A guide to allyship & interracial friendships

Jan 30, 2015 @ 4:13 pm | By TheFeministGriote | 8 Comments

Back in August  The Public Religion Research Institute published a study that really painted a grim picture of Americans social networks. That study showed that 91% of white Americans have an all white friend circle and only 5% of that circle consists of people of color. However, Black Americans friend circles are 83% homogeneous, while eight percent of that circle is white and six percent their friend group is of another race. As a person who navigates the world as a Black woman, I would love to ask the white folks in this study some nuanced questions about what is their definition of friendship and how does it look like in praxis in their life? I am willing to bet good money that these good white folks who were polled about their POC friend circle, probably have far less than five percent. My definition of friendship is who are three crucial people you would call if you lost your job, got some devastating news from the doctor, or if you found out that your boo was cheating on you and you needed to phone a friend, who would that friend be?  I recently had a talk with a white woman who does diversity and inclusion work and she admitted that she has no POC as close friends. Again, this is a person who uses their privilege to educate other whites on their privilege, but has no real deep bonds with POC outside of business. I am of the opinion that this is very common within white America.

Being white in the U.S. allows one the option to opt out of diversity, while the livelihoods of POC in this country does not afford such an option. POC cannot limit our interactions with whites, even when we find these interactions to be triggering and in worst normalized cases, deadly!

The only way that stereotypes can thrive is in isolation from the other, when people purposefully keep themselves segregated and uniformed about the other. Once you bring folks together and they get to commune with each other in a healthy and organic way, in a way that does not tokenize the other, stereotypes dissipate. However, as a Black woman who is currently navigating interracial friendships with white folks, I can say that these friendships are hard.  Interracial friendships present unique challenges and in many cases can be very emotionally taxing for the POC. Unfortunately, due to white privilege and white supremacy white people are not really prepared on how to engage with POC in a way that does not make the POC feel like a cultural broker.

“Racism is ubiquitous,” which means eventually there will be a time in the friendship where the white persons privilege will do harm, obstruct, or simply take up too much space. When these infractions happen, more often than not the Black person will have to call in, check, read, or correct, the white person and that is where typically the friendship ends, changes drastically, or in some rare circumstances, it survives and gets fortified! The reason these friendships come to an end, is because often times white people cannot emotionally stand being corrected by a person of color. White people struggle not to center their hurt feelings when they have been told they made a racist comment. In many cases white people view their hurt feelings akin to oppression. It also must be stated that it  is not easy for a POC to call out/in a friend, who has made a racist comment. However, more often than not, because white people are so accustomed to Black bodies being in service to them, especially Black female bodies, we are seen as the mammy figures who must suture the white persons ego.

I am of the opinion that white people who have a robust POC circle should be more vigilant of their privilege than the white person who does not. Sometimes closeness can breed a dangerous form of familiarity. It is like the cisgender hetero woman who has a bastion of gay male friends, but thinks she can appropriate gay men’s lingo and speak for gay men. Proximity to Blackness is not an excuse to NOT police your whiteness. 

Whites who are given access into POC spaces (yes being a white person with access to heavily POC spaces is a sacred privilege) and who have POC folks in their life who are willing to go against the cultural narrative that says, you can’t trust white people, must honor this privilege by making themselves malleable to correction. Being an ally is not an identity it is a process. There is no Maslow hierarchy of allyship. There is no level of self-actualization in being an anti-racist ally that renders you above reproach and critique. However, because being an ally is a process, I have included the levels of this process as I see it.

Like Meek Mills the rapper said, “there’s levels to this shit.”

Level 098- recognizing your white privilege recognizing there is NOTHING radical about a white person recognizing that there is such an institution called white privilege. You would have to tell yourself many lies and commit to an extreme level of willful ignorance, to ignore the fact that you have won the race lottery if you were born white on this planet!

Level 099-willingness to unpack your white privilege okay so you realized that you are well intentioned liberal parents, did you a disservice by perpetuating the violent mythology of color-blind theory to you and you have survived the discovering you have white privilege now what? Now you as the white person must unpack your duffel bag of privilege and educate yourself on how you profit from this privilege and how others suffer from not having this privilege. This means you have to read books (preferably by POC), attend workshops (preferably by POC), and get out in the world open and open your eyes and pay attention. Do not expect POC to be your designated teacher, you have to put in the sweat equity and commit to learning.

