In team sports, there’s an entire psychology around the advantages of athletes performing near home in an environment with familiar situations and fans versus the disadvantages of being the guest players who are subject to the additional demands of competing in foreign territory without support from a fan-base present. It’s the reason that high-stakes games such as the Super Bowl are played in neutral locations that are determined years in advance. This phenomenon is not unique to sports. Its an extension of typical human responses to our surroundings. We are all comforted when we are operating on our own turf, and the dynamics of our relationships are impacted by the venues in which our interactions take place. Have you ever stopped to think about the backdrop of the time you spend with your black friends?
When you’re hanging out with your friends of another color, is it always in spaces that are predominantly white? Who’s neighborhood do you frequent? Who’s family are you around? Who feels comfortable inviting other friends into the activities? Do you always have your black friends come to your house instead of going to theirs? Is it different with your white friends? If as a white person you ask yourself these questions and realize that the venue of your friendships with your black buddies are overwhelmingly on your home court, you’ve got work to do on how you can be a better white friend.
Be the minority sometimes. Give yourself opportunities to spend time being “other” and take stock of how it feels. Most of the world defaults to whiteness. “Flesh” colored consumer products rarely ever reflect the range of our complexions. Corporate America is filled to the brim with whiteness. We grew up with animated movies that rarely had people of color shown, as if we didn’t even exist. Disney diversity is actually a very new concept. Much of the time, our world is just as white as yours but through a different lens. We often exist in a space of otherness. For many suburban black folks in particular, our neighborhoods, the schools our kids attend, the establishments we frequent all default to the white majority we are surrounded by. It’s a very different experience to live life in a world where you are often the only person with your skin color, your hair texture or your culture. It’s a type of isolation. I do not ask you to apologize for this reality, but if you are truly friends with someone who is black, don’t always expect to interact on your own turf, in your own comfort zone.
Years ago, a couple of my friends (both white) visited me after I moved from a mostly white area in the Mid-West to Washington DC. I was excited to play host and hang out with these two women who had become so close to me over the previous 3 years. Until that point we had largely been in environments together that were predominantly white. I was frequently the only black person around with the exception of waitstaff or sales clerks. In my new city, we went out for drinks at a lively Mexican restaurant primarily frequented by patrons of color, as are many places in DC with it’s multicultural demographic. It was one of my favorite places. The food was great, the drinks were strong, and the music was jumping. We sat at a table and ordered our drinks. I could tell one friend seemed slightly disquieted as she took in her surroundings. My suspicions were confirmed as she leaned over and whispered, “I don’t think we really belong here,” as she gestured to herself and our other white friend.
The comment felt like a slap. I had spent years surrounded by her culture and people that looked like her. My everyday was saturated with whiteness and being the only person of color in most rooms without outward complaint. Her discomfort in being different from the people surrounding her set in before the first drink was served. Did she not have a concept of what every day was like for me? Probably not because her privilege afforded her the comfort and insulation of always being on her home court. Why did a restaurant full of people of color make her feel so unwelcomed although no one spared her a second glance? Why wasn’t the small smattering of other white people in the restaurant, equally enjoying themselves enough? Being the minority was foreign to her and the exchange made me question what she truly thought about people of color. Did she not feel safe because there were more than a handful of black people in one space? Why? At the time I couldn’t form the words for what I felt and I brushed her off, knitting my eyebrows together as I tossed out, “You’re fine.” Something broke between us that day. I don’t even think she knew it and I didn’t have the courage to discuss it with her. I felt like my blackness was something she was excusing in order to be my friend; like it was a stain she was willing to overlook for me but felt uncomfortable around people just like me. I never had the courage to talk to her about it and I regret that. As she returned home and time passed, our conversations were spread further apart until our friendship all but dissolved into social media likes and the rare check-in texts a couple of times a year.
How does a good white friend adjust the dynamic to create opportunities where they are the minority? A challenge in multi-racial friendships is the trust that needs to be developed to let white friends into our spaces. We are used to having to occupy white spaces because its not optional. I have spoken to several white friends who didn’t realize until they were older that if they so desired, they could construct their world in a way that they are surrounded primarily by only people of their own color. All spaces can be their own. In some parts of our country it may actually take effort to experience any amount of diversity. Because of this, we may be reluctant to invite white friends into our environments for fear of being judged, or our differences being ogled at as if our norms are a sideshow experience. We need to know that our white friends appreciate what truly makes us who we are and celebrates our differences. We need to know that we are safe to be unapologetically black around you rather than our friendships only thriving in environments that cater to your whiteness as the default. When that trust and understanding is gained, it allows us to be our whole selves in our relationships with people of other races. It fosters a deeper understanding of each other and the worlds we live in, which can be vastly different.
How does a good white friend act when in spaces where they are the minority? It may feel uncomfortable and ask yourself why that is. Explore for yourself what you have learned or been exposed to in the media, in your background, or assumptions you’ve made that make you feel discomfort at being the only one that looks like you. Begin to tap into those explorations to challenge your thought processes and dismantle them. Are you afraid? Why? Is it based on something you didn’t even realize you were taught? Unpack that. While you are leaning in to these thoughts and feelings internally, just be chill. Be yourself. Be kind. Don’t attempt to adopt idiosyncrasies to fit in. Just be the person you’ve been that created this friendship in the first place.
There was a time when I kept my white friend groups and my black friend groups separate because I didn’t want to worry about the white fragility that I saw pop up in examples like the one above. My cowardice didn’t want to have to face any uncomfortable conversations about race or differences. I don’t do that anymore. If my white friends feel discomfort at sometimes being in the minority around my black friends and family, then maybe they aren’t really my friends. I exist in otherness most of my life without being protected from it. I expect my white friends to have the maturity and grace to understand that when you are friends with someone of a different race or culture you should expect to embrace experiencing their world and their feelings. I don’t accept one-sided friendships from anyone, black or white. When friendships only play out on your turf and under your terms, your black friends cannot truly be seen. If we are not truly seen, our struggles and the impacts of society on our daily lives cannot be understood. If that cannot be understood then you cannot be an ally or an agent of change to elevate our communities and relationships to safe and equitable environments for black people.