In our series about how to be a Good White Friend, we have explored specific situational occurrences that appear within interracial friendships. Its the response when another black life is ended through the far-reaching claws of institutional racism and brute-force policing of black bodies. Its challenging the habit of viewing your black friends through the lens of stereotypical imagery of blackness in the media. Its accepting the reality that you will make missteps and using them as opportunities of growth rather than excuses to remove yourself from the life-long conversation. Its teaching yourself how to be comfortable in environments that are different from yours by consciously dismantling implicit biases. I know we are waiting with baited breath for the circumstances to pop up where we can put these tools to use, but there’s something you can do right now, without delay, to be a better white friend and ally.
Ask your black friends the hard question. It might be the hardest you’ve ever had to present to anyone. You know the question. I bet its bounced into your brain more than once. Go ahead and spit it out.
“Have I ever said or done anything that you saw as racist/culturally insensitive or hurtful?”
I know this question is hard to ask. It welcomes criticism, which is hard for most people to digest. It’s accepting that you’ve probably made mistakes that you aren’t even aware of. It may even highlight some errors in judgment that you knew deep down were problematic, but you hoped it went unnoticed. Maybe you wish you could leave some ugly moments buried without really owning responsibility for them. Instead you’re digging it up and laying that cadaver right on the table between you and your friends of different races.
Why would anyone do this? Why can’t we just focus on moving forward? Imagine you’re on a hike with your black friend. You each have your own backpacks filled with items you carry around with you every day. You can’t take the backpack off, because this is your life. You bring it everywhere you go, pulling out the relevant pieces as needed, but it’s what makes you who you are. Your packs are full of rocks like responsibilities and stressors and concerns about society, but you walk through the woods, carrying all these things with you because that time with friends and loved ones makes carrying all of these things around a little more bearable. Imagine that every racially insensitive comment, every moment of silence when you should have spoken up, every hurtful action is another rock you’ve just added to your friend’s backpack, only you don’t even recognize you added the rock. She heard the rock drop into her pack but thinks it’s not that big of a deal, they didn’t mean it like that. While you’re walking through the woods both of your packs get heavier from the falling rocks that drop in as you meander through the woods. Your friend has those rocks and more because, you see, your backpack has a drawstring that you get to cinch tighter to keep more from falling in but her pack hangs wide open, more vulnerable with no drawstring. Your black friend has all of the same rocks you have, as well as the smaller ones that you put in her bag. She bears it silently but it starts to slow her down. She watches you toss another into her pack. You lock eyes and you know she saw you drop in that rock. She’s too winded to use her energy to tell you she can’t take more rocks, but you see she’s struggling so you break that one in half an add part of it to your own pack. Every time you have a rock you aren’t sure what to do with, you put half in your own pack and half into hers.
Before long, you’re both weighed down, sweating and exhausted. Your black friend barely able to take another step because the load is unbearable. She’s so far behind, she’s a tiny figure in the distance. If you keep walking, you’ll find she’s bloodied and bruised, or she’s no longer there at all. If you consider yourself a friend and an ally to people of color, you cannot justify continuing to move forward in the woods. You go back, you unpack the rocks you added; both the ones you knew about and the ones you were oblivious to. The rocks don’t dissolve over time. We just get used to carrying them. My first experience that I can remember where my race created a divide in a friendship was when I was 6 years old. I was in camp that summer and there was a non-black girl that was my buddy. We ate together, did all of our partner projects together, played together. She was right by my side the day I bashed my mouth on the side of the pool, cracking my front tooth in half, but one day she came to camp and acted strangely stand-offish and quiet. We sat on the side of the pool and I remember the uneasy facial expression she had. Both of us looking down into the water she spoke, “my mom says I can’t be friends with you because you’re black.” We were 6 years old. I remember the feeling that I couldn’t put words to. This mixture of pain, confusion, grief, shame, discomfort, and anger crept into me and I sat in silence. In my peripheral, I saw her look at me and fidget before she broke the silence with, “I’m just kidding. Let’s swim.” I remember going into the water and knowing intrinsically that there was no joke. I believe her mother said it. I believe that’s why she acted the way she had all day. I believe she felt shame and hurt when she said it out loud and she tried to take it back by taking responsibility for a terrible non-joke instead. We didnt bring it up the rest of the summer, but I never forgot that rock in my backpack.
These conversations will be emotionally and mentally draining, but necessary. In Part 4, I shared a time that I felt hurt by something a white friend said, and I take responsibility for the fact that I never had the courage to have the hard conversation of how her comment made me feel. I had shared very private details of my life in our friendship, and yet discussing this felt to far too vulnerable. I feared that if she didn’t attempt to see it from my perspective it would only create anger or pain in me that I didn’t want to carry, even though the situation has taken up residence in my head for so many years anyway. I loved her like family and I still want nothing but amazing things for her, but the thought of talking about race bubbled into something I was too uncomfortable to even discuss, and still makes me bristle to this day. It feels like I missed my opportunity to address the elephant that tiptoed into our friendship and sat right in my lap without her ever realizing it was there because I threw a sheet over it and pretended it wasn’t.
We are used to white people telling us we are being too sensitive. It leaves us out of our own conversations that we need to have. We know you can never see the world through our eyes because our experiences are unique to us as minorities. It’s exhausting to be black and live life on the receiving end of so many assaults to our humanity. It’s tiresome to figure out who to trust versus who will call you a porch monkey behind your back. Its not an assumption that your life is easy or without boulders that also slow you down, but the color of your skin doesn’t ADD to it as ours does. Do your black friends a favor and just ask the question.
These are likely to be the most uncomfortable conversations you’ve ever had in your friendships, but if your black friends say “Actually, there was this one time…” use this opportunity to improve your relationship and your strength as an ally to the black community. This is your chance to create an open dialogue to learn what implicit biases you may still carry. This is not an opportunity to be defensive and shut down the notion that you said or did something problematic. You may not have even realized it was there but it doesn’t make it any less real to the person on the receiving end. Your friends will likely appreciate the care that you are showing in investigating your own behaviors. Self-reflection is critical in educating ourselves about social issues whether its about race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or culture. I defy you to find a person who has never said or done the wrong thing. I know I have, but I try to use those times as moments to grow from and accept responsibility for my actions. It benefits who we are as a society, and heals wounds in relationships.
I don’t claim to have the answers to solve racial inequality and social injustice, but I invite everyone who follows this blog to start with ourselves and our own relationships. Individual actions and values impacts homes, which impacts communities, which impacts regions, which impacts states, which can impact this country. That holds true no matter what side of the social justice coin you’re on, and even if you remain silent. Our individual actions will shape the world, even if it’s a world we never get to see for ourselves.