Race and Friendship: A Love Story

I know there is probably some curiosity about my silent retreat experience, which I am still processing and will write about soon.  Until then, here is something I wrote about friendship, racism and being a privileged white woman who realizes her own blind spots.   I wrote it months ago and have been hesitant to publish it because the topic is so complicated, so uncomfortable, for me and for others.

In my life lately, and also in my dreams, race and relationships have been a theme. A few months ago I started having dreams in which interracial relationships were continually a topic. Around the same time, I also became part of a group of racially diverse women-writers for a project on which I was working.

At this time and since, my dreams and my reality have swirled in my head.  I find myself having conversations about race with other women continually.  In each conversation, I try to tentatively explore where I am being led.

For my ethics class, we read a series of letters written from Kate Cannon, a black woman, to Carter Heyward, a white woman.  In the letters, the two theologians explore the topics of racism, sexism and the victimization of women in a very personal context.

At one point in the letters, Heyward writes to Cannon, “I would be lying if I said I am comfortable discussing race- even with you, or maybe especially with you; my fear is that you’ll leave me; that you’ll notice my racism- which I certainly notice- and you’ll leave, close the door.”

I can relate to this sentiment.  While I haven’t ever considered myself as racist, or certainly never said it out loud, racism is a wretched and malignant disease that infects our society at large, and individuals in particular, through our unexamined perspectives and the culture we inhabit. I admit, very uncomfortably, that I have been intimidated by black women and men in different settings.  I admit that I notice when a black person is in my very white neighborhood, and that I might even wonder why.

What do these things say about me?  Nothing I want to admit.  Nothing I want to acknowledge or notice. And yet.  In the words of Cannon, “rebirth is only possible when we face terror face to face.”

This is not just about race.  It is about unconscious fear-based choices transforming to the active decision to love.  It is about negating “otherness” through personal connections unmitigated by where we happen to find ourselves in the social strata, culture or larger world.

A day not so long ago, I realized that for much of my life the majority  of my friends were from the same racial and ethnic group as me.  And most identified with the same gender identity.  And were in the same socioeconomic status. And were probably even in my same weight class.  How did this happen?  I have no explanation and no idea.

And yet.  Things are changing.  My life is changing.  That is a very good thing.

I have a close friend who is black.  She notes to me when she is the only black person in the room- and then we talk more about it.  She tells me what it is like to try and raise  emotionally healthy African American boys into men who understand:

A.  What they are up against in a society that enforces fear of black people, and in particular, black men


B.  Who they really are- regardless of race

I try to imagine looking into the eyes of my five-year-old son and telling him that people will someday look at him with fear, and it is not because of anything he has done.  I try to imagine telling him that he is beautiful, and kind, and so loved, even as the world will see him as a threat. The thought alone leaves my chest aching.

The friend of whom I spoke came to a writing group that I used to host every month, and because my life is changing, I was relieved to look around the room and see that there were women of different races, sexual orientations, religious beliefs, and ages- ranging from early 20s to early 50s.

In writing group that day, we discussed the topic of race through a number of lenses.  One of the quandaries we explored was the balance between recognizing our own privilege and position in society and how it might be different from others, while also honoring the fact that each of us are deeply human, interconnected and in many ways much the same.

On one side of this conversation are realties that some of us have the privilege to ignore, like the day-to-day reality of the black community in Ferguson before and after the shooting of Michael Brown, the boy whose eighteen-year-old body stayed in the street for four hours in the middle of a residential neighborhood after he was killed.

We can ignore the fact that the police communities surrounding St. Louis had institutionalized racism and reinforced the poverty of the black community systematically.  We don’t have to be aware that black families were on the verge of homelessness because of the financial strain caused by tickets for minor, non-criminal violations.  Obviously, those families are not so lucky.

So, on one side of the conversation is this: the impactful and emotional depiction of the events in Ferguson called Ferguson: In Occupied Territory.  Please watch it, with your families if possible. While these events were in the news for a long time, watching this video a month ago was a shock to me, and I believe it may be to others as well.

On the other side of the conversation is us: women around a table, baring their lives as mothers, daughters, educators and activists.  Women who cry with one another, who share the pain of severed relationships and abusive situations, the pain of loving and losing, the pain of hoping we are all “enough” to receive the love we want from the world.

How do these two sides: the reality of social and political conditions and the human desire to connect on a deeper level that supersedes these conditions interact with one another?  Perhaps it is though deep knowing, through silence, listening, and sharing.  Through a mutual facing of fears and realities in partnership with one another- through a deep and abiding friendship that cuts sharply into each of our humanity.

In the letters, Cannon shares these words from a poem:

“Strolling down the sidewalk a woman-pair

Holding quadraphonic conversations in our heads

Sure of words

not sure of the genus of our souls

Agonizing the same truths

Embedded in the common womb

of wrestling supplications

Posing difficult questions

with piercing X-ray vision

inherent in the friendship”

There is truth in the exposing nature, the vulnerability, of true relationship.  There is abiding power in the love that develops between those who choose to take this uncomfortable yet humanizing journey together into deeper interconnectedness.  And love is healing, and not just for individuals who create it between them, but also for the world(s) in which each interacts.  What is sowed by few is reaped by many.  This is the gift of grace.


“When I touch other individuals, they feel touched by me, and in a miraculous way the healing happens, slowly but surely.”

-Kate Cannon, “Can We be Different but Not Alienated: An Exchange of Letters”


How you you deal with the reality of privilege and injustice in the world in healthy and life giving ways?  What does it mean to be “white,” “black”, “brown” in a world where color matters?  How do you find love and connection in the midst of difference?  

