Friendship is hard. Interracial friendship is even harder.
A while back, a friend suggested I write about how to make meaningful interracial friendships. My friend, who is a white woman, mentioned how many of us end up in social circles at work, home, and play that are racially and ethnically homogenous. As conversations about racial discrimination amplified after the murder of George Floyd, she realized that she was a woman in her thirties without many good friends who were people of color. And she didn’t know how to go about rectifying the situation without contributing to a centuries-old practice where white people expect people of color to do their emotional labor. How, she wondered, do we make friends across racial lines in a way that is authentic, meaningful, and mutually life-giving? Making friends as an adult is already challenging enough as it is, she said.
My friend was right. Making friends as an adult is difficult. Making meaningful friendships that transcend racial, ethnic, and class lines can be even more difficult, especially as we get older and more settled in our social spheres.
Why is this? Well, we tend to socialize with people with demographic traits similar to our own. We settle into neighborhoods with neighbors that look like us and that make similar amounts of money. (For a fascinating read on diversity, segregation, and neighborhoods, check out this Brookings Institution article). If we have kids, they go to schools with kids who are racially or socioeconomically similar. And if we’re fortunate enough to live in multiracial or multiethnic cities or neighborhoods, or work in jobs with diverse employees, that doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll have deep relationships with people from racial or ethnic groups different from our own. As the Brookings Institution article points out, even in diverse contexts, we often gravitate toward our own racial or ethnic group.
I’ve noticed this in my kids’ elementary school, which is about 50% white, 45% Hispanic, and 5% Black, multiracial, and Asian American. This diverse context doesn’t necessarily mean that deep friendships across racial lines are taking root. When it comes to sleepovers, play dates, and social activities outside of school, I’ve noticed that friend groups often do not reflect the demographic makeup of the school; instead, friend groups tend to be more homogenous. This goes for their parents, too.
It’s helpful to pause here and define what I mean by “friend.” I think a friend is someone you regularly and intentionally get together with outside of the context in which you know them. That means going beyond sharing a conversation at the water cooler with a work acquaintance. This can be going out to lunch, meeting up for yoga, going for a walk, or catching a coffee. Bonus points if you’ve been invited to their house, or you have invited them to yours. A friend is also someone you can be vulnerable with, and with whom you can share your joys and challenges.
Using this definition, friends can be hard to come by. And the question of how we make friends across racial or ethnic lines, well, it becomes a bit more complicated. Simply placing yourself in more diverse contexts doesn’t seem to do the trick. Interracial and interethnic friendships require intentionality and patience. They also demand much more of the person in the “out group” than they do the person in the “in group”.
I learned this a while back in college. When my fellow freshmen and I arrived on campus, we quickly formed multiracial, multiethnic, multinational friendships in my coed dorm. Newly away from our parents and old friends, we all shared a similar milestone moment: leaving for college and starting anew. This shared experience knit us together – at first. Slowly, however, many of us began to drift away from the big, diverse group and toward smaller, more familiar ethnic groups as people rushed largely racially homogenous sororities and fraternities, and people of color sought refuge among friends that shared a common lifelong experience.
I remember talking to an Indian American friend about this. While at the beginning of the school year she had been a constant among our huge group of diverse friends, she had begun spending more time with her friends of South Asian descent. I had a hunch at the reason, but checked in with her to make sure we hadn’t done anything to exclude her.
When I asked her over brunch one day, she shrugged. There was nothing wrong with the friends from the dorm, she said. She still considered us friends and liked being around us. But hanging out with her Indian friends allowed her to be around people who knew her story. For example, she could talk about celebrating a holiday without having to launch into an explanation of what the holiday was all about.
“Sometimes it’s just nice not having to explain yourself all the time,” she told me.
I understood what she meant. In our friend group, she was the only person of Indian descent and the only Hindu. When we went out to eat as a group, she had to explain why she avoided some foods on certain days out of deference to a deity. When she was training for her arangetram, she had to explain that an arangetrum is the hours-long debut performance that classically trained Indian dancers perform after years of study. When she got excited for Diwali, she had to explain the significance of the holiday, which many of us hadn’t heard of despite the fact that more than a billion people celebrate it.
