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On Being Friends With White People

A cereal box of "good friends" features a black woman and a white woman smiling broadly

I eagerly read Brittney Cooper's article on Salon this week, "The Politics of Being Friends with White People."  While she and I have many demographics in common--being the academically accelerated Black girl in mostly white classes—there are huge differences in our experiences.  I think much of that may have to do with geographical context.

Unlike Cooper, whose bio says she grew up in Louisiana, I grew up in Berkeley, California.  Cooper talks about how it was the norm for white people in her community to vote Republican.  I can understand that it would be difficult to form close ties with white people whose political ideologies have been traditionally been associated with racist legislation and racist political positions.  Growing up in Berkeley in the 70s and 80s, Republicans were rare.  In this kind of urban, progressive context, racism is a big no-no.  White people have plenty of racist thoughts and feelings, but they learn how to keep them hidden, a false sort of progress.
 
However, one positive impact on the racial landscape here has been several decades of unlearning racism work that white people have been leading in collaboration with people of color.  The idea is that racism is a huge part of our society, everyone absorbs it, all white people have racist patterns (and all people of color have internalized racist patterns).  White people don't need to feel ashamed that they have racism, but need to take responsibility for unlearning the racism, and become strong allies to people of color and join the struggle to end racism.  To be sure, there are lots of white people out there who talk a good game.  In the best practices of the work, white people need to commit to anti-racist work that goes beyond the intellectual.  They need a community of white allies to assist them in the emotional heavy lifting to actually uproot the patterns.  One of my closest white friends has been able to do all that work, and that's why we're tight. 
 
I met her in my late 20s, when we were in a support group for youth workers.  At the time, there were four of us, two white and two Black.  When the other Black guy left, my friend and the other white person encouraged us to recruit another person of color so I wouldn't feel isolated with just white people in the group.  This was a new experience for me, because no white people had ever been sensitive to that before, or even noticed.  Of course, like Cooper, I was used to being the only person of color in various contexts, so I wasn't worried about it.  "Besides," I said.  "It might be hard to find another person of color who's doing this kind of emotional processing around youth work."
 
"Oh right," my friend said sarcastically.  "Because you're the only one." 
 
I was floored.  No white person had ever had any insight into that dynamic for many college educated people of color.  We get used to being the only person of color in a given environment, and feel like no other people of color would want to join.  Not only did my friend know the dynamic, but she was confident enough to talk smack to me about it.  At that moment, I trusted her more than I had any white person before.  I could step out of the eternal role of racial teacher and I finally had a white peer who could both teach and learn in this arena.  As an ally, she could offer something even a friend of color could not:  the ability to see outside my isolated perspective that had been shaped by racism.  
 
It is useful to note that she's Jewish, and in my experience Jews are often leading white people in the fight against racism.  At the time, she was leading unlearning racism work among young people in the Jewish community.
 
Another one of her greatest hits came a couple years later.  Cooper describes a world in which white people were uninterested in people of color.  In contrast, in many urban environments, white people's street cred increases exponentially when they have a friend of color.  My friend suggested that we go to the local flea market.  I confessed that I felt uncomfortable going to a heavily Black social scene with a white friend.  She laughed and admitted that her social stock would probably go up being there with a Black friend.  I don't remember if we ended up going or not, but I recall how much I could relax in the friendship knowing that she was aware of ways that white people can unconsciously exploit people of color for social capital in this cultural landscape, and wasn't pushing that agenda.
 
Eventually we did encounter challenges around socializing.  I live most of my social life in communities of color, and she lives most of her life in the Jewish community, so often we would have schedule conflicts for social events.  Not that we couldn't go to each other's events, but given our limited social time, we often ended up having dinner or tea and talking about our lives. 
 
The one time I felt betrayed by her around race was when we were both single and dating men.  She had gotten a piercing, and the guy she worked with was handsome and Black.  She had hooked him up with one of her white friends.  I was furious.  How could she hook up the white girl, the blonde shiksa, no less!  My friend was bewildered.  She explained that he wasn't a match for me (I'm not the piercing type).  That as she talked to him, he had lots in common with her other friend, so that hookup made sense.  She didn't get it.  It's not about making sense, it's just a Black loyalty girl thing.  You don't hook the brothers up with your white girlfriends.  It's simply not done. 
 
We can laugh about all of it now.  She's married to a nice Jewish boy and I'm married to a good Black man, and we compare notes on how our feminist ideals have been affected by our tenure in heterosexual marriages.  She's become a therapist, and I teach college writing.  Ultimately, I think our feminism and commitment to personal healing, fighting oppression, and creativity have kept us connected, even through multiple cross-country moves. 
 