2 responses to Race and Friendship: A Love Story

  1. life.overrated

    I know this post is several months old. But I did an internet search on race and friendship, and I have found several posts/articles in which white women mention valuing diverse environments and/or having diverse friendships or something along those lines.

    I am black and in my 30s. I can’t speak for all black people, and, surely, there are many black people who can’t relate to the following. But my experience, and the sense I’ve gotten indirectly from many other black people–especially black women (of which I am one)–is we think about race and friendship more deeply way earlier than white people do, especially those of us who grow up in predominantly white environments and/or attend predominantly white schools. This is because, growing up, we have a hard time “fitting in with” and/or “being accepted” by white peers. At young ages, whites just don’t seem interested in blacks socially, and they see nothing wrong with it whatsoever.

    I can recall times when white classmates asked why I didn’t socialize with a particular group of black girls instead of a mixed group or a white girl I maybe socialized with. I remember my freshman year of college, I attended a different school than the one from which I ultimately graduated. It was a big Southern state university, and all of the black girls I met and I had white roommates. Our roommates and their friends would be very friendly with us, but there definitely were lines drawn–we were never going out to clubs and bars together, and there always an unspoken understanding that us black girls were supposed to hang and go out together and the white roommates and their friends were supposed to hang and go out together. They would/did let an Asian girl into their group socially, but you could forget about one of us getting in. When I transferred to a more academically elite school–a lot smaller and perhaps even more predominantly white–I really did not have any friends at this school the entire three years I was there. It was fine, because I went for its academics and its reputation, but it does not escape me that this was the case socially.

    I don’t know if this has changed, although I feel people try hard to convince everyone it has changed.

    It’s odd, but I’ve noticed a lot of things change dramatically once you leave school…and this issue of whites suddenly taking an interest in blacks socially and valuing diversity is one. But, because many of us have been interested in whites socially in the past for years and experienced, essentially, rejection after rejection, many of us have given up on whites socially by the time whites become interested and “accept” that whites are not interested in us, whether it’s romantically or strictly platonic. I don’t think white people fully “get” this, and some even seem to feel wronged out of absolutely nowhere because a decent percentage of “black people” seem rude to them and/or do not return their social interest. I’ve had at least a few of these experiences at work, and maybe even in graduate school. I feel as if there are times when a white person is making an effort and they’re standing their awkwardly, perhaps wondering why I am not friendly or why I don’t want to engage with them or if I am racist.

    But, honestly and frankly, after all the experiences I had with white people growing up, I am just 95% done with them (there are a couple of people who are exceptions)–I have simply been conditioned to believe and automatically assume that no white person is interested in me socially, or that the roles have turned and now it’s me and other blacks who feel “black people socialize with black people, and white people socialize with white people,” as I feel whites believed all the while I was growing up. I sense a turning of the tables, in a way. At one job, I had white co-workers who would watch me interact with an Asian or black acquaintance in an entirely different way than with them, and I could just sense that they were wondering why they can’t get that same response from me.

    I guess I just don’t understand what changes with white people that 1) makes them “suddenly” interested in more diverse friends/environments/viewpoints when they get older and/or 2) what makes some white people act almost entitled to my social interest or as if my social interest should be a given, as if it’s nothing new, and then act confused, hurt, resentful or what have you when they don’t get it.

    Also, it’s irritating to me how white people always seem to sympathize with black men/boys, but they never seem to understand or try to find out what black women go through. My personal opinion/observation is that, while a black male is more likely to be harassed by police, experience more fear and be treated unfairly in the justice system, black women are more socially alienated…and this is why I say I think more black women can relate to my experience and the “giving up” on whites socially. Black guys get more interracial romantic interest, make friends across racial lines more easily even growing up, and if they play sports everyone admires and accepts them. For black women growing up, it’s ALWAYS “you belong over there with other black girls.” It’s always “I don’t find black girls attractive, but I’m not racist.” And it’s always “I just never meet any black people with whom I have anything in common, but I’d be friends with/date them if I did” when it comes to us. If you’re a white girl, what more do you have in common with a black male baller or rapper, you know? But these guys are steadily with white women; it doesn’t matter in those cases.

    I don’t know if you’ve ever had this type of discussion with your black female friends and acquaintances, but maybe it’d be interesting to see what their takes are on this. Like I said, obviously, not all of us have the same experience or opinion.

    • Learning Labs Consulting Post Author

      Hi there. Thank you so much for engaging this conversation and sharing your story with me in this public space. While I have never had this exact conversation with any of my black, female friends, I have had the conversation with some of them more generally about building trust with white people and a lack of understanding on the behalf of those who are white to “get” what it means to be a black woman in America. I can only speak from my own perspective, but you had asked about two things:

      1.) Why the delay and then increased interest in diversity?

      2.) What makes white people feel entitled to social interest?

      1.) I always “thought” I was open to diverse relationships, but my life did not fulfill my own vision. It is sad and embarrassing, but there was a point of awakening in regards to my lack of diversity in friendships, and it happened to me late enough in life to feel a little shameful.

      My interest in changing this was based upon a lot of things: my personal growth and my circumstances to name two. I was at a point in life to do serious self-relflection. I was also at a grad school very interested in “doing your own work” as a part of social justice.

      2.) I honestly don’t have a great response to this. I think it’s natural to feel pain when social interests aren’t reciprocated. That being said, from what you have written, I perceived significant pain behind the many rejections you mentioned encountering throughout your youth. Where there is a point of potential pain, there is also a will to protect. I think I understand that.

      I want to thank you again for engaging me in this dialogue. I would love to continue it here or elsewhere.


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