I understood my friend’s emotional labor because I had lifted it, too. Being in a majority white high school in classes that were almost entirely white, I knew what it was to code switch. Now, as an adult, I understand it even more deeply after many years of living in mostly white neighborhoods and going to the historically white churches my husband has pastored. I have a lot of white friends. And because white culture is considered mainstream culture by media and the beauty industry, I don’t usually need them to explain white culture to me. I get how Friends and the Office are cultural touchpoints for millenials, I know about goin’ muddin’, I know that many white people wash their hair every day, unless they have curly hair or use dry shampoo to absorb oil, and I know that Don’t Stop Believin‘ is a great song to sing along to (I like it, too!).
But because Black culture is not considered part of the mainstream, sometimes I have to do a lot of explaining. Like: what a twistout is, why Black women sleep with satin or silk scarves or bonnets, how Living Single was like Friends for Black people (and likely was the inspiration for Friends), and basically everything in this Ego Nwodim / John Mulaney skit from SNL. With Black friends and family members, there is a shorthand I can rely on.
Explaining these cultural touchpoints may seem like a small thing, but it can be a hard divide to traverse. The divide only seems wider when you throw topics like prejudice and discrimination in the mix.
For example, my conversations about work are much different with my white friends than with my Black friends. Without explanation, a Black friend understands why I might be reluctant to wear cornrows to work: Cornrows are sometimes seen as “unprofessional” by people who hold the power of promotion, hiring, and firing; cornrows, and braids in general, also court way more conversations from white colleagues about hair than I want to field at work (How long does it take? Is that your real hair? Does is hurt? How do you wash it? Do you wash it?). My Black friends also understand workplace microaggressions, the pull of familial obligations, generational trauma and joy, and why we might feel despondent after news that an unarmed Black person has been killed by law enforcement. I don’t have to launch into a long explanation because they understand by virtue of having a similar lived experience.
I’ve rarely had these conversations with friends who are white – not because I don’t think they care, but because such conversations require a great deal of emotional effort on my part and a heavy dose of empathy on theirs. Sometimes, it’s just easier to say that work has been crazy busy lately.
This is why crossing racial lines in friendship can be so challenging. As a person from a marginalized group, it means baring your wounds to someone without knowing whether they’ll be a listening ear or be too defensive to even try to understand. If you’re from a majority group, it means acknowledging biases and injustices that you may have been blind to, being corrected, and not treating someone as the conductor of your train to wokeness.
I know all this from experience. I’ve been both the person doing the emotional labor, and the person unknowingly demanding it from others, as I did with my friend in college, and as I did with another Indian American friend from college, which I wrote about in this blog post.
So, how does one go about creating a diverse friend group? The good news is you can do it in three steps. The hard news is that it may take a long time and a lot of discomfort along the way.
First, having a diverse friend group requires intentionality. You have to make an effort to place yourself in nonhomogeneous contexts that allow for connection. It’s a challenge – at least for me; I feel most of my waking hours are spent working and parenting. But making friends means carving out time for lunch or coffee or a playdate during free time. It means going through the rigmarole of aligning schedules with other busy people, and it means doing this more than one time. It means going to the effort of deepening relationships from church, from yoga classes, or from my kids’ schools.
Two, it takes time. Maintaining friendships is really hard. I’ve found it to be particularly difficult as an introvert with three kids and a traditional work schedule living through a pandemic. But building meaningful friendships takes a while. It requires meetups, phone dates, and shared life experiences. This all takes time and patience to see it through. It also takes time to build trust. This is even more so the case for interracial or interethnic friendships, and I think especially so for the person who comes from a traditionally marginalized group. Being friends with a person of color doesn’t automatically entitle you to their feelings, even if you are a person of color yourself. Trust is a privilege that has to be earned over time.
Finally, it takes vulnerability. It means talking about things that matter. Ups and downs, struggles and triumphs, religion and politics. It means leaving room to talk about racial, economic, or ethnic matters that are important to you and listening without jumping in to ease your discomfort, assuage your guilt, or pump up your ego. It means deepening your own learning – not by asking your friend to teach you, but by taking it upon yourself to deepen your own knowledge without demanding extra credit for completing this basic assignment.
Like I said, it’s hard. It’s messy. But it’s possible – and often times, it’s worth it.