Or, How To Care For Your Black Friends Well
A Brief Guide for White People
Or, Maybe You Have Questions
Why Did You Write This?
America has never made restitution for the harms it has inflicted on Black and Indigenous Americans over the centuries. This adds a layer of complexity to the task of building relationships. Black-white friendships and relationships can be a form of reparations, especially when the person with more privilege leverages that privilege on behalf of the person with less.
Who Did You Write This For?
First of all, this essay is not for fragile white people. Nor is it for white people who are not pursuing restorative justice, restitution, and reparations. That is to say, this piece is not written for the average white American who believes the best way to fix the problem of racism is to ignore it.
Whiteness in America is a protective bubble that ensures white people never get exposed to racial tension or conflict except on the rarest occasion. Where white Americans are called “people,” black americans are called “blacks.” Black Americans live in these United States understanding the harsh truth that we were always the unwanted child and now we serve to remind this country that it has never once lived up to its creeds and values. As Langston Hughes said, we are a source of shame for America, and rightly so, given the centuries of human rights abuses perpetrated against people of color in this country, all while those in power declared “all men are created equal.”
This essay is for white folks who are working on contending with their own privilege and want to be better in their efforts to support their friends of color.
I also wrote this as a resource for people of color (POC) so that when their white friends ask them, “How can I be a better friend?” POC have something accessible, educational, and brief to send their way without needing to perform additional emotional labor.
What This Essay Is Not
This essay is not meant to be a declaration of the fragility of black Americans, but rather a tutorial for white folks who want to learn to build trust in their friendships with black people. Black Americans can handle white folks, no matter how ignorant. If you read this essay and immediately go and employ the opposite, your antagonism is not going to break us. That said, black people experience emotions and pain that white people are deeply ignorant about. While you, a white person who aspires to do right, may want to build or repair a relationship with a black friend, they probably don’t have any reason to trust you. If you want to change that, then this essay is probably for you.
So You Want to Have a Black Friend?
Are you SURE that’s a good idea?
I think black people and white people should be friends. I think we should live together, work together, fight together, play together, become family. I am, after all, a product of a black-white relationship.
However, the need for this essay comes from a place of pain. I’ve been deeply harmed by my white friends and white people need to understand how and why. Black Thought rapped in one of my fave freestyles ever, “I barbwire my wrists and let it fill the page.” My pain and experience is the the digital ink on your screen.
I am going to describe friendship with black people in terms that will make the relationship seem tenuous at best and impossible at worst. That’s because this is not a 100 level class. I expect white people to come to this essay prepared to educate themselves, and unlearn their own racial arrogance. I don’t think most white people are up to the task of being true confidante-level friends with black people. I am writing this to scare white people away from pursuing black friendships.
I write from my own perspective and don’t mean to imply that my experience is universal to the black experience. I write from my own deeply scarred and deeply vulnerable existence. So when I tell white people that friendship with me is hard, and not something to be taken lightly, I mean it. But I can only speak for myself. Does this advice apply to your other black friends? It may. Some of it, certainly. But it is the personal responsibility of white people to make sure that my advice aligns with the experiences and desires of black people in their own lives.
I have let far too many white people into my life without properly evaluating their ability to protect me. Being friends with black people for a white person is like going through med school. Much like a straight-A student at the beginning of med school, most white people reading this will be overly confident in their abilities. And much like med school, not an insignificant number of white people will wash out. This is hard work. I need you to anticipate the difficulty of this commitment. Because if you believe that being friends with black people is hard, you might be able grasp the amount work necessary, to have an inkling of how difficult this will truly be, and maybe you’ll make it through.
I am going to frame this process in terms where one is the patient and one is the healthcare professional. I think this is fitting. Many lives are lost because of the inordinate arrogance of health care professionals who believe that their previous experience applies perfectly to a new patient. Just as thousands of people die every year from the smallest mistakes, so millions of friendships languish or die because white people are not exercising adequate caution in their attempts to build a friendship with a black person.
So much racial harm in interpersonal relationships stems from ignorance amount white people when it comes to triage. And much like the patient-doctor relationship (to the chagrin of my conservative hate-readers who will use this essay as proof that the races should be separate), while black-white friendships can be difficult work, THEY ARE WORTH IT.
I am going to frame this in terms of black-white friendships, but MANY other relationships with similarly massive power differentials may benefit from this advice as well. The best way to determine how well this advice fits for your friend is to ask them.
