Why We Need More Close Interracial Friendships (And Why We're Bad At Them)

There's a reason why white adults have so few genuine friendships across racial lines.

The study, reported by The Washington Post and conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, found that for every 100 friends a white American had, 91 were white. On average they had one Black friend, one Asian friend, one Latino friend, one mixed-race friend and three friends of unknown race.

By comparison, the average Black American had eight white friends and 83 Black friends, in a 100-friend scenario.

The sad reality is that, as adults, we tend to be racially segregated in our friendships, just as we are in our neighborhoods. While interracial friendships are fairly commonplace during our school years, studies have shown that children entering adolescence are less likely to maintain cross-racial friendships as they grow older.

If a white child has a friend of color, it’s likely that the friend is a minority in a mostly white community, said Beverly Daniel Tatum, a psychologist and author of “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and Other Conversations About Race.”

“Then, as those friends of color approach adolescence, they start to become aware of experiences with racism, from name-calling and racial profiling in stores or by police, to social exclusion ― not being invited to teenage birthday parties, for instance,” she told HuffPost.

If the child of color is being teased or excluded, and the white friend doesn’t speak up, or worse, participates in the teasing or excluding, “the cross-racial friendship will eventually unravel,” Daniel Tatum said.

Developing cross-racial friendships is even more difficult in adulthood. Outside of maybe bonding with a co-worker of a different race, we mostly adhere to our geographic segregation and stay socially segregated, too.

In adolescence, "cross-racial friendships will eventually unravel" if a white friend doesn't object to a friend of color being teased or excluded, psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum said.
Klaus Vedfelt via Getty Images
In adolescence, "cross-racial friendships will eventually unravel" if a white friend doesn't object to a friend of color being teased or excluded, psychologist Beverly Daniel Tatum said.

The barrier to befriending someone is even higher when the person of color thinks their otherwise friendly white co-worker or neighbor is closed off to learning about what it means to be white in a race-conscious society.

“It’s possible to learn some of that in the context of a cross-racial friendship, but it’s easier to become friends with a person of color if some of that work has already been done,” Daniel Tatum said. “If one friend is always in the role of teacher and the other is always in the role of learner, their friendship lacks reciprocity.”

When it comes to friendship, it takes two to tango ― and two to understand the racial heaviness of this current moment. As anti-racism protests broke out in America this spring, many white people probably told their Black friends, “I had no idea this kind of stuff was still happening. Why didn’t you tell me?”

It speaks to the superficiality of many cross-racial friendships. As mixed-race best friends Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman write in their new book, “Big Friendship,” genuine friendship requires honest dialogue across color lines.

“There is no way to be intimately close with people if you refuse to engage in the truth of how the world is organized,” Sow said recently in an interview with The New York Times. “For a lot of people, conversations about race are new. Most of those people I would venture to guess are white.”

Ketsia Gustave, a Haitian American writer in South Florida, has only two interracial friendships for that very reason: It’s hard to see someone as an emotionally supportive friend when they’re ill at ease talking about the racial microaggressions (and worse) you encounter regularly. How aggressive a police officer acted while pulling you over, for example, or the white woman at the store who cut in line as if you didn’t exist.

“I think the real reason these friendships are hard to maintain is that in order to be truly authentic, I need to feel like I can share all the parts of myself with my friends,” she said. “If I can’t do that, our ‘friendship’ isn’t as close as the ones I have with my Black friends and other POC.”

“White people tend to think that the answer to racial injustice is to foster cross-racial friendships while POC are often, in my experience, looking for friends who will join the struggle for genuine equity.”

- David W. Swanson, a Chicago pastor

Gustave has a white friend at work whom she’s close to, but she’s wary of bringing up her own subjective experiences with race because of how past conversations about politics played out.

“She disagreed with Colin Kaepernick kneeling in peaceful protest during
the national anthem a few years ago, so from then on, I steered clear of politics or anything that could lead to it,” she said.

David W. Swanson is a pastor and the author of “Rediscipling the White Church: From Cheap Diversity to True Solidarity.” His closest and longest cross-racial friendship is with an African American man he met in graduate school. The two instantly bonded over church ministry experience and have remained close since.

