Navigating Cross-Racial Friendships

Allowing someone entry into our inner circles is not something we tend to take lightly, but when that someone is white, it can be an especially daring leap of faith.

friendships
Photo by Lauren Jeziorski

There’s no shortage of people willing to spew their opinions on interracial romantic relationships, but with mixed-raced friendships, we’re far less impassioned. Interesting when you consider that the intimacy involved in a genuine friendship can just about rival that of a romantic relationship. A good friend knows where the bodies are buried – and precisely how deep.

When I set out to write this piece, I thought I’d work toward a sort of pros and cons list. But then, I figured, when you break it down to its simplest form, the advantages of friendship are basically universal – camaraderie, trust, commonality.

We rely on certain relationships to nourish us in different ways, but none of the people we consider “friends” should bring with them cons, per se. Still, a friendship that crosses culture lines presents some unique complexities. Race may be a fabrication, but its implications are real.

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BLAC sent out a bat call and invited a handful of folks from the community to participate in a chat about friendship and race. When we got into what black people get from our friendships with white people – aside from the meat and potatoes typical of any good friendship – an introduction to a broader sense of the world and to the idea of squeezing all we can out of life seemed to be a common thread.

Not that we should be waiting for white people to swoop in on a magic carpet to show us a whole new world. But here’s the thing – for every $100 in wealth that a white family holds, the average black household has just about $5. And, of course, there’s the weight of living as a black person in America. It’s been argued that the whole culture is walking around with some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder.

For as long as we’ve been here, we’ve been so busy scratching and surviving that simply enjoying life has been a luxury that few of us could afford. Worse still, most of us have not been taught that there’s any other way. Free from worrying about that past due notice or whether the police will find reason to stop our sons and not getting bogged down asking “who all gon’ be there,” white people actually just go and do and live. Imagine it.

This past spring, I went to Europe for the first time with a white girlfriend; we spent nine days bouncing around Norway. I won’t credit her with creating the wanderlust that lives within me; that’d always been there, but she did introduce me to a new way of thinking about travel.

We pulled the trigger and bought plane tickets eight weeks out. I didn’t even have a passport! And instead of setting our suitcases down in one metropolis and staying put, we visited three different cities. We stayed in hostels and with her friends to save money.

The author Paris Giles with friend and BLAC creative director Kelly Buren, traveling from Flåm to Bergen, Norway.

The guys and gals in our forum also talked a lot about networking and access being a benefit of white friendships. Speak to almost any black person who’s achieved even a smidgen of success, and you’ll find a common principle – the desire, the obligation, even, to reach back and pull forward any and everyone they can. Because we know how difficult it is to make it into those spaces that are often reserved for white people.

Some say we shouldn’t be concerned with trying to wriggle our way in such spaces, that we should we creating our own. That’s a beautiful aspiration, but before you can build your own table, someone’s got to show you how to sand the wood.

We’ve got a great get-the-goods-and-send-them-back-home method going on, but there’s not enough of us accessing the goods to make it unnecessary that we link arms with our white allies from time to time. In our current space, as it’s been deliberately designed, our white friends and their connections are a valuable resource.


In turn, our white friends get access to us and the culture in a genuine way and in a way that, hopefully, informs and plants seeds of empathy that will grow into action. To get up close and personal is to pull the issue of oppression out of the abstraction and into reality. But it’s not enough to be able to recognize systematic racism and white privilege. To be a true ally is to harness the power of your privilege to affect change.

Black friends:

Be willing to field questions

The beauty of a friendship with someone who isn’t black is that we get to share the rich culture we love with someone we love, and with authenticity. You know your friend, so presumably you recognize whether the question they’re posing is coming from a place of honest curiosity, and if so, welcome the opportunity to teach and enlighten.

Talk candidly about race

Our people are a spirited bunch; we like to laugh. We’re mostly OK with a lighthearted joke between friends – as long as it’s funny. After all, a certain level of comfortability is required within a friendship, but a candor when appropriate is also required. So, just as you’d have no problem seeing a, “Geez, when does church service end?” and raising your friend a, “Did you season this chicken?” also be willing to delve into mass incarceration, police brutality and the racial wealth gap with the same ease. If they’re your friend, they’ll welcome the dialogue.

White friends:

Understand that your black friend is not the whole culture

Black people are not a monolith. There are common themes that run through black American culture, sure, but we are a multi-layered, multi-faceted bunch – like all people. Some of us aren’t that connected to the culture, and some of us are super connected. And even then, what constitutes “the culture” is debatable. Because, really, if you do it and you’re black, then it’s a black thing. This is all to say, your friend may be of the culture, but he’s not the culture. So, don’t make the crucial mistake of thinking that because you “have a black friend” that means you’ve got us all figured out.

Check your white privilege

Comedian Amanda Seales likes to make a designation between “white people” and the ones she calls “people who happen to be white.” She says “white people” are people who comfortably stand in their whiteness, use it to shield themselves and happily embrace all the privileges that come with a lack of melanin. While, “people who happen to be white” recognize that whiteness is bogus. They get that it’s a construct, designed by rich white men who, not wanting to share their wealth and power, bestowed upon poor white people this idea of “whiteness” as a consolation prize. Because who needs financial or political power when you’ve got white power? But, it’s not enough to get the game; you’ve got to be a strategic player willing to disrupt.

Raw realness from BLAC’s forum

“I think everything’s fair game. If you have a question, or if you just look curious, I’ll say, ‘What do you want to know.’ Those are the parts of friendship and then just in society, in general, that help people grow and help people learn.”

– Jackie Palmer, partner, The GoodLife Agency

“For access, it’s more important that black people have white friends. You see, white people can thrive in America and not have one black connection. They don’t need us.”

– Jacquise Purifoy, entrepreneur in residence and facilitator, Build Institute

“My family was raised in metro Detroit, and Jews and blacks have always lived together. We come from genocide, we come from being less than. … We share that history and discomfort in being other.”

– Nicole Bopp, chief creative officer, The Humble Hustle Co.

“There’s levels to this shit.  … You’ve got to know the difference between your camarades, your confidants and your constituents.”

– Calvin Mann, president and CEO, Emiy Inc. and GFO Inc.

“The way that I’ve been able to cultivate connections with Asian woman, with white women, with Jewish women, with Arabic women, it’s almost like intoxicating. Because, sisterhood, for so long, was something that was culturally understood in my community as a black thing.”

– Toni Jones, wellness coach and author, W.I.F.E. Comma

Lovers Only. Our friends got milkshake wasted amidst the mint greens and coral pinks of this charismatic downtown burger spot popular for its Classic Smash. Grab one or any of the other burger options made from grass-fed, grain-finished and pasture-raised Michigan beef. Go all in with a side of onion rings – “dredged with love every day,” so says general manager Michelle Kendrek – and then wash it all down with a locally-crafted brew.

34 E. Grand River Ave., Detroit

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