As always I’m using Black people here to explain the racial dynamics at play because that’s the experience I have but these lessons can be applied to people of color in general.
Why Do I Need to be a Better White Friend?
Americans aren’t taught how to be good friends to black folks. Heck, many of us aren’t taught to be good friends period. I am including myself here because while this has come to me largely intuitively, it still required intention, learning, and commitment.
What does being a good friend to black people mean? How is it any different from being a good friend to white people?
It’s actually quite different. Matika Wilbur brilliantly compared white people to infants when it comes to racial issues. Infants do not hold malice but they’re a lot of work. They require a lot of care and attention. It’s functionally impossible to be friends with an infant because they aren’t able to effectively communicate and they certainly aren’t able to show mutual respect. Also they cause you to lose sleep. (Shall I continue with this analogy?)
Similarly white people are a lot of emotional labor for people of color. Often, that work is not by choice but because PoC have no choice but to interact with white people without losing our cool. White people aren’t exposed to real racial tension, so like an infant, caring for white fragility falls to people of color.
This is meant to be a brief instructional with practical tips on how to hold your own weight in friendship with PoC. Most white people were not given the opportunity to spend time with black peers or in places where they were the racial minority. Conversely, black Americans are unable to avoid white peers and places where we are the racial minority.
I don’t believe in tough love approaches, because they are generally just a cover for abusive behavior. So my advice here will not be summed up in “buck the f*** up.” Yes, I have become accustomed to racial tension through virtue of spending my entire life as a minority in every space, but “tough it out” is horrible advice for any situation. I am a proponent of a compassionate approach here, but compassion does not mean allowing harm to continue. Sometimes the most compassionate thing a black person can do to you is put up boundaries with you or cut off contact.
White feelings are not more important than the experiences of people of color, and I will not cater to them. My compassion for your ignorance does not negate your responsibility. I am giving you advice so that your ignorance is no longer an excuse for your harmful behavior.
Recognize that black people do not owe you an education or an explanation. Unless you have built up a significant amount of trust with your black friends, they won’t bother to correct you.
Together But Unequal
Imagine if your partner chose to opt out of every difficult conversation you tried to broach with them. It wouldn’t take very long for the avoided hard conversations to reach a critical mass in the relationship. Ostensibly you and your partner are equals, but in terms of growth together, your relationship is shallow and rocky.
This is how Black people experience relationships with white people. Every time a difficult conversation comes up with a Black friend, the response of a white person is to excuse herself from critique.
Essentially white people have us trained to just check out of the relationship entirely. Did you know that humans recognize patterns even where none exist? That applies here. Maybe you, A White Individual, did not cause harm or mean to cause harm. But when I, A Black Person, see patterns which have repeated literally hundreds of times with other white people, it doesn’t take much to set off alarm bells.
Related: none of you are nearly as original as you imagine yourselves to be.
So I’ve collected tangible ways for you to be a better white friend. Feel free to apply what you haven’t already.
I don’t mean the movie (but also see the movie!) but see us. As individuals and as a group. Did you know black people are more likely to be hit by cars in crosswalks? I literally need you to start by SEEING us. You don’t need to comment, in fact it’s probably better if you don’t. Notice where we are. At the grocery story. At the park. On the airplane. Notice where we aren’t. In your school, in your neighborhood, in your church. Take note.
While you’re at it, SMILE AT US. If you can’t compulsively smile every time you see a black person, you should absolutely practice doing this in your mind. I had to do this with transgender folks, and it’s still something I work on. Look, I get that this sounds corny but the science says it actually works (check out the book White Fragility for more on this!) Everyday, imagine you pass a black person on the street, in the store, or somewhere you don’t expect. And then smile. Corny? Yep. Effective? Also yes.
Have More Than One Black Friend
To paraphrase James Baldwin, I am not your Negro friend.
If you have one Black friend, functionally you probably don’t have a Black friend. You might have a Black acquaintance. Have Black friends. Plural. Hang out with them in groups. Be In Spaces Where You Are The Minority! Not just shared public spaces like lectures, book readings, etc. Those are important and essential, but friend spaces are also important.
Don’t know where to find more than one black friend? Go where we are. Unless you’re explicitly uninvited, you’re invited. If you’re really unsure, you are allowed to ask.
Honor Our Time and Emotional Labor
When you want to have a heavy conversation with your partner, you wouldn’t just spring it on them with no notice and demand that they engage in conflict resolution with you right then and there. (Or maybe you would. If so stop it!)
In the same way, when you want to talk to your black friend about issues pertaining to race and racism in general or specifically, ask if they’re up for the discussion before asking the question.
I Am Not Your Priest
Please do not use me for racial absolution. It’s beyond disrespectful.
If you need to engage in confession or penance for failing to speak up again when Uncle Roy went off on “blacks and liberals”, feel free to do that in a white space where other white people hold you accountable who themselves are held accountable to PoC. Your black friend has heard hundreds of stories about Uncle Roy and his racism. They know you didn’t speak up even though you should have. You don’t need to tell them this. Again, patterns.
This is a pretty hard and fast rule. No Black person has any interest in that story, we’ve all heard it. Frankly, it comes across as bragging about your privilege that you had the ability to sit there and say nothing while an entire group of people were dehumanized.
When you’re in situations where a Black person makes a suggestion, speak up and verbally agree with them. When a Black person isn’t speaking up, ask what they think. When you see a person of color, find a way to show support. Honestly, even if it’s just sharing a link or a video, liking a photo or purchasing a book or a copy of a magazine. Listen to our music, go to our films, buy our stuff.
Speaking from my experience, white people very seriously underestimate the power of just doing what they can. Probably in part because you don’t see us to begin with.
Do NOT Touch
Don’t touch our hair. Don’t comment on our bodies, skin, hair, abilities are different from your own. Don’t put your arm up next to us and compare your summertime tanned skin to ours. Don’t mimic the way we talk. (It’s not codeswitching when you’ve never had to switch.)
Get Our Names Right
Spell them and pronounce them correctly. If you screw up, apologize. Do not create new nicknames for us because it’s “easier” for you. Names are not difficult, you’re just being lazy. This is an issue of basic respect.
Vocally & Financially Support Reparations
THIS IS VERY BASIC. When you cause harm, you make restitution. That’s it, the end. This country engaged in the systematic, quantifiable harm of Black Americans, and that harm needs to be addressed in systematic, quantifiable ways. This is the responsibility of the government but since legislation is likely still many decades off, and until then it’s necessary that people who benefit from the construct of whiteness regularly practice reparations at an individual level.
Ready Set Go
Ok, that’s the gist of it for now. Unlearning white supremacy is a lifelong commitment, and you don’t get points or pats on the back for being a decent person. When you get the chance to apply these ideas? Let me know. Now go and do a better job being a better human
Hey there! I’m Tori. I’m a single mama, a student, a writer, and educator. I hope you found my writing helpful. I’d love it if you would share this piece with your friends, families, colleagues, anti-racist groups, and co-conspirators. If you’re able, and you find my writing valuable, it means a lot to me if you are able to financially support my work on Patreon. Health insurance is expensive. :)
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