1. From cultural competency to cultural humility
Or, despite your oversized privilege, you are not the authority on my experiences and needs
Whiteness is unexamined racial arrogance. It is a system, created explicitly to kill, steal, and destroy, which operates largely unhindered, unexamined, and unchecked. It is so fully in the bloodstream of American ideology that it is accepted as not only racially neutral but MORALLY neutral.
Much like cancer, whiteness is fast, adaptive, and powerful, but never neutral. Even when it is invisible.
The celebration and elevation of whiteness has largely been understood in the last several decades, rather than declared. Racism, on the contrary, has been deemed the wheelhouse of whiteness. Only white people are able to neutrally, objectively examine allegations of racism to see if these events are Really Racist™ or, as per the conservatives on Twitter, just people of color “overreacting.”
There are several ways to cause harm in any context, including racially.
Malice + action
Malice + inaction
Ignorance + action
Ignorance + inaction
Be aware that whiteness is racial supremacy. It was created with the explicit intention to justify the dehumanization and subjugation of nonwhite people. It was meant to assure white people that ownership, rape, theft of bodies and labor, were morally justifiable because nonwhite people were not fully human. Because of this, being white lends itself to having a strong faith in the ability of white individuals to be neutral, objective, and the final word in issues of morality.
Being white is no more neutral, and no less biased, than being black. In the immortal words of Sir Kendrick Lamar, sit down. Be humble.
2. What is Racial Harm?
In the context of relationships and friendships, racial harm is almost always unintentional or ignorant dehumanizing or othering. This often occurs with good intention. Think about having sore muscles after a workout or following a vaccination. A hug, something general welcome and a form of endearment, is slightly painful and something you need to recover from.
Racial harm works similarly. It doesn’t require intentionality or malice, it occurs when a white friend is simply being unaware of past harm or current recovery. Awareness requires intentionality above and beyond the normal ways to stand up for or protect any friend: verbally, physically, emotionally. With a black friend, it is very important to be sure you are also protecting them emotionally and mentally. Failing to do so will lead to a loss of trust, which may not be earned back.
In my own life, the ways white friends harm me without intending to usually fall into disrespect, entitlement or demanding, and assumptions. I am not your therapist, your life coach, your professor, or your priest. I’m your friend. I don’t exist to absolve you of your racial failings (please, stop treating me as a racial confessional). It’s not my job to introduce you to my black friends so that you can have more (I’m probably protecting them from you). I feel used when you show up because you need advice and emotional support, and for no other reason.
Whiteness claims that only action coupled with malicious intentions can cause racial harm. When I point out that acts of racism can be committed without explicitly naming race, I have been scoffed at and called delusional (and worse).
Please entertain a somewhat ridiculous metaphor in order to make my point. Imagine a scenario where a public beach or pool banned sunscreen due to harmful toxins. Perhaps the intentions are good, but the harm disproportionately falls upon people with white skin. I don’t have to say anything about white skin in my anti-sunscreen ordinance in order to passively harm white people. This is harm by exposure: failing to protect, failing to act, prohibiting people from acting in their own self interest.
The argument is that racism can only be racist words immediately followed by or preceding harmful actions is a common and insufficient definition of the ways that racism causes harm. This definition does not go far enough. Failing to protect someone from racial harm is a form of racism. It’s perhaps the most insidious form of racism since it requires nothing more than thoughtlessness or neglect. (Time to scrub in, Dr. White!)
An example of this that happens every day is a white parent who puts their black or brown child in the same space as racist family members. A child doesn’t need to be explicitly told they are considered less than their white peers in such a space. They will observe it with their own eyes and experience it with their own senses and emotions.
Another example would be a parent who fails to feed their child. CPS won’t give this parent a pass just because the parent never claimed to hate the child. Neglect is a form of abuse, no matter how you try to reframe it. And America has committed racial abuse for centuries, through active violence and passive neglect of black and brown humans, for which they have made no significant effort to resolve.
3. Sweat The Small Stuff
Think about a hospital. When someone is recovering from a serious surgery and requires life-saving medication delivered on a regular basis, one missed dose can be the difference between life and death.
Similarly, one dis/missed comment or concern can end a friendship between a white person and a black person.
Last year, a friend and I planned an intimate experience after having a lot of very long discussions about race, racism, systemic inequality, and power disparities in relationships. I had explicitly stated that I didn’t want to recap or debrief about our experience afterward because that process gives me anxiety. I don’t process intimate experiences quickly, and being asked to present an oral evaluation feels like another task at which I am destined to fail.
Afterward, this person made a snide passing remark about my performance.
It took me 10 hours to figure out that while this person hadn’t technically broken my request, they had seriously violated my trust. I had been explicit about my need to be protected in a very vulnerable space, and this person had disregarded the spirit of that request.
