Do You Really Talk To Your Friends About Race?

Some strange realization hit me one night when I was hanging out with my two childhood friends from elementary school. We never really talk about race. All three of us have pride that we have remained friends for almost four decades.  That takes love and dedication. It’s not easy but from passing notes in class to adulthood we have been in each others lives.  So this is why it really took me by surprise how one night I realized, I can’t remember us ever talking about race for real. I was one of the only “black” girls in my predominantly white elementary school.  These friends, who are white, never treated me differently because I was a different color than them. They always simply accepted me for me.

One evening, while having wine and cheese at my friend’s fabulous apartment, we started talking about race because one of them is sending her kids to a charter school in NYC with predominantly brown and black students.  She mentioned her kids don’t see the color of their brown and black friends. They don’t call them black, rather other random words to describe skin tone. They just think of one another as friends. I get it, kind, innocent kids having friends for friends sake, but I was surprised at my reaction.  As an adult to insist that the kids don’t see color triggered anger within me. To me, everyone sees color. Whether we address the differences or not is a different story altogether. Everywhere I go people can see my skin color. They do get very confused because I look different. The classic question for mixed kids is the ever-present… “Where are you from?”

As I’ve gotten older and wiser, I don’t think it’s okay to pretend you are colorblind.  I believe it would be nice to teach our kids that there are many different cultures and skin tones and to invite them to learn more about difference, not necessarily  to not notice skin tone differences. I also can no longer except when those close to me say things about race that are insensitive without meaning to. I know they do not mean harm at all, there is just a strong misunderstanding. I never used challenge friends and family about racial issues and such.  I’m reminding myself of my Italian grandmother who always told it like she saw it, but as she aged, it just got worse. Most old people have a reputation for just saying anything on their minds. Oh no! Am I going down Nana’s path? I’m too young.

I think what really surprised me was the extent of ignorance about deeply ingrained racial issues in America that my dear intelligent friends had.  This is how separate America is.  If you are white, depending on where you live and who you associate with, you can live without really understanding racism in our society. I was left wondering….why has it taken us decades to talk about race? As a women of color with a white mother, a huge white extended Italian family and close white friends, it really took me by surprise when I left my girlfriend’s house that evening. I rarely talk to my white friends about race.

Girls Hang by Bella Pilar

Girls Hang by Bella Pilar

With friends of color of all persuasions, we always talk about race.  It was interesting to notice. Why is that? My Ethiopian friend, Sebene Selassie,  put me onto the whole “white fragility” movement, which I was unaware of.  A white woman, Dr. Robin D’Angelo, writes about white privilege in her article “Why Is It So Hard To Talk To White People About Racism.” Oh how interesting, I thought.

I sent this article to my friend with the kids…and the email response was not what I would’ve wanted to hear…defensive and not understanding of what I was trying to share. Total miscommunication.  We will work it, I hope. I don’t want to hurt my friends’ feelings at all, but I also can’t accept listening to falsehoods anymore. In my opinion, it is best the kids are taught that it’s good to acknowledge varying skin tones and embrace cultural difference.

Dr. Robin D’Angelo writes from her white female perspective….”Not often encountering these challenges, we withdraw, defend, cry, argue, minimize, ignore, and in other ways push back to regain our racial position and equilibrium. I term that push back white fragility.”  This is how I felt during part of our conversation that night….and that was why I was disappointed, surprised and angry.  But I needed time to process it, so I didn’t share everything with my friends that night.

Has this ever happened to you? Do you talk to your close friends about race and inclusion?  How can we open dialogue in a positive way? I think the fact that I don’t often talk about race to my white friends is not a good thing. I know a lot of them are shocked to hear how I really felt as we got older.  Some friendships ended because I was just tired of living in a white world where I wasn’t really feeling comfortable to be my authentic, diverse self. This is not good. I would advise younger people to have the conversations earlier before you get to a breaking point and just cut friendships off.

How can we talk about racial differences and issues with our close friends with ease? I’d love to hear your thoughts. I definitely did not master this game. Has anyone?

4 Comments

  1. abc
    June 27, 2018 / 4:49 pm

    I didn’t have much luck with that neither. I found that they were very defensive and took it almost as an attack. On the other hand, the same people were quiet when our mutual friends made openly racist comments. It is important to have these discussions to know who your true friends are.

    • June 28, 2018 / 2:49 pm

      Thanks so much for your comment. Yes, it does feel like an attack to some of our friends, but it just is not. I totally agree these conversations are important to have. May the positive dialogue begin!

  2. August 30, 2018 / 6:17 pm

    Hi Hope,
    Thank you for so bravely taking on this vitally important topic at this dangerous time in our country’s evolution. I found my way here from your Businessese interview. As an “old white guy” with young mixed race grandkids (Asian/white) I’m looking for help at being better myself and helping them navigate the world, too.
    One thing I hope you’ll dig deeper into is how those difficult conversations actually played out and then explore ways we can make them more productive. I have no doubt that I say and do stupid, hurtful things. I don’t want to stay quiet. And reading/hearing/thinking about better ways to celebrate our different “tones” of skin, voice, action, and thought seems like a good place to work on it.
    Have I demonstrated my ignorance? 😮

    • August 31, 2018 / 1:38 pm

      Hello Tom, Thank you for sharing. We all say the wrong things sometimes. No one is immune to that, but it’s fantastic that you are open to learn and grow now that your grandkids are going to be learning a lot from you. My grandparents (German/Jewish & Italian) were not happy at all that their daughter married an African. But once us kids came, they were in love with us and treated us like gold. It used to really bother them when friends and strangers made comments. Just because they had black grandkids didn’t mean their biases disappeared. This is why I’m so happy to hear you are willing to work on evolving. I will now consider digging deeper to answer your questions so stay tuned.

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