How to Talk about Race and Racism in Your Friendships

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Polfliet: We talk about race issues all the time. We have aha moments together that make sense on so many levels. We’re both introspective. For example, we had a conversation, and I realized that the most harmful White people I’ve ever encountered are the White people I have let close to me rather than the people who are not as close or people I don’t know. Because they’re close to you, they have access to you, and there’s unsaid permission that builds up.

So I had that aha moment with Hannah. Because we get to talk about this so much, we get to dissect things. I’m faced with someone who’s open to hearing my experience, and I feel free to share. It’s not always a deep, serious, and trauma-based realization. Sometimes it’s funny stuff, like her growing up and loving something that I feel is super White. We have given ourselves enough space where I trust her, where I can open up in vulnerable moments, and she is super receptive, and she doesn’t feel that I come for her Whiteness. I have had interactions with White people where I’ve made a comment about something and they feel that my making a comment about society is a comment on their personality or about them as a person. If I’m talking about society, and I’m saying White people are problematic, I’m not saying that Hannah’s problematic. I’m saying White society is weird, and so we can probably agree on that and agree when things are awkward.

A lot of the time, people don’t want to acknowledge the awkwardness. They want to run away from it, or they want to make it feel as if we’re the same or that if we’re best friends then everything is fine. But we have to talk about the elephant in the room because that’s the only way we’re going to get closer to one another. It’s talking about how we grew up, what we love, and what we think is normal, and not only talking about the common ground that’s White. It doesn’t take away from our friendship to admit that because she’s White and because I’m Black, there are going to be differences. It makes it more rich. She knows about my culture, and she wants to come visit my country. I get to open up on all aspects, and she’s created space that not all White people do when they’re friends with people of color. It’s celebrating the differences and accepting the awkwardness and bonding over it rather than seeing it as a means to separate from one another.

Summerhill: We have the podcast where we’re always talking about race and racism, and we usually invite guests of color to come on and share their experiences. Then in half of the episodes, Yseult and I are talking about that intersection or that tension that exists between White people and people of color and, in our case, White people and Black people. We realize we exist in the world completely differently, and every time we hang out or have a casual conversation, whether we’re getting dinner as friends or working together as business partners, there are things to negotiate and to navigate that neither of us necessarily anticipated. Race comes up as a factor in every moment of every interaction.

Yseult is a mirror to my own Whiteness because White people go through life thinking that they’re the default race and that they’re raceless, and they never have to talk about race or experience race or think about it, and they see themselves outside of racism. I definitely went through many decades of my life like that before diving into anti-racism work. So every day, as Yseult said, we have aha moments, and they’re not always comfortable. Sometimes they’re super painful and super traumatic because the relationships between people of color and White people in this country are layered deep, going generations back in trauma and exploitation and harm. All of that is an undercurrent of our friendship that we can’t ignore.

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