In a society that is founded on white supremacy, it's difficult to create and maintain close connections across race.  People of color have to look at race all the time.  White privilege means that white people don't have to look.  In my experience, the most meaningful friendships can happen with white people who make the choice to look at race, even though it can be profoundly uncomfortable for them.  And it certainly helps if they come to the friendship with some of that work already under their belts.

Read more of writer and performer Aya de Leon's work on her personal site.


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Comments

26 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Yawn.

This post was tailor-made to make white 'allies' feel good about their commitment to 'da struggle'. Nah homie. Keep working. No cookies for you.

Right, because if you are

Right, because if you are born into one privilege or another you are an asshole forever and looking for cookies/points from others when you work on your internalized racism/bigotry/classism and befriend people from who are from a different social/religious/cultural/economic/or racial background than you. I'm working hard on all that shit inside of me, but I don't need or want any "cookies" from you or anyone else. Grow up.

I'm black and I couldn't

I'm black and I couldn't agree more with you so don't mind the person above me

"I'm working hard on all that

"I'm working hard on all that shit inside of me, but I don't need or want any "cookies" from you or anyone else."

You are hilarious. Best of luck with that work, and when you slip up and show reveal your true nature, attribute it to your ongoing evolution, that you're still "working hard on all that shit inside of you". Good luck.

I agree. This whole article

I agree. This whole article is absurdly racist. We have a black president, more black people then white by far as celebrities. Black models and actresses more often then white on the front of every magazine, not even including the many black-only magazines like Essence, Ebony, Uptown, and what have you. There has been absolute no plus to being a white person during my lifetime. But some how we are talking, and talking about white people being racist, and smiling fondly on black people for doing the very same thing! Why do black people have the right to exclude white people, exactly? Why is it OK to talk about white "friends" as some sort of exotic pets, but if I talked about being friends with black people as a project i would be in trouble. Black people can say they hate all white people, and liberals cheer.

I completely agree with

I completely agree with almost everything you said!!!....but, celebrities are not majority black and non-black magazines usually do have white celebrities on their covers. It's like white people are pets that black people have to train to be good. Like"they're doing good stepping on eggshells and denouncing their own race but not expressing white guilt or acting like they're freed from the transgressions of their race by correcting their 'behavior'." And there's so much hypocrisy.

It is useful to note that

It is useful to note that she’s Jewish, and in my experience Jews are often leading white people in the fight against racism.

Part of this, of course, is because Jews were themselves a persecuted minority. And it's often true that "white supremacy" is really "white Christian supremacy".

Same poster as above

And now I've learned that Hugo Schwyzer is Jewish. FUCK.

I should emphasize that Jews can be as racist as anyone else. It breaks my heart every time it happens.

Interesting

You know, I wrote a lot of words here, originally, in response to your essay. I just deleted them, because writing them all out helped me understand more of what you wrote than I originally did (if that makes sense). My first reaction to the Salon piece and to some of yours had to do with my own personal horror of the idea of my friends feeling uncomfortable being my friend or not wanting to take me places because of the way it might look to other people.

Strangely, I didn't feel at all "defensive" reading through the #solidarityisforwhitewomen tweets whereas I kind of did reading these two essays. For me, It was the friendship thing that hit a nerve.

But I get it now. See, I see everything through the lens of having been an outcast in school and having felt left out. I am overly grateful for friends, whenever I see someone feeling left out at a party I will make them my new best friend because I know how that feels, and I am crazy committed to standing up for people. It's not all good, though. For years, I had a real hard time trusting *anyone*. For years, I was often kind of rude to people because I thought they were only talking to me in order to make fun of me. I never felt completely sure that anyone was really my friend.

At the same time, you've had to see things through the lens of having had to deal with an intrinsically racist society. But whereas my shit ended over a decade ago, this is something you're still living with. So I understand the caution, and I understand that me, or other non-famous white feminists being all "No, really! I'm super committed to intersectionality! This is really important to me too! Can't we be friends? I like friends!" isn't enough when you've been burned by others like us before. I get it. The onus is on us to be better to you, and to be better at this.

So, this is not a comment, so much as a thanks. Because I was raised in a super social justice oriented family, and because most of the work I do, writing-wise, is about sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, etc., and because these are issues that really are terribly important to me, I sometimes forget that I have things to learn, too. So, you know, thanks.