Level 101-willingness to scrutinize your whiteness and recognize that white people have a race and in doing so white folks should  racialize their perceptions of themselves and each other. Scrutinize your whiteness meaning you need to complicate your definition of whiteness and how you see whiteness.  Do not fall prey to the Abraham Lincoln disease. Abraham Lincoln was a  segregationist, he believed Black folks should be paid to work, but also believed in the superiority of white folks over Black folks. So check your psyche and your unconscious beliefs where you believe that white people are inherently better, more skilled, smarter, more honest, and more human than POC.

Level 200-willingness to be an ally to POC/willingness to use white privilege to make space for POC to speak for themselves (note allies do NOT speak for POC, we have agency and can speak for ourselves). This is self explanatory!

Level 300- willingness to speak to other whites about racism and challenge other whites to racialize themselves and see themselves as part of the conversation on race. Also, on this level a white person MUST be willing to be corrected when their privilege rears its head and be committed to not positing their hurt feelings above this correction and NOT treating their hurt feelings like an oppression. Okay, this where things usually go left and where lots of damage is done to POC. First and foremost, POC have great faith and hope that white people not only can understand racism, but that they can also be great allies in dismantling systemic racism. It this hope and faith that keeps some of us POC willing to engage and sometimes teach white folks about racism. However, because all white people were socialized in a racist society, ALL white people are racist. Now, that is not an eternal state of being. Mistakes will happen this does not mean you are failure, it means you have a privilege and it reared its head and it needed to be brought to your attention. At this stage of the ally process, you should be less concerned about being called a racist and more concerned about remedying triggering racist interactions and comments. You must understand that as a white person you come to the topic of race from an intellectual stand-point and from a a place of extreme privilege. While, racism for POC is not theory it not intellectual, it is a lived experience that is sometimes fatal. Most folks do not like to be corrected, but correction is what makes us better and it also signifies that someone thinks you are capable of doing better than what you are currently manifesting. So, take the challenge lean into the discomfort for it is in that discomfort healing and understanding is waiting to greet you.

Level 400-willingness to divest from white supremacy (the use of white supremacy here has nothing to do with Neo-Nazi’s or the KKK. It is about being keenly aware of how global whiteness functions and how to be white is considered the default position and therefore means to be human and all others must qualify fore their humanity.) In lamens terms decenter your whiteness.

CEU’s (Continuing Education)-knowing that being an ally is a process and not an identity and like Chimamanda Adichie said, “racism should not ever happened so you don’t get a cookie for reducing it.”

These friendships can work and can help to heal cultural and historical wounds on both sides. Friendship offers a different level of intimacy and partnership that romantic relationship often lack and struggle to maintain. In order for interracial friendships to work, both parties must be willing to address the power dynamics of the friendship and both parties must be willing to be vulnerable with each other about what they can or cannot deal with within the friendship space.


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8 Responses to “ A guide to allyship & interracial friendships ”

  1. This is the best piece I’ve read on this topic. I am not a POC and navigating through how to be an ally or a friend, and how that is defined is challenging..learning. I deeply appreciate this piece and it’s clarity, and I will be sharing it widely..and referring back to it many times.
    Thank you.

  2. What a complete crock of shit.

  3. I’ve been half of an interracial marriage for over a third of a century, my wife and I have three children who identify themselves as biracial but deal routinely with the fact that a misinformed and uniformed society classifies them as black. None have demonstrated racial, ethnic, or religious preferences in his or her choice of life partner. All of which means I have a tendency to rest on my laurels – and get deservedly whacked in the head when I do.

    Most white folk who are aware this needs to be addressed tend to differentiate between racism and prejudice. As in prejudice is an artifact of cultural conditioning, internalized without conscious effort or intent and racism is the conscious decision to act on that prejudice to harm others. This definition is useful only to white folk struggling to acknowledge their own responsibility – and they often are struggling, don’t confuse a lack of progress with a lack of effort. (Conversely, white folk should not confuse effort with progress.) Though I know this definition is frustrating, I also know it’s the emotional defense equivalent of a scab and will eventually drop off of its own accord. Educating can help, confronting can prolong the process – the defense is perceived as more important to their safety/survival/self-acceptance every time it is challenged.

    Taking a chance here and extrapolating from the life experience of one white guy born and raised in the south: For the white person, developing an understanding of racism in terms of effect – and an understanding of one’s responsibility for and need to address racism – is an evolutionary process. It is not linear. And, even with sincere effort and intent, I can testify it takes something longer than thirty-four years to become so ingrained in one’s personality that it doesn’t require conscious thought.

