Wanted: Black Friends [A Dialogue]

(As two rather headstrong people with our own styles, writing together can be challenging. Here, we experiment with a dialogical approach, each writing in our own words, that reveals the process we go through in anticipation of a post on a heavy topic, or in ordinary life :). We hope you find this “behind-the-scenes” view interesting – please let us know!)

A friend of ours lives in a big city. As sometimes happens in big cities, regrettably, her house was recently burgled. The suspect was a person of African descent, later found to be in possession of incriminating evidence. On the morning of the incident, the friend’s housemate reported seeing a “homeless-looking black man” in the street eyeing their house. His presence raised suspicion, according to our friend, partly because “unfortunately, none of us has black friends.” 

For Sindiso, in particular, these last words lingered. Although she did not fault our friend for experiencing discomfort at an unfamiliar, homeless-looking person hovering nearby, she wondered: if a progressive, sociable, socially-conscious person like our friend living in a diverse city cannot claim a single person of African descent as “friend” (one who is close enough to possibly be visiting their house), what hope is there for the rest of society?

What’s more, at a time when racial profiling has been thrust back into public debate, Sindiso wondered if white persons’ lack of black friends may by contributing to a persistent unconscious bias when it comes to equating colour with crime.

Dan spending time with local kids at the NGO Sindiso’s mother runs in Johannesburg, South Africa – friendly but not quite “friends”, for more reasons than one…

Then again, Sindiso thought, Dan didn’t really have “black” friends either, at least when we got married, putting him in the company of most highly-educated white people who express the strongest commitment to diversity but are least likely to live in racially-mixed communities (the focus of an earlier post). She approached Dan on the subject. Let’s see how the conversation unfolded…

SINDISO: Ok Dan, why don’t you really have black friends, besides me?

DAN: What are you talking about?! I have many friends of African descent (one of whom urged me to use “of African descent” on the basis that people are not actually “black” in either the literal or figurative sense – a topic for another post). You been on my Facebook page lately?

S: Facebook “friends” don’t really count as friends in the sense I’m referring to. I mean, the kind you regularly invite over to our house or have at our wedding…

D: Nonsense! There was a roomful of friends of African descent at our wedding. You sure you weren’t just tipsy on champagne or … love? ;)

S: Nice try :) But none of them were actually invited by you. 

D: You forget my good friend “James”…

S: Ok, but now you just sound like one of those white people who says “But one of my best friends is black!”

D: Touché.

S: Sorry Daniel, but seriously, what’s up with that?

D: Do I get special points for inviting the bride, who just so happens to be African ;) 

S: (LOL) No comment :)

D: Honestly, I wish I had a good clear answer for you, but I don’t. I suppose it has to do with where we live – New Hampshire has many virtues but diversity is not one – and the fact that, during all my years growing-up, virtually everyone in my life was “white”. That changed in AmeriCorps and at college, and certainly when we lived in South Africa, but very few of them shared my socioeconomic status, thanks to the legacies of segregation/apartheid. Whatever the reason, I have to concede that the number of people of African descent with whom I regularly shared a meal was very small, and many of them came through you. Now that we’re back in lily-while New Hampshire, the number is smaller still…

S: Ok, that’s fair but I’d propose that the critique still stands – especially judging by how few black friends you have stayed close to as you have moved from place to place and since you, like our friend who was burgled, are so socially conscious that one would expect you to have more real black friends than you do… Could I float a different idea for you to consider? 

D: Shoot.

S: What if a suitable analogy is that of my elite South African university and its struggles with the need to reform the curriculum in order to make the institution more accommodating of (historically- or presently-disadvantaged) black students and, hence, more diverse? Many incumbent (white) faculty say that they cannot adapt to the educational and curricular needs of black students because this would compromise the institution’s “standards”. What they don’t adequately consider is that the “standards” were developed (through centuries of colonialism and apartheid) to exclude black students. I think the same could be said to be happening with friendship. Though they probably would not say it in such explicit terms, many white people might feel that they just don’t “connect” with black people in the same way but they ignore the fact that their conception of “connection” was developed (through centuries of racism and white supremacy) to exclude black people and their ways of being. Does that make sense?