PS- For the record though, I do still kind of think it would be more racist than not to set people up on a date and assume they had things in common because they happen to be the same race. I'd be kinda weirded out if someone kept setting me up with random Italian dudes. Oh, and sorry this is still so long.

racism or Racism?

I eagerly read Aya de Leon's article, "On Being Friends with White People," in Bitch Magazine this week. While she and I have many demographics in common--being the academically accelerated different person in mostly mainstream classes—there are huge differences in our experiences. I think much of that may have to do with heterosexist context.

First of all, I would never refer to myself as "Gay" and those different than me as "straight." By continually referring to herself as "Black" and others as "white," she is inherently implying racism on her own part. I would not even begin to touch on the inherent racism in her reference to Jewish people, more eloquently called out by Anonymous above.

As an academically accelerated gay man (does that comment on myself mean that I am homosexist or misogynistic, or somewhat elitist?), I experienced what it means to be different. That taught me to observe, admire and respect the various differences in humans that exist. That includes race, but race is not the only difference that makes people interesting.

I have no desire to earn "social capital" for my thinking. I desire to surround myself with diverse, interesting friends. This has led to a very enjoyable life thus far.

Really? You have completely

Really? You have completely missed the point. You might try learning about how racism works in our society before you post this kind of thing.

An Honest Question

I'm from a South American country so I don't really get how racial things work in USA, but there's something that's been bugging me since I read this article for the first time: what was so wrong about you friend hooking up a black man with a white girl? I thought it was more racist to assume that people from the same race must always be matched based on race instead of interests (which, I've read, it's something that lots of white folks do over there?).

wow

im sorry but this statement is pretty racist:

"It’s not about making sense, it’s just a Black loyalty girl thing. You don’t hook the brothers up with your white girlfriends. It’s simply not done. "

I mean you do know that people had to fight for the right to be in interracial relationships and marriages dont you? See, e.g. Loving v. Virginia. I hate this mentality, like if I date someone outside of the race, or they vice versa, it is like some huge offense to that person, who isnt my type anyway, who laughs at us on our date down the street. This whole "stick with your own kind" really undermines the entirety of this article, e.g. It's ok to be friends with people outside of your race, but god forbid if you date one, because that person should have been set up with their own kind. I mean, are we really still thinking this way? And wow, so we should also be confined to our "own kind", at least blacks should always date blacks as a first choice, and other races should do likewise?

It's bad enough being ostracized by the idiotic general public when you date interracially, but I shudder to think that intelligent feminist women STILL like this. And even moreso, that BITCH didnt edit this myopic view out of the article.

i thought her "we laugh about

i thought her "we laugh about it now" comment was meant to indicate that she left the "black girl loyalty" rule about hooking up a brother in the past, and has grown up to see that that attitude was as inappropriate as some of the racism she experienced herself.

Then I think that should have

Then I think that should have been said and the reason why it was "funny," deconstructed. And yet, to make that issue jovial, especially considering what interracial couples, or even people who have articulated a desire for the "Other" have had to go through trivializes that experience as a laughing matter. I mean, Emmitt Till anyone?

Especially for readers of this article, who may take the author's opinions as truth, and see that type of ideology as tolerable or funny, or commenters like in the poster above who are unfamiliar with the way Americans treat interracial dating/relationships/sex... It was just pretty offensive to me, and clearly I am not the only respondent who was shocked by reading that statement.

PS from the author

Dear readers, I always find it interesting to read comments on my work. In particular, I loved Haley Westeiner's thoughts. I rarely respond to comments, but it seemed like some well-meaning readers really misunderstood something I said. I won't get into any back and forth by posting additional comments after this, but I thought it was worth it to clarify the interracial dating questions. I am of mixed heritage. Various white clergy refused to marry my parents in the 1960s. I am not against interracial relationships, rather I am the product of one. Smartygirl got it right that my friend and I laugh about it now because I am clear that my black girl loyalty was an irrational position. A man with whom I have little in common is not going to be a good partner for me just because we are both black. But if you study the painful history of black women and relationships with black men it becomes clear that the loyalty position is actually a rigid, irrational response to the sexism and racism coming at us. I mistakenly assumed that readers understood enough about black women's history in the US that the point didn't need clarifying. However, I'm pleased that the readership is wide enough that some people are still learning about our community. In particular, there is a long history of the institutions of the US society targeting and representing black women as undesirable and not valuable for dating and partnership in comparison to white women (and other women of color). Statistically, black women are the least likely of all women to get married and stay married (historically, these stats are not only heterosexist, but they also don't include women who may be happily partnered but not married or happily not partnered). They are, however, connected to the following reality: racism and sexism teach everyone that black women are not worthy of love, only valuable for sex, caretaking, and work. Others are conditioned by these messages about us, and they play out in many different ways. This is one of the vulnerabilities many black women carry, and it can sometimes impact relationships with other women, white women in particular. My friend's actions at the time reminded me of this painful history, and showed that she was also unaware of what a trigger that can be for a black woman, as it was for me at the time. If white women want to be good allies, they need to understand that we may have internalized these messages, and help us stand for what is true about us: we are powerful, wonderful, and loveable. Not just for our sexuality, work, or nurturing but for who we are intrinsically.