  4. Start off, I’m white. I moved from the NYC metro area to a place that is over 90% white. I do not have a lot of POC people in my friend circle and at the moment that is largely because of where I live. My best friend is Japanese and Irish and my goddaughter (her daughter) is that plus Native American and some other mix of white. On my list of three crucial people I would call in the situations that gave your definition of friendship she is the only one on the list that isn’t my parents who obviously are also white. Anyone after her would find out eventually but not in a crisis management mode because I think she’s the only one I have that would understand and my parents are the only ones who can help. My definition of friend is someone I hang out with, acquaintance is someone I will talk to about something not related to school or work, my definition of good friend is someone I can dump my shit on and vice versa. Best friend is reserved for the woman mentioned above. I have 4 good friends after her, 1 is black.

    I feel generally uncomfortable around white people. Some of it’s because my own intersections put me in places that make me an outsider, but anything related directly to color is because I’m aware of how racist we are. I’m in a college town in a more outwardly Christian place so I’m also actually fearful of the really really wrong white people. I’m an atheist and stay away from people who are visibly religious, this starts at wearing a cross. A lot of that is because the judging back and forth, a reasonable chunk of it is because of fear for my safety and mental health. Most of the POC women around here are also Muslim and visibly religious as well. Many others are east Asian exchange students and understandably tend to stick with other speakers of their home language. I’m on acquaintance level with all but one person at my 32,000 person university and I’m 10 years older than most of the other students. I have one black woman in all of my classes and we were in each other’s class last year and share notes and chat about random crap. She graduates this year and will move back to her home which is the only place in this state that isn’t over 90% white I think (it’s 88%). Since I’m also a STEM major the number of women in my classes tends to be somewhere between I’m the only one to half a dozen in the really packed classes.

    I wish I had a more diverse friend group. I do have some POC people who I would consider friends and at least in a few places I know it’s mutual. It takes me a very long time to get to hanging out with someone on purpose, often years because of my own trust issues, and for very good reasons white people are more likely to reciprocate friendly action from another white person. That mistrust of white people is deserved but I also don’t know what to do about when seeking friendship. Also with that in mind, how do I decenter my whiteness when dealing with anyone who for good reason might be afraid because of it? I have no idea if I’m a good ally because I’ve never been called on it one way or another.

  5. This is amazing. Thank you. Bookmarked.

    As a Whitey McWhitePerson I’ve been navigating interracial friendships (hell, relationships generally) with the knowledge that sooner or later – and the closer I get – I am likely to step in it and reveal how oblivious to my white privilege I can be. I’ve blundered into this, many, many times actually. (And probably WAY more than I even know.) I’m sorry to say I have not always handled correction well, especially not at first. But I am so grateful and humbled by those who have invested time and effort in enlightening me, whether in person or in a blog post like this, even (maybe especially?) when they do so harshly. Because my hurt fee-fees is not even remotely comparable to the violence and oppression of racism in Western cultures.

  6. francislholland | May 9, 2015 7:19 am

    I’m a Black man, now 51. In childhood, I had several white best friends. One betrayed me by calling me N.

    Another has never betrayed me in 41 years of friendship. I began to learn fluent Spanish when I visited his mother’said house in South America.

    This latter white friend from a south American country has always understood white privilege keenly, based on his intelligence and our experience.

    For example, police once asked me what I was doing in a white neighborhood, but immediately backed down when my white friend, who was also a stranger to police, “vouched” for me. That was an experience for both of us in white privilege and white-imposed burden.

    Shortly afterward, my friend disavowed white privilege by identifying himself as south American on the application to a white liberal arts college that we both briefly attended.

    On the first day there, when he went to get his door keys, staff apologized to him profusely when they saw that his skin was white. Thinking his skin was brown, they had assigned him to live in the “Disco Dorm” along with the other brown people.

    My friend informed them that there was no mistake, that he and I and all of the Black and brown people were rooming together and, implicitly, their mistake was in believing that this was a terrible mistake.

    Perhaps it makes sense that his father and I have also been friends since I was a child, spending half my days at their house when my friend wasn’t at my house.

    We disagree with everything together: sexism, color-aroused oppression, imperialism, capitalism, hypocrisy, Ronald Reagan…

  7. […] to be a good actor? To be the real ally you consider yourself to be? Then I suggest you read this guide to allyship & interracial friendships on The Feminist Griote, as it breaks allyship down extremely well. The article focuses on white allies to POC, […]

  8. As a 64 year old black woman and having lived, worked and been educated with whites throughout my life. I do not believe that a real friendship between Blacks and whites(especially white women) is possible. Between a black man/woman and a white man there might be a friendship if one views that white person as a human being and he views you as a human being. White women make everything about them and expect to be coddled. They are willfully obtuse. I have had good and fulfilling friendships with other people of color such as Latinos, Asians or others. I will also note that one might be able to relate to non American whites on a human level.

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