Treating someone’s needs like preferences is a natural function of a false belief in one’s own self-importance (white arrogance), and something that requires vigilance when engaging in relationships that have power disparities.
Another way to cause unintentional but very real harm is by being unclear or uncommunicative.
Last summer, I made a partnered white friend and our relationship quickly became flirtatious. This person also acknowledged the power disparity between us, and I made a point to bring up my concerns and vulnerability. Conversation turned to meeting up, getting drinks, and spending the night together. As the date approached, I was informed that my friend’s partner would be joining us as an observer. There was nothing inherently wrong with this idea, but being informed of a significant change to the hierarchy at the last moment rather than being asked if I was comfortable with this was a violation of trust. There was already a power disparity in our relationship, and I was not consulted about my desires. Instead of a balanced situation where my pleasure was prioritized, our date was turned into an encounter where two people were going to consume me for each other’s entertainment. Gross.
4. Regularly invest
So much of the problem of racial harm is simply white failure to listen with the intention to honor. When you’ve gone your entire life without having to take anyone’s needs particularly seriously (because you were never around people more vulnerable than you), perhaps you’ve never received a request like, “Please don’t comment on X.”
Other respect issues should be understood without having to make a request. You should not ask to touch my hair, and I should not have to tell you not to ask. When you are friends with a black person, small requests like these are very important. If you want to build trust, do not ignore these boundaries and needs.
It’s not that such mistakes are permanent. Black people have more grace and compassion and forgiveness than you can shake a stick at. (See: the entire United States not burned to the ground, yet.) But you need to make sure that you accrue A LOT of trust before making withdrawals from that friendship. I could make a strong argument that the best way to build trust by choosing to honor small requests over time. To remember small details. To consistently check-in, check-up, reassess.
Checking in requires awareness. It requires humility. It requires unlearning the inherent arrogance of white superiority, and learning racial humility. It requires asking for forgiveness, and honoring whatever request comes with it being granted. It will probably require being humbled in public.
The investment of small acts of trust, honor, and respect over time will go a long way in building a relationship with anyone, but they are essential to building a relationship with your black friend.This why I declared right off the bat that a friendship like this is hard work and most white people probably won’t be able to do it. Certainly none can do it perfectly, but perfection isn’t the goal here. Mitigating harm is the goal.
5. Good Intentions Are Not Enough
If you made it this far, you fancy yourself a good person and you want to do right by your black friend. This is great, but it’s not enough. Wanting to do right by people is great, but good intentions do not negate harm caused. Don’t believe me? Ask George Washington how he feels about his doctors’ good intentions to save his life.
Do not act on your own good intention. Act on knowledge. You cannot know what your black friend needs without asking. Don’t assume. In fact, assume that your assumptions are rooted in the anti-black bias that is almost certainly hardwired into your neurons (if you’re American at least). This comes back to having humility and self awareness. Understand that you will give yourself undeserved credit in this area because that’s what humans generally do, and work to recognize that the credit given to you comes at a cost from the black person.
6. My Trauma is not your Textbook
If I want to share a harmful or racist experience I have had with you, I will share it with you. I should not have to tell you not to ask me about my racial trauma, or any trauma for that matter. This should be understood. You have to prove that you are a trustworthy person before you ask me to confide in you. Otherwise, I will speak about my trauma on my terms when I feel like it. Your need to be educated can be fulfilled elsewhere.
Yes, you absolutely need to learn what racial harm looks like in the lives of black people. But you don’t get to learn on your friends. White people often act and speak as though they have a right to access and examine my trauma for their own education. The amount of entitlement and audacity white people show when asking me about racial trauma, without ever indicating that they understand that it is real harm, never ceases to surprise. Just because you’re a doctor doesn’t mean you get to blow into any hospital room and demand to do an examination of a patient. That’s abuse and assault. Yet somehow white people regular do that to black people in regards to racism without so much as a second thought. It’s a very deep violation of trust and a clear indication to me that someone isn’t trustworthy.
I sincerely believe you, white reader, are capable of having a strong relationships with people of color. Relationships that require the most intentionality and skill can be the most beautiful and fulfilling. Not dissimilar to marriage, it requires extra effort in order to work well.
On top of my strong belief in your ability, I think you have a moral responsibility to leverage your privilege to benefit people of color. One of the ways to do this is through relationships.
Relationships take effort. Relationships with people of color require work and humility that goes above what is generally needed for a white-white relationship, though privilege can vary wildly among white peers.
You can do this. You should do this. I want you to do this. Carefully. Intentionally. Humbly.
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