I too loved the article, but

I too loved the article, but the whole always set black people up stood out to me as odd. I'm bi, and a new friend of mine is black... so, if I meet a cute black male friend am I supposed to be like "Hey, ya'll both black, go out like you're meant to!" Probably not. Interracial dating happening like second nature is something to be embraced.

Its so funny because the

Its so funny because the Salon article made me refer to the youtube sensation "shit white girls say to black girls" and now that you mention it, this does too but this time it is the black person (the author) that makes me refer to the article not the white girl mentioned in the salon article who compared black hair to a brillow pad. So this is actually really interesting, much more than I previously gave it thought. The author is saying that a white girl who meets a nice black guy should hook him up with her black friend despite their being a better match for him who happens to be white? How does that make sense? O yea I forgot "it's not about making sense". Well I personally like everything to make sense so that is bs to me. As a black male millennial, my dad has always wanted me to be with a black woman regardless of whether or not we actually have anything in common. My record is actually about 50/50. I've even been in love with a black woman and a white woman at different times in my life but the logic is that Im supposed to be "loyal"? Not feelin it at all

Always good to see two perspectives

Y'all consistently produce interesting content, and point me in the direction of other good content to follow up with. Thanks!

...do I get a cookie now? I was told there would be cookies.
Otherwise I can just go back to wankin' it to Tim Wise. I'm afraid if I read too much content by PoC someone might hurt my feewings.

I love when racists like the

I love when racists like the author talk about hating racism. All I needed to read is how she capitalized the B in black and keeps the w in white lowercase. Give me a break.

Reflections on Unpalatable Realness

First, I just want to say thank you to Aya de Leon for writing this post, I really enjoyed reading it and I think it was brave to write some of the things you did. Honestly, any time a Woman of Color takes time to reflect on friendship with White Women, it's a gift. I think a lot of White Women are reticent to write about their friendships with Women of Color 1.) for fear of sounding / being known to be ignorant and 2.) lack of ambition or desire. Maybe those are reversed, maybe not with Bitch readers (hopefully). Also, maybe we are listening? Which would be nice. But we should be 'active' listening.

It's interesting how the betrayal experienced by de Leon when her Jewish White friend in hooked up the Black Man and White 'Shiksa' Woman is the sticking point for many in this article. She writes, "It's simply not done," seeming to speak from the perspective of an affirmative, Black, cultural background. It's the only part of this article that doesn't seem "in line" with mainstream progressive politics, which de-faults to a White perspective.

Multiple, overlapping oppressions occur at the same time. Just because an Interracial couple is oppressed, doesn't mean Black Women aren't also oppressed by combinations of racism and sexism that seem to compel Men of Color to marry Whiter and more conventionally attractive Women, at least according to society's standards (which are roughly Aryan ideals - blond hair, blue eyes, light skin, etc.), as they become more successful. The mention of 'Shiksa,' a pejorative Yiddish term for non-Jewish, fair-skinned women (with the implication that they are to be resented for dating or marrying Jewish men), belies a hierarchy in feminine beauty that women are subject to. It speaks to women's objectification, our increasing trophy wife-ness as men claim power, moving up the socioeconomic ladder; our marginal status and the insecurity that evokes.

It also speaks to the splintering in female relationships that occur when Women are objectified by Men, and we reflect that objectification on ourselves, as it has manifested in real-life consequences for our own opportunities. When different women use their objectified status, their looks - which can evoke both privilege and oppression - to gain power in some perceived way (which in a sense depends on the de-valued status of other women), it does not seem to exactly serve feminine solidarity, especially crossing cultural lines. It might sound like blaming women for being hot or whatever, but the opposite is to deny women's actual agency. For those who don't think they're "using" their looks to get ahead, they probably are privileged into believing they don't. It is strange, as we can't help what we look like, and move about the world as we can, hopefully making the best of whatever we've got. Since Jews (I am one) often have a weird experience of Whiteness (still sometimes feel insecure next to Shiksas), it seems like de Leon was sort of imploring, "who do you have more in common with? Who are you looking out for? The interests of People of Color, or the interests of White Supremacy?" No one has to like it. It doesn't have to be "the highest good" for it to have real validity.