“We’ve been there for our children’s births and through many ups and downs,” Swanson said. “I simply cannot imagine my life without this friend.”

The friendship itself is built on shared experiences and trust ― race certainly isn’t something that’s constantly discussed ― but that trust wouldn’t exist if Swanson hadn’t been interested in learning about his friend’s experiences, even at the expense of his own comfort.

“You have to choose to prioritize racial justice, even when it’s outside of your comfort zone,” he said.

Too often, according to Swanson, white people seem to struggle with cross-racial friendships because they don’t need to be cross-culturally competent in this society.

“While POC have the skills to navigate diverse relationships, white people often lack the experience and empathy to do the same,” he said. “White people tend to think that the answer to racial injustice is to foster cross-racial friendships while POC are often, in my experience, looking for friends who will join the struggle for genuine equity.”

How cross-racial friendships can make us better people, if we’re willing to get real about race.

We all benefit from cross-racial friendships, but if we’re being honest, white people may benefit a little bit more ― at least currently, said Deborah L. Plummer, a psychologist and author of “Some of My Friends Are... : The Daunting Challenges and Untapped Benefits of Cross-Racial Friendships.”

“When a white person travels through life with a friend of a different race, they get to understand and witness how the dynamics of privilege plays out,” Plummer said.

“It allows them to really find a way to claim their white identity apart from that of a historical oppressor,” she explained. “They get to practice being anti-racists. They gain a positive white identity that is aligned with being a fully authentic human being.”

So then, what do people of color gain from befriending a white person?

“I think many BIPOC have done the emotional work of racial identity resolution independent of having cross-racial friends,” Plummer said. “But it’s a far more nuanced, layered and conclusive resolution when we have cross-racial friends.”

The psychologist believes that cross-racial friendships can reduce the widening racial divide that affects the quality of our lives ― but only if friends are mutually learning from each other and listening with humility.

White friends need to be OK discussing uncomfortable aspects of race for a cross-racial friendship to work, experts say.
Luis Alvarez via Getty Images
White friends need to be OK discussing uncomfortable aspects of race for a cross-racial friendship to work, experts say.

The white friend in particular has to learn to be OK discussing uncomfortable aspects of race, said Tabitha Purple, a pastor in London whose oldest friend is white.

“We have a genuine friendship, one that’s full of honesty and love,” Purple said. “When we were younger, she was probably way more aware of the world than me, to be honest. This friend is comfortable talking about systemic racism and never writes off whole groups of people.”

What’s more, Purple’s friend accepts that sometimes she might get things wrong. The pastor said she often hears white people say they fear they’ll say something that could be interpreted as racist in conversation with someone who’s Black.

“White people need to accept that making a mistake is part of the process to learn and grow to be anti-racist,” she said. “Fear of saying the wrong thing props up the system. That fear shouldn’t be used as an excuse to not make real friends across the color lines, so to speak.”

That’s something Danny Richardson and Erin “Big Debo” Ridgeway have learned in their eight years of friendship. The pair host the podcast “My Black Friend,” where they discuss race-related issues in a lighthearted way.

Over the years, Ridgeway has nudged Richardson to think beyond his own experiences as a white person.

“I think the main thing I learned through our friendship is just listen,” Richardson said. “Stop trying to assume you know what everyone is going through. You may hear their experiences, but that doesn’t mean you know what it’s like to actually experience them.”

Ridgeway says that many of his relationships with white people feel one-sided and inauthentic, but that’s not the case with Richardson.

“That’s because we have had those tough conversations dealing with race and racial injustice. Danny is more aware,” Ridgeway said.

Knowing what he knows now, Richardson tries to encourage others to recognize their privilege and understand the covert ways race works in our society. That’s the biggest benefit of truly listening to someone’s lived experiences and contrasting it with yours, he said.

The bottom line, Ridgeway said, “is you can’t call yourself someone’s real friend if you’re OK or all right with them being mistreated.”

Blissed Connections is an editorial series that explores practical ways to strengthen and deepen the relationships you have — or want to have — with the people in your life.

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