Corporate America where whiteness is the default, and I live in an area where we are the only black family on our block. My children have often been the only black people in their classroom and the majority of my local social circle is white. Living in several different communities over the years has allowed me to develop relationships with a diverse group of people, spread out over several states, with various life experiences, but the more recently highlighted theme of social injustice in the black community has woven a single common thread through the minds of my white friends: What can we do?
The coverage of recent events has begun to highlight for white people that see themselves as progressive or “woke” the reality that their black buddies that live near them, work in the same jobs as them, vacation like them, and more superficial similarities, exist in a world that is still radically different from the one that their whiteness allows them to occupy. I am proud that I have seen more of my white friends actively engaging in an exploration of their privilege, how they can be better allies to the black community, and how they can educate themselves on systemic racism. But then what does one do with the information learned from the popular books and documentaries when we all feel so small in comparison to a massive system of institutional racism, carefully constructed to provide plausible deniability, that has been engineered over hundreds of years? Not everyone will be on the front lines with the ability to impact policy beyond making their voices heard through the polls. Most people don’t have the command to exert direct influence over discriminatory practices in banking, healthcare and policing. What can we do?
One good way to make an impact in your real life is to learn how to be a “good white friend.” Sure, we know that surrounding yourself in diversity helps to understand the life experiences of different groups of people and broadens your own horizons about society. It’s what you do with those friendships that is truly important. It’s about what you give to others through those relationships and what you take away for yourself that can create differences in our own communities.
But I treat all my friends the same. Well, stop that. And also, you’re lying to yourself if you think that way. Consider your group of white friends. Picture them all. Think of their differences and how your relationship with each one might be a little different because they are different. You know what makes them tick and when due care should be taken. Their unique characteristics are part and parcel of who they are and what connects you to each other. Similarly, blackness is not an afterthought that is excused or pushed to the side for the sake of the relationship. It’s a key element of who we are and is a part of the bedrock upon which our unique personalities have developed. Also, do not assume that if you know one black person’s view that it speaks for every black person. We are as varied as anyone else, so an understanding of perspectives is a lifelong devotion and not an item you can cross off your To Do List when complete.
What every white person can do, regardless of their access to funds or proximity to power, is walk the walk in their own lives. If every person were to make the small but significant changes in their own lives, the needle may begin to move in society governing what is acceptable, which then directs policy. In this multi-part examination of black and white friendships, we’ll discuss what a white person can do in their own relationships with black friends, neighbors, coworkers, etcetera to be better allies and begin to create communities that are safer for all.