There is such a thing as wanting to keep resources in your community, especially when it is being screwed by outside forces. When a Black Man is successful, he is transcending institutional as well as everyday racism that ensnares so many, evident in a systemic lack of opportunity. I would imagine this kind of resilience is important for communities to see and that it's important for Black Men to acknowledge Black Women as important, beautiful, and instrumental in their success. I would imagine it's important for them to use their resiliency to invest in a healthier Black community, not only to be strong and healthy as Black People but strong and healthy as Men relating to Women, not simply internalizing a spectrum of worth based on complexion. So I can see why it would feel like a betrayal.

It struck me, because my initial emotional response was a catch, a sadness or defensiveness. People are people right? Maybe that's the privileged, definitely culturally-couched reaction. Frankly, it's hard to live on the edge of any community, which I think many people in multicultural or biracial relationships do. Sometimes there's not a lot of support. I know that de Leon only speaks for herself, and I'm sure there are plenty of other people who have different and also very valid feelings about it, but maybe this is why so many of us don't really know too much about other cultures - it's so easy to immediately criticize based on our emotions, without really pondering the broader social and historical context that makes it true.

Really?!?

"The one time I felt betrayed by her around race was when we were both single and dating men.  She had gotten a piercing, and the guy she worked with was handsome and Black.  She had hooked him up with one of her white friends.  I was furious.  How could she hook up the white girl, the blonde shiksa, no less!  My friend was bewildered.  She explained that he wasn’t a match for me (I’m not the piercing type).  That as she talked to him, he had lots in common with her other friend, so that hookup made sense.  She didn’t get it.  It’s not about making sense, it’s just a Black loyalty girl thing.  You don’t hook the brothers up with your white girlfriends.  It’s simply not done. "

This just proves the author feels entitled because of her race. To me, your friend showed how she views people the way Martin Luther King dreamed of, by their character, not by their color. See, MLK dreamed of an equal world with equal rights. You are not entitled to a black man just because you are black. Your white friends should be able to date whom they want in a world that your ancestors fought for. You shouldn't be entitled to a person, scholarship or any other perk just because of your color. It's about equality. Reverse racism and straight up racism are both bred from hate. Btw, I'm white and my best best best friend is black. My favorite thing about her is that she strives for equality. She sees us as the same and I love her for it. We have been best friends since middle school and we both agree that the color of our skin means nothing because our character, interests, and souls, are the same.

Ever ask yourself why there

Ever ask yourself why there are so few Black/Asian friendships? Why just single out whites as having trouble stepping outside of their culture? I am a white female who has a boat load of experiences being "friends" with blacks, asians, etc- almost all of them regrettable. I know choose to exclusively seek out other white people.

Could the lack of white/black friendships be much like the lack of black/asian friendships- just simply too many cultural differences?

Cultural differences may be

Cultural differences may be part of the problem. However, I have to say one thing. Had African American women dated and married African and Caribbean black men in large numbers and moved them and their families to this country, racist whites especially in the south would be a minority by now. Instead, black women such as Barbara Jordan, who profess to be liberal and anti-racist recommend immigration policies which would have preserved white privilege by keeping white people in the majority for the forseeable future! Disgraceful!

Ignorance?

You're ignorant, or you're extremely immature. Way to really place others in a box as a group, rather than as individuals. *eye roll*

I'm a 27-year-old F with friends of ALL different backgrounds and I love them each the same. I don't feel the need to explain my past, present, education, religion, work, or family history to get my point across. Maybe all of you need to stop identifying people by their skin color or cultural background, but recognize we are all human and have the same needs and wants (if you are able to comprehend that). It's 2014. Grow up.

Yes, this world still involves political ideologies and in my opinion the people that can't get past these so-called "differences" are the ones that need to sit back and take a look at themselves.

A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll,

A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll, that found that 40 % of individuals|White race|White people|Caucasoid race|Caucasian race|race} and twenty 5 % of nonwhite people don't have any friends of the alternative race, caused ME to mirror deeply on the relationship segregation that has characterised my very own life.

Rash Ed,
Clipping Path
Clipping Path India