“Why should I have black friends?”asked the 40-year-old white man, a focus-group participant in my research on friendship patterns. A 45-year-old black man in another group had a more forceful response: “You want to tell me, with what I know about the history of how blacks have been treated by whites in this country, that now I should just forgive them and turn around and be friends with them?”
Even though it’s been 50 years since the Civil Rights Act, Americans remain as segregated as ever, particularly in our friendship patterns. About 40 percent of white Americans and about 25 percent of nonwhite Americans are surrounded exclusively by friends of their own race, according to a 2013 Reuters poll. But recent deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police officers in US cities resulted in the nationwide (and multiracial) Black Lives Matter protests, emphasizing a deep hunger for improving race relations. For me, this process begins one friendship at a time.
I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood in the 1960s and attended an all-white school. As a result of my having white friends, my black friends accused me of not being “black enough,” talking “like a white girl,” and being “around them too long.” On the flip side, my white friends sometimes characterized me as “too black” or “too militant.” So I became a chameleon, offering to each friend a version of myself she or he would find acceptable.
As a young adult, I became a “black nun” in an all-white religious order. From that experience, I came to believe that social segregation among the races was not only natural, but necessary to develop a healthy identity. I loved and respected my fellow nuns, but I could not live with them without losing my very self. White culture was so embedded in the foods, values, worship, customs, traditions, and thinking that if I were to continue to live there, I would have no choice but to act like and become a white person.
When I left the convent, I immersed myself in black culture.
I joined all-black social groups, attended a black Catholic Church, almost exclusively read books by black authors, attended plays and movies with black themes, sponsored Kwanzaa celebrations, donated to black causes, and patronized as many black businesses as I could. Although I had white co-workers and acquaintances, my closest friends were black. It stayed that way for years.
As I deepened my professional experience in diversity management, my monoracial list of friends became multiracial, at least at work. Booker T. Washington’s 1895 proposal, “In all things that are purely social, we can be as separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress,” still made sense to me. Being “separate as fingers” socially and coming together “as the hand” only for economic advantage or to advance collective causes worked.
What didn’t work was that I wasn’t practicing socially what I was preaching professionally. Diversity was not just about managing differences, I came to realize, but creating inclusive conditions that make a better society. Not only was my professional development dependent upon broadening my worldview, but I became convinced that if I maintained a monoracial social life, I was settling for tolerance rather than acceptance and understanding as the standard for race relations. I wanted and needed something better than that.
As I worked to break the barrier of acquaintance with whites, there were many uncomfortable moments. Once, I had to explain that even though I appreciate history, I wasn’t really interested in going to a Civil War reenactment. I’ve had to tell friends that I’m a bit uncomfortable going to certain restaurants or spas where I’ve never seen a nonwhite customer. The toughest have come when discussing racially charged situations and events. Yes, I recently told a friend, black parents really do teach their sons about wearing hoodies when walking in white neighborhoods.
Reflecting back, I first nurtured these relationships by being careful to always present myself in a manner that would convince my white friends that “blacks are no different from whites.” But with age comes more confidence and authenticity. I no longer “take care of” my white friends by aligning my thoughts and experiences with what they might want to hear or what I think they can handle. Instead, we work and struggle to understand each other — as friends should.
After the Trayvon Martin verdict, a white friend wrote on her Facebook page that “self-defense is not murder.” Later, we discussed the point at which I believe self-defense began in that situation. When a white police officer friend was offended that I thought New York City officers turning their backs on the mayor during the funeral of an officer killed on duty was disrespectful, we went deeper. She talked about policing in the black community, and I talked about how many feel some police officers have turned their backs on black communities for decades.
These were difficult conversations, but they were worth it. Each conversation moved us forward because each was wrapped in the kind of trust that only comes with friendship. Together, we expand our worldviews, challenge our assumptions, and sharpen our thinking.
I hope we become better people as well. That’s what friends are for.
THE RACIAL COMPOSITION OF OUR SOCIAL NETWORKS
91% of white Americans’ friends are, on average, white
83% of black Americans’ friends are black
64% of Hispanic Americans’ friends are Hispanic
Source for “Social Circles”: Public Religion Research Institute, 2013 American Values Survey
Deborah L. Plummer has a PhD in psychology and is the author of “Racing Across the Lines: Changing Race Relations Through Friendships.” She is the vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.