D: Before engaging with your thoughtful point, I want to pause for a second on the phrase “white supremacy”. As you know, it makes me wince and I have on more than one occasion urged that you consider another term on the basis that it will “scare off” nice white friends and other unsuspecting readers. I would like to simply insert into our public record my change of heart on the matter, to which I owe a fair bit of credit to Ta-Nehisi Coates. If it is hard for me to read those words, I can only imagine how much harder still it was, and is, for the millions upon millions of people of African descent who have, for several centuries now, had to contend with exploitative laws and institutions founded on the false premise of white supremacy. What those laws and institutions are and how they operate still today is not the focus of this particular conversation, but God-willing we’ll continue to address them in this blog and in our work, inspired and informed by fearless truth-tellers like Coates. I don’t want to gloss over these hard truths anymore.

Getting back to your point … Are you suggesting that the markers of my friendship (how I talk, my obsession with hiking and camping, etc.) are culturally “white” and therefore not conducive to forming real friendships with people of African descent?

S: Well… you know my thoughts on camping :) Actually, I’m suggesting that your expectations of their behaviour for it to be considered friendly – something which you feel creates connection between you and they – are culturally “white”. In other words, if they behave in ways that are not culturally “white” as you feel comfortable with, you conclude that there is little connection between you and them. Your expectations are that they will adhere to your cultural socialisation and norms for there to be the possibility of genuine friendship between you and them. That is why the socio-economic differences are so important to you, and even when black people are in the same socio-economic bracket as you, the sense of difference (simply because they are “black”) into which you were socialised leaves some separation between you and them.

D: I wish it weren’t true, in general or for me. I think you’re right about the separation that I allow to exist/persist, by subconscious acquiescence, between myself and the vast majority of people of African descent who could otherwise be my friends. It’s just easier to be friends with people with whom there is no need for explanation, negotiation, adaptation, you know? Actually, do you know what I mean? Would you say that most of your (close) friendships have required little in the way of explanation, negotiation, or adaption, like mine?

(As a pointed aside, my “wishing it weren’t true” exists in tension with the knowledge that “my people” and I have long profited from the fabrication of just that sort of cultural stratification that makes it easier for people of my complexion, who took people of your complexion to be our slaves, to avoid the kind of human closeness – dare I say equality – that might threaten a very profitable scheme.)

S: Good question. I’d say most of my close friends and I have had to negotiate something or other. There’s always difference – big or small – because we straddle cultures and spaces. I have had to draw my closest friends from very diverse contexts (almost all of which diverge considerably from my starting context), which means there’s always some translation happening, and respecting of difference. There are limits, of course. There always has to be something significant we have in common. My closest friends typically share my belief system (largely my faith or, if not, then my values around social justice) and tend to be very thoughtful people who are comfortable with nuance and feel some need to interrogate or engage with it. To the point of cross-racial friendships, though, I think white people have (or, rather, experience) less of a need to form them. To be a black person, and especially to succeed in a “white man’s world”, you have to be able to form friendships with white people and adapt to the prevailing white culture. This isn’t just in the US; I experience it as being true even in South Africa, where black people are the overwhelming numerical majority but white people still largely dominate the economy and the culture of success that comes with participating at its highest levels.

D: Jeepers. I knew that about your friends, I guess, but the truth is I haven’t stopped to think about it much, haven’t stopped to consider the hurdles you had to overcome to form the deep and beautiful friendships in your life (besides our own :). I had no reason to, really. Because the truth is, as I think you know, the few guys I consider to be my best friends in the world – they and I always got on very easily from the get-go. Sure, we’ve had deep conversations of our own (the stuff good friendships are built on), but I can’t recall a time when a good friend and I have ever had a particularly hard conversation, one that challenged us to change something fundamental (or not so fundamental) about who we were in order to make our relationship work. Which leads to the cynical question, Why work hard to make friends when you don’t have to?

S: I’ll tell you– 

D: Can I be rude and answer my own question? My answer stems from my experience with my best friend in the world – my “till death do us part” friend and partner (pardon the corniness): With you, I’ve had to negotiate a lot of difficult issues and change at least three times a day, but darned if it hasn’t been the most meaningful and worthwhile experience of my life. No joke.

S: Likewise :) That is certainly meaningful but being deliberate in forming cross-racial friendships has real-life socio-political implications as well (which you’ve written about in the past). Black people don’t just need white friends in the touchy-feely sense. If their bodies are to be secure, as Ta-Nehisi Coates writes, they need white people to see them as fully human and as equals, not some proxy for crime and all manner of social malaise. That’s why our friend’s comment troubled me so much.

