By Rebecca Carroll | Originally Published at The Guardian. September 3. 2014 7.45 EDT Photographic Credit; Becoming close friends with black people may not occur to most white people at all. Unless it’s Beyoncé. Who doesn’t want to be friends with her? Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA
A system that locks in white privilege does not engender effortless friendships. We know that going in, but white people learn the hard way
Every white person accused of being racist has one black friend: Stephen Colbert has Jordan Carlos; Cliven Bundy has Jason Bullock; Lena Dunham has Donald Glover; Miley has Pharrell. The “black friend” is the vaccination against the most deadly social disease imaginable: being called a racist. But according to a recent survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, most white people don’t have so many black friends. In fact, the study revealed that some white people may not even have that one black friend – the one who can serve as their all-powerful amulet to defeat any accusations of racism.
While the survey says the average white person has one black friend, the average black person has eight white friends – and that’s more than enough to make me wonder. It’s not that I don’t think white people are unwilling to cultivate real friendships with black people, it’s that I don’t believe becoming close friends with black people occurs to them at all. Unless it’s Beyoncé, because who doesn’t want to be friends with Beyoncé? Good looking out, Gwyneth Paltrow.
As a black person who has been the default representative of both statistics – adopted into a white family and raised in an almost all-white town, I have a lot of white friends and have been the black friend to many white people – I can tell you that this dynamic is highly problematic. Not simply because it lays bare what we had all suspected anyway – that white people tend to not have black friends – but because it works against our constantly professed hopes to end racism in America.
Friendship does not work the same way as cultural appropriation. You can’t just take our personal company and pass it off as art.
Sure, humans are a tribal species, and there is a great deal of self-segregating that happens among all races. But it’s no one else’s responsibility to be a friend to you for your own good. To some white people, having just one black friend allows them to feel as if they are not part of a racist system – in much the same way that our first black president is supposed to be evidence that racism is over.
Many white people also apparently do not know how to cultivate friendships with black people, often because they cannot extend to their black would-be friends the deference to experience required of any friend. For example, if I tell you not to use the N-word, that I do not use the N-word, that I don’t want to hear anyone use the N-word, and then you use it in whatever hipster parlance or context seems A-OK, you are not deferring to my experience with a word that I clearly find racially offensive.
Even those interracial friendships initiated by white people can end up fraught, often because those inclined – sometimes out of guilt or obligation – to seek out black friends for the sake of having black friends worry to the point of paranoia about saying something unknowingly offensive. And that’s a legit worry. But rest assured that any real black friend will let you know if you’ve offended her, and then, if it’s not entirely egregious, we can move on in friendship.
A system that locks in white privilege does not engender effortless friendships between white and black people. Black people know that going in; white people often have to learn the hard way.
Where you live – neighborhood, city or state – is no doubt a factor in white people’s ability to have non-white friends without consciously seeking them out. My husband and I live in an almost embarrassingly trendy part of Brooklyn, and a few years ago, when our son was getting ready to start elementary school, we spent months looking for a public school that felt properly diverse – not an easy task in the school system recently deemed the most segregated in the country.
While we were looking, I would tell our white neighbors in casual playground conversations that our priority was not to find a school with three poor black kids and 600 middle-class white kids, but a school with kids and teachers who are African and African American, Asian and Hispanic, Muslim and Hindu, gay and lesbian, mixed race and socio-economically along the spectrum. More often than not, the responses I got from neighbors were sociable smiles indicating that diversity is nice, but, so long as the curriculum was solid, it felt fine for their children to learn in predominantly white classrooms … even though the result would be predominately white friends.
Beyond school, most professional environments are on average very white to begin with, which means that white people have to make a genuinely concerted effort to broaden their network of friends. By friends, I mean real friendships that go beyond the black guy you bro-hug at work: relationships that involve time and a degree of intimacy, that give you a perspective on someone else’s life.
In the wake of Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson, and many of the ensuing conversations about race and racism, many white people argued that they know already that judging, punishing, profiling, harassing and killing a person based on the color of his or her skin is morally wrong. But when most white people have only one black friend – or none – I have to say: Your friendships with black people will not end racism today, but they will almost certainly teach you how to understand it better. And, right now, what is the alternative?
Rebecca Carroll is a Guardian US contributing opinion writer and the director of digital media and marketing at Scenarios USA. She is the author of several nonfiction books, including Saving The Race and Sugar In The Raw. Follow her on Twitter: @rebel19
This piece was reprinted by EmpathyEducates with permission or license. We thank Rebecca Carroll for her kindness and for inviting us to look at our “friendships.” We also wish to express our appreciation for The Guardian for being an enduring source of information and ideas.