Welcome to the second Race Matters advice column, in which a white college student asks how she can best engage in race conversations with her Black friends…
Dear Race Matters,
I grew up in a very affluent area and went to a private school deep in the South. I was surrounded by huge privilege. As I got older, I wanted something different, and I wanted to be where I could understand other people’s experiences.
Now I’m in my freshman year of college studying social work. My roommate and I became friends immediately. However, our experiences have been vastly different. Her mother is white and her father is Black, so she grew up with a lot of questions about her identity. She went to a school that was the opposite from mine. There are things she has been told, been called, and has seen that I could not even begin to imagine — just because of her race.
I want to understand so desperately, but I am terrified of getting it wrong. When she talks about race, I mostly stay silent and listen. However, I don’t want her to feel as if I don’t support her or don’t want to talk about race. I just know so little and I am ashamed of that.
How can I educate myself and better support my friend? Should I actively engage in conversations about race or is it better to just listen? I want to tell my roommate how scared I am that my privileged experience has made me embarrassingly naive, but I don’t want to make the topic of race about me. How can I do better?
I was so touched by your letter and its sincerity. In reading through the mail I get at Race Matters, it always strikes me how much people’s sentiments overlap. There are many (white) folks who share your fears about talking about race — the idea of saying the wrong thing, or overstepping — as well as your confusion about how to support a friend when it comes to experiences you just can’t share.
But that fact that you have these concerns at all, and took the time to write such a heartfelt letter, tells me you’re probably doing a better job, intuitively, than you may be giving yourself credit for.
Forging a relationship with your roommate requires bravery and vulnerability (on both sides) — that’s true of friendship in general, of course, but especially true when it comes to race, which is a subject you and your friend can’t shy away from if you’re going to have a true and meaningful relationship.
I want to keep making clear in this column that I don’t speak for all Black people (*the opinions here are mine and mine alone*), but based on my personal experience, I’m willing to bet that your friend wants you to engage with her about race as much as possible. It’s helpful that you listen, attentively and empathetically when she shares with you. But verbalizing your thoughts and feelings to your friend is critical, too.
I say this because there’s a risk that your friend may misinterpret your silence as a sign that you don’t care or that you don’t want to engage (when that clearly couldn’t be further from the truth). Your skittishness risks working against you and the intimacy you desire.
Here’s a confession: One of the most infuriating things I hear as a Black woman from white colleagues or friends (and I know I’m not alone in this) is: “I feel so uncomfortable talking about race or racism.” I may plaster an understanding smile on my face, but what I’m screaming on the inside is, “Yeah, well try experiencing it.”
Which is to say, your discomfort at talking about race, understandable as it may be, can’t be more of a hurdle for you than it is for your Black friend. You can have these feelings — sure, that’s only human — but you can’t hide behind them. And you should be careful about verbalizing your discomfort, too, because that sets up a dynamic where she has to worry about your feelings in discussing her experiences, which may discourage her all together. It’s too big a burden to put on your Black friend to have to set up the perfect conditions under which any talk about race will involve no discomfort on your part and no risk of your saying the wrong thing. That’s an unfair expectation of your friend and your relationship. It’s also an impossible bar.
I know this seems like a lot. Let’s take a breath because in practice it isn’t that hard. You can do this. Let’s boil it down to some concrete advice (that’s what we’re here for after all!):
* First, accept (embrace!) the fact that it’s okay that you don’t know everything. There’s no advance homework you need to do to prepare yourself for a relationship with a Black friend — the chief requirements are the qualities of any and all friendships: openness, honesty and empathy. (Though a willingness to watch a Girlfriends marathon at the drop of a hat also helps.)
* It’s also okay that you’ve had a very different experience in life and won’t have a firsthand understanding of what your friend has gone through. If we could have intimate relationships only with people whose lives were exactly the same as ours, our pool for potential friends would be small (and boring!).
* You have to trust that even if you say the wrong thing one time (you might!) that your friend isn’t going to categorically cancel you. Instead, it could be an opportunity for her to share how you can support her better (and vice versa). That’s how friendships grow.
* I encourage you to prompt these conversations. Because here’s another confession: sometimes it feels, as a Black person, that you’re the only one “allowed” to bring up race, or as if it’s solely your responsibility to initiate any conversations about the subject. But race affects everybody and everything, so it’s just as important for you to be proactive… even if it’s an article or observation or movie that serves as an opening to discuss with your friend. You can also ask questions — not by interrogating your friend, but in the same way you might want to understand her relationship with her parents better, or her ex-boyfriend. Ask for personal stories instead of asking more general questions about race theory or current affairs. She may not have a review ready of the latest Ta-Nehisi Coates but everyone loves to talk about themselves and how they have experienced the world. You learn about the people closest to you, slowly, over time and with a sincere curiosity.
Bear in mind too, that this friendship requires bravery of your friend, as well. It takes a lot for a Black person to share intimate, sometimes painful experiences. Her biggest fears (speaking again, from my own experience) are probably that you’ll minimize or diminish what she says, or get so appalled and upset about the injustices she experiences that she ends up comforting you. So, do aim to avoid those classic pitfalls.
The good news is that for all your worries about the minefield of confronting race and racism (and any hard topic, really), the more you engage in these discussions, the easier it will get. The more it comes up, the more it will organically become a fluid part of your conversations. You’ll get braver about asking questions and sharing and so will she and before you know it, you’ll have inside jokes about washcloths and leg washing.
Ultimately: You have to go there. You have to lay bare your vulnerabilities and say (actually say the words, out loud): I want to talk about this, and I see you and I’m here for you and there’s nothing you can’t tell me and I won’t always say or do the right thing but I love you.
Those are the elements of friendship that are extra important when making your relationship with your Black friends grow and flourish, but they’re also not race specific! Try ’em on your white friends, too.
Thoughts? Please feel free to email me with any questions or feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you!
Christine Pride is a writer, book editor and content consultant. Her debut novel, We Are Not Like Them, written with Jo Piazza will be published by Atria in 2021. She lives in Harlem, New York. She also wrote the Cup of Jo post Five Things I Want to Tell My White Friends. Feel free to email her with your questions at email@example.com or connect with her on Instagram @cpride.
(Photo by Christine Han for Cup of Jo.)