Welcome back to ours Race Themes column. This part begins with exciting news …
I wrote a novel about race and friendship with fellow writer Jo Piazza, and it’s out today! We are not like them It’s about a lifelong friendship between a black woman named Riley and her white friend Jen, and Jen’s husband is forced to make a painful calculation after being involved in a shooting of an unarmed black teenager.
Prior to the publication, I created a book club for my friends to talk about issues raised in the book, including the impact that race has had on our lives and relationships in America. Seven, we are about forty years old, we are two white women (Julie and Kate), three Black women (Shauna, Felicia and me), one woman of two races (Denise) and one Latino woman (Jen).
Below are some highlights of the interview, and I hope it will encourage you to gather in your circles and address some of these questions.
Christine: One thing that strikes me is that looking at your beautiful faces, how diverse our circle of friends is. I found it an astonishing statistic that 75 percent of whites have no friends of any other race. Then our friendships are more of an exception. Do you think it’s an accident? Or did we deliberately create multiple groups of friends?
Felicia: Can we take a second to define “friend”? I think they’re like some people, I have a friend Susie at work because I go to lunch with her, but it’s not about what we’re doing here, is it? Also, because they are so diverse, we mean different racial / ethnic backgrounds, right? Class or gender or sexual orientation, etc.
Christine: Yes, for the sake of this discussion, we are talking to friends of many different and deep races – talking on the phone, sharing intimacy, and so on.
Denise: Geography is a big factor, I think. The birthplace in the Midwest was 97% white. I identify as black (despite being my mother’s white), but the friends who were growing up were almost all white, except for one: Pam, an Indian. And if I had been there, as many friends in high school did, I would probably have the same friends, almost all of them white. But I went to Columbia, Missouri, to college, and all those blacks were there. As a child I never walked around blacks and created bad feelings with them / us. It’s horrible to say that, but I subconsciously absorbed so many stereotypes of whites around me – Blacks were poor and lazy and didn’t get good grades. And then I made all these new black friends in college, places where they would get up and go, and they didn’t even like any of the stereotypes that fed my small town.
Jen: When I moved from New York to Oklahoma, I found that Tulsa was mostly black, white, and native. Being Argentine, I was one of the few people in Latin and everyone assumed I was Mexican. I tried to explain to a white colleague about anyone who spoke a distant brown or Spanish-speaking look like a “Mexican,” and, you know, there was immediate fragility and tears. I had to be intentional and I had to look for friends.
Kate: In addition to geography, I think a lot of friendship circles are diverse because a person is a bond. I also approached Christine through all of you. Diversity creates diversity in the connections you make. But it’s hard to make friends, period; and then I think it’s even harder to say, ETA should be different from me, you know?
Christine: Exactly. People often want to be friends with people of other races, but I have a lot of questions how?
Jen: When I started at NYU, I consciously tried to connect with different types of people. For example, I joined a Latin club on campus, and the university’s cultural clubs supported each other and supported each other’s events, so you got to know other people. When I went to Tulsa, in the Bible Belt, I looked for a multi-racial church, which was one of the most intentional things I did most to meet other people who weren’t white in a white city.
Kate: Being from Maine, which is one of the whitest states, I never grew up with a black friend. Even in college, I had mostly white friends. But when I started working in New York, I felt the opportunity to learn about the experiences and perspectives of others. In my first job, a non-profit, I was often the only white person in the room. I was uncomfortable at first. The irony is that a lot of white people get uncomfortable, they know the situation has been reversed, how dangerous it can be. So they assume that the same level of vulnerability is true. Expanding your relationships is a lot of overcoming fear, even if it’s a fear of social awkwardness.
Shauna: It’s funny, I was the opposite. I grew up with all of Blackland in Oakland, California, with entrepreneurial parents, and I wanted to go to HBCU, but my dad encouraged me to go to UCLA so I would be in front of more white people to find out what America really is like. ” It was a cultural coup, but UCLA was also pretty separate, and I was involved in all the black student organizations, so I was still in a bubble. As an adult I have made a way to make connections through social media. I’ve tried to expand my circles online by reaching out to people I wouldn’t otherwise have met.
Denise: Being rotary meant to me that I always felt “different,” what kind of people I was. So from college, I turned to people who were somehow “different”. If you continue in your bubble, you feel comfortable everyone can think your way and bother you. So I would say you have to be open to people who are different from you, and maybe most people aren’t open? They think they are, but they don’t.
Christine: The seven of us talk to each other about the race all the time. But in your other relationships and friendships, does it come?
Julie: My main group of friends in college is white and it never comes up. I honestly doubt they think a lot about the race, so I don’t even raise it. I feel like a white ally, myself should, but not. Probably because I’m afraid I’ll be disappointed with their reactions.
Felicia: That’s how I felt in boarding school. But I was like me, these white girls are my only friends; and if I get something out of being black, it will make everyone uncomfortable or they will say something horrible and then I won’t have anyone. I mean, I went to parties with Confederate flags! And no one said a word. In retrospect, it was very toxic and I am still undoing all the effects. I wasn’t really there because I felt like I couldn’t do it myself. I never want my kids to feel that way.
Denise: That’s the hardest part, if you can’t be your real self, how can that be friendship? But sometimes it’s hard to spread out how hard it can be to be Black. You don’t want to turn on gasoline, you know? Or too much to make you feel like you’re reacting.
Jen: I once met a white friend. We were very close; I spent a lot of time growing up with his family. And a few years ago, he posted on Facebook to find out how American people should speak English. I highlighted how I found this offensive, especially since I knew (and loved) my mother who had never learned English well. He got a lot of defense … the fragility thing we were talking about. And we haven’t talked since.
Felicia: It’s what kills me, if we do it damn well and if we’re not cursed. Since people are like that, we should talk about this. Tell me if I’m doing something wrong; I’m listening, learning and so on. And then if you say something, that’s it, I don’t want to hear that. Or why are you complaining? Or I didn’t mean it that way. So when you come back again, why am I worried?
Kate: That reminds me of the time a friend called me. He’s gay and I inadvertently said something offensive. When he confronted me, I saw how confused he was, and I apologized. He was grateful, and I think our friendship was strengthened because he felt safe saying something.
Jen: That’s a good example of what we were talking about, Kate, because the crime of saying something problematic is almost a thing. And then the reaction is completely different, right? For the most part I find the reaction more problematic than the original.
Christine: One thing I find fascinating (and disturbing) about publishing We are not like them people will have very different reactions depending on their experiences. This interview reminds me of that.
Shauna: Well, that’s amazing. People will come to this book with different experiences. The police almost beat my father in protest of my father in DC creating me out of fear of the police. Once, I went to LA with my friend, and our car broke down, and I was terrified to call the police. My family took root over and over again, in no way do you get into a police car. And learn about her badge numbers and make sure someone will witness your interaction. Black mothers live with that fear every day.
Felicia: I also think that people are more comfortable thinking about their roles within racism in a different way than they were three years ago. Although I laugh when my young white colleagues tell me what it’s like to be black, they mention all the research and scholars. Yes, I know!
Kate: I think the two ways of talking about the book are about individual and structural experience. I think for a lot of white people they look at their own situation and I think I’m not a bad person, I personally didn’t have an unfair advantage and it’s hard to see that it’s much bigger than you.
Julie: I wonder if the book will make people think about how little they talk about race. Maybe I should get my college friends to read it. It’s easier to talk about the book than the news, even if it brings up the same topics.
ALL: You should! Let me know how it goes.
Thank you, Christine. Congratulations your wonderful book.