Back to your original point, imagine if we thought of friendship as being a bit like marriage in that it takes work? Not just a spontaneous “connection” or “feeling”, but mostly real hard work building mutual understanding and a shared marital “culture” that endeavours to draw on the best of both in a somewhat equitable fashion. Certainly, if we want to achieve greater degrees of social justice – at the very least in the relational sphere – I think we ought to be prepared to work deliberately at it.

D: Think of that! If only it didn’t feel like I have work coming out of my ears… But seriously, I want – need – more friends of African descent, not just on Facebook, if I’m going to become the best husband and agent of change I can be. That requires, well, change – a will to move outside of my defaults by regularly reminding myself that (as we like to say on this blog) “the status quo ain’t neutral”. I have a good feeling that with greater effort – and with continued assistance from a certain best friend of mine – will come still greater rewards. Let’s watch this space, shall we?

9 Comments Add yours

  1. TheGirl says:

    Wow, even I learned something. This thoughtful dialogue you highlighted here, basically put into words the things I already knew, but couldn’t articulate.

    1. SMW says:

      Thanks for the encouraging affirmation!

      1. TheGirl says:

        No, thank you. This was really great! I tweeted it, and its been re-tweeted.

  2. Mr. Militant Negro says:

    Reblogged this on The Militant Negro™.

  3. Great conversation you two. I still use the term ‘black’ after conversations with students, colleagues & friends who don’t think of themselves (as in they don’t self-identify) as ‘a person of African descent’. Also, it relates strongly to the idea of ‘Black Consciousness’ as a more transnational idea than simply being ‘African’. Anyway, as you said, another time.

    Relatedly, in Coates’s recent book he refers to ‘the people who think they are white’. I really felt that was a great phrase and I hope to use it more in discussions of this because of the ways in which whiteness has changed over time and that which is culturally acceptable as a ‘white practice’ seems to change and shift. Anyway, good conversation and food for thought.

    1. SMW says:

      Thanks, Simon! Yeah, I think Coates’ use of that term, “the people who think/believe they are white”, is powerful (if a bit cumbersome). Dan and I had a good debate about the word black/African descent … I’m not ready to switch to “people of African descent”; I think of “black” as a kind of subversive appropriation but it’s by no means perfect so I’m still in search of the “best” word but there may be none to be found.

  4. Becca Irene says:

    I’ll throw another possibility out there. When we are unconsciously racists/white supremacist, we might like and want to be friends with people of color who are put off by our implicit racism and less interested in being friends with us. I can think of a couple instances where I couldn’t figure out how I rubbed a person of color the wrong way, and really wanted to understand because I mourned that opportunity for friendship, but it still took me years or months of deliberate learning before I figured it out. (People of color rightly don’t always want to be the one to educate the white supremacy out of you. Sometimes they just want to be friends with people that will treat them right and not say hurtful and angering things out of ignorance. That’s both my impression from experience and what I’ve read from some, and is totally analogous to my own experience in areas where I am not the privileged one.)

    Of course, the racial segregation of communities and schools means that we often didn’t grow up together, so our friendships must be chosen more deliberately and, as you say, more effort must be put into developing it. It also means that casual, accidental meetings that blossom into friendships are harder to come by, unless you move into a more diverse community, which then raises questions of gentrification as the movement is easier in the direction of the white person displacing former black tenants rather than people of color moving into more expensive white communities.

    Which is why I believe that deliberate, policy-based desegregation of communities – eliminating the economic disparities in housing that enable gentrification and make it near impossible for black families to afford homes in white neighborhoods – and possibly even deliberate, policy-based desegregation of private schools – is essential. Very unpopular to idealogical capitalists in our nation, but essential.

    1. SMW says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful engagement, Becca – you’re right about the systemic nature of the problem and, hence, that systemic interventions/solutions are needed. You’re also right about how exhausted people of colour get at having to bear responsibility for always educating their white friends (I think we’ve discussed this a bit on FB) but I’ve embraced the fact that, if I care about change and recognise that it won’t happen without me, I need to cultivate it and that means investing a lot in white friends who are prepared to invest in deepening their understanding. As a positive personal benefit of this, I then have “safe” (white friend) spaces where I can be myself and be honest about my views in a way that I’m not able to be in many of my white friendships and public interactions.

  5. Nicolette says:

    This in turn extends from friendships to every aspect of the culture in NH. So much of our economy is “community” based, and so many small business owners/entrepreneurs (who are majority white) start their hiring by headhunting in their social circle. When they expand from that they rely on referrals from those same (white) friends, and it becomes harder to get